Russ Huesman knew. Deep down in his gut, where ulcers grow and doubt is always refinancing a 30-year mortgage, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach knew his Mocs had wasted a near-perfect defensive performance in Saturday's first half against VMI.
Yes, the 17-0 lead over the Southern Conference foe was nice. But the stats turned in by the UTC defense had been spectacular.
Over 30 minutes of FCS football, the Mocs had manhandled the Keydets offense, holding it to one first down, zero rushing yards and 39 total passing yards.
Beyond that, the UTC offense had piled up 292 yards, the kind of total domination on both sides of the ball that one might reasonably have expected to lead to a margin of 24 to 31 points, at the very least.
But it hadn't. Thanks to penalties and bad throws and dropped throws and the kind of sluggishness at key moments that probably should have been expected after last week's hurtful loss at The Citadel, the lead was 17 — soon to be shrunk to 17-7, five minutes and 26 seconds into the third period following a 79-yard VMI touchdown toss.
The crowd officially listed at 10,505 suddenly sensed this perfect autumn afternoon inside Finley Stadium turning gray and chilly and threatening.
Said a frustrated Huesman of that unsettling development: "I know the points didn't compute to the yards in that first half."
In the end it didn't matter. The Mocs held firm. They ultimately won 30-13, a victory to move them to 5-1 in SoCon play and 7-1 overall.
And given the events of the last nine days — the loss at The Citadel that likely has cost them the league championship following the Bulldogs' overtime road win at Wofford on Saturday, the ankle injury to all-conference running back Derrick Craine, the understandable wear and tear of eight straight weeks of football (which will become nine in a row with this week's game at Western Carolina) — maybe how the Mocs won shouldn't matter.
For as Huesman also said, "We played pretty well on defense. VMI is a pretty good team. At this time of year, any win is a good win."
They aren't all Picassos. Sometimes dogs playing poker on black velvet will get the job done. This was one of those afternoons. A grinder. A gut check. Survive and advance, as the late basketball coach Jim Valvano once said.
"We can play a lot better than that," said UTC senior linebacker Nakevion Leslie, who actually plays about as well as is possible week after week, including Saturday with five total tackles, one for a loss, a forced fumble and a near interception. "We just wanted to do better than last week."
That mission was accomplished, as was a stunning performance by running back Richardre Bagley, who gained 189 yards in relief of Craine, including 122 in the final half with two huge touchdown runs of 27 and 45 yards. The second of those came in the final period, when this victory was anything but certain.
"That was my tribute to Derrick Craine," said a grinning Bagley. "Don't let one man bring you down. Get to the (end) zone."
It wasn't just Bagley who shone, of course.
Even his yards, as is most often the case with running backs, were a tribute to, according to Huesman: "the (blocking of the) offensive linemen and wide receivers."
There were the three sacks recorded by Keionta Davis. There were James Stovall's six catches for 61 yards. And there was the play of reserve quarterback Tyler Roberson, who came in for starter Alejandro Bennifield in the fourth quarter after a sometimes painful knee acted up.
"Thank goodness we've got Tyler," Huesman said after seeing his reserve QB rush for 43 big yards on just four attempts. "He can come in and make plays."
It's all about making plays on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game this time of year. For UTC to realize its chief goal to make a deep FCS playoff run, it knows it needs two halves from everyone to match the first half it got from the defense against VMI.
Even with the Mocs' 519 total yards of offense, including 297 rushing yards, Huesman said of Bennifield's shortened afternoon: "Pretty average. Missed a lot of throws (he was 21-of-33 for 224 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions). Missed reads. He's got to get better."
Yet when you wind up with a 17-point league win on a day your coach argued, "We didn't put two halves together," perhaps it's best to focus on what was overall a positive win rather than a few negative moments.
Especially as Leslie said of the Mocs' monstrous defense: "We still haven't played our best game."
When you're 7-1 and still improving, there's plenty reason to believe the points and yards will evenly complement each other when it matters most — in the playoffs.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
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