Rusty Wright and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team need a short memory this week.
It's been a little more than 24 hours since a disappointing 37-34 overtime defeat at Virginia Military Institute dropped the Mocs to 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Southern Conference in Wright's third season leading the program. Coaches will talk — and talk — about the little things, about how football is a game of inches, and inches were among the things that cost UTC at Foster Stadium in Lexington, Virginia.
There's little time to relax, though: Next on the schedule is East Tennessee State (6-0, 3-0), with the Buccaneers — No. 12 in the Stats Perform FCS Top 25 and ranked 13th by coaches — visiting Finley Stadium for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
"Whether you win or lose, the next one is just as important," Wright said after the loss to the Keydets, the reigning SoCon champions. "You start running out of games, so it doesn't matter who we're playing next week, it doesn't matter what happened today, we have to strap our boots up on Monday and go to work, and that's going to hurt a little more getting up and doing it, and we've got to figure that out and understand that everything is important.
"You get to conference play, and everything we do practice-wise, preparation-wise, whatever we're doing is important, and you can't take anything for granted. You can't not understand what we're doing. Everything has to be as good as it can be just to give yourself a chance to win on Saturday. That's what our guys don't truly grasp. I think they think we're automatically going to have a chance to win. Our Tuesday and Wednesday (practices) were pretty good; I thought our Thursday practice was bad. I thought our focus was bad, and that's on me. That's on me at the end of the day."
While the Mocs can point to certain positives in each of football's three phases against VMI, it was the negatives that cost them — the little things.
Offensively, the Mocs averaged more yards per play than the Keydets (6.2 to 5.5) and never turned the ball over. Defensively, UTC was credited with three sacks, including one in which Ben Brewton forced the game's lone turnover as he took the ball from VMI's Seth Morgan. Finally, UTC kicker Aaron Sears connected on two field goals, including one in the final moments of regulation to force overtime, and Jason Pierce and Gabe Boring combined to average almost 45 yards on six punts.
So how do the Mocs find themselves trying to recover from a loss?
Let's examine that further.
Offense: The Mocs like to be balanced, and there's nothing wrong with that. They ran the ball 35 times and threw it 35. But with VMI's run defense ranking 122nd out of 123 Football Championship Subdivision teams (the Mocs' 242 rushing yards are the second fewest the Keydets have allowed this season), and with both Ailym Ford and Tyrell Price going over 100 rushing yards in the game, maybe leaning a little more on the run and throwing a little less would have been good Saturday — especially in overtime, when the offense could have really leaned on the duo. Instead, the Mocs opted for three Cole Copeland passes, only one of which was completed for 5 yards to Reginald Henderson. That led to one of UTC's two failed attempts in the red zone.
Defense: The defense, for the most part, performed well. VMI ran 88 plays in just 32:30 of game action, and that puts a lot of pressure on a defense, even for the Mocs, who rotate in a lot of players on that side of the ball. UTC made some defensive plays, such as Brewton's takeaway, but was never able to make THE play, to get a stop while holding leads of 17-9, 24-16 and 31-24. A stop in any of those scenarios with the way the Mocs' offense was moving (it averaged 8.7 yards per play in the second half) would have likely helped the visitors put the game away.
Special teams: Inches. That's how much Sears missed his field-goal attempt by in the first quarter as the 37-yard try glanced off a goal post. For the second straight week, special teams struggled. Sears also missed a 37-yard attempt in overtime, VMI recovered an onside kick that glanced off a UTC upback and defensive back Kameron Brown was ejected for targeting on a punt return.