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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / UTC running back Gino Appleberry finds a hole in Austin Peay's defense during a nonconference game on Sept. 2 at Finley Stadium. After losing that night, UTC bounced back to post a shutout at North Alabama, but through five games this season the Mocs have yet to win consecutive contests while struggling with inconsistency from week to week.

Maybe the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program has taken its talent for granted.

Maybe it wasn't as good as the preseason prognostications — which tabbed UTC the Southern Conference favorite — suggested.

Or maybe the Mocs are just inconsistent.

Whatever the case is, UTC hasn't had the same sort of effort in any of its five games so far, and as a result the Mocs are 2-3 overall and 1-1 in the Socon heading into their clash with 10th-ranked East Tennessee State University (6-0, 3-0) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium. UTC has a 23-19-1 lead over the Buccaneers in the series dubbed the Rail Rivalry.

If there was a question regarding UTC heading into the season, it was about who would step up at quarterback, and that has been filled by junior Cole Copeland, who has been OK at the position. It wasn't about the receivers, who have been plagued by drops in some key moments. It wasn't about the defense, which has struggled to make stops in key moments.

"I would say we get a little full of ourselves sometimes," junior All-America defensive end Devonnsha Maxwell said. "You know you're good at something, you kind of get lackadaisical at times, but that's where we have to get better. It's frustrating for sure, but I know what the type of guys we have, guys who can lead by example, so we'll get back on track for sure."

It hasn't been all bad for the Mocs.

Their defense is tied for eighth in the Football Championship Subdivision in takeaways per game at 2.4 (12 in five games). That group limited Football Bowl Subdivision member Kentucky — now 6-0 and currently ranked 10th by both The Associated Press and coaches — to 21 points, which allowed the Mocs to lead the Southeastern Conference program early in the fourth quarter before falling 28-23 on Sept. 18 in Lexington. (With UTC trailing again midway through the fourth, the Wildcats picked off Copeland and returned the interception for their other touchdown.)

The week before that, UTC's defense allowed just 90 yards in a 20-0 win at North Alabama — which has averaged 26.2 points, 286.8 passing yards and 392 yards in its five other games — to rebound from a season-opening home loss to Austin Peay.

Since Copeland took over as the starter at North Alabama, the offense has averaged 30.5 points, 219.5 rushing yards and 173.3 passing yards per game. It went over the 500-yard mark in a 45-10 home win over Western Carolina two weeks ago and didn't turn the ball over last Saturday at Virginia Military Institute, but the Mocs struggled at some unfortunate moments in all three phases and lost 37-34 in overtime.

That would seem to leave them unable to afford another loss when it comes to winning the SoCon and reaching the FCS playoffs. So how did the Mocs get here?

"It's the consistency part of it," UTC coach Rusty Wright said. "You have to fight it every day. We work at it, we practice a certain way to get that way and do it for 60 minutes, and it's just a matter of us being consistent — players, coaches, everybody, and trying to figure out a way to get it done. I don't know, besides going out there and doing it; there's no magic or mystery to it.

"I'm searching for it, I promise you. Nobody spends more time than me trying to figure it out, looking into how we do and what we do. It doesn't mean you're scoring every series or stopping on three-and-out every series, but it's doing the things necessary you're supposed to do consistently to give yourself an opportunity to win."

Wright mentioned after the loss at VMI and reiterated this week that playing better on Saturdays would start with how the team worked throughout the week. The Mocs have usually answered the bell when they've felt backed into a corner; that's what they did against North Alabama, and that carried over to the Kentucky game. The Western Carolina game had some of that residual, but it seemed to end against VMI, which played more consistently than UTC and won as a result.

Now the Mocs' objective is to win out and qualify for the playoffs, because not winning the SoCon and receiving the league's automatic berth would likely leave them out of the 24-team bracket.

"We don't have time to sit back and let other teams take control," Copeland said. "We control our own destiny still, and we're excited about the opportunity and we're looking forward to it."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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