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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC alumnus and new head football coach Rusty Wright is emotional as his team sings the alma mater after Thursday's 24-10 season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois at Finley Stadium.

This is the kind of opening night it was for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team in its 24-10 victory over Eastern Illinois: First-year head coach Rusty Wright suffered the worst injury Thursday at Finley Stadium when he gashed his lower left leg while jumping into a laundry basket in the Mocs' locker room to celebrate his first college win at his alma mater.

"It's been a long time since I've been around a football game that bad," Wright said as a wee bit of blood appeared to ooze from beneath the giant bag of ice taped to his left calf. "We can't play football like that around here and be any good."

But at least for this night, against this Ohio Valley Conference team, the Mocs were good enough.

Not that Wright ever looked happy until the final horn. Indeed, most of the time he looked as if his head was about to explode.

It started on the Mocs' second touchdown of the season, just after quarterback Nick Tiano had thrown a perfect 59-yard scoring strike to Bryce Nunnelly and one of those rules sticklers in the striped shirts decided to penalize the UTC sideline for excessive celebration.

And really, how dare a bunch of college kids go a little nuts over something as mundane as a divinely delivered 59-yard touchdown throw. The immaturity of those guys.

But whether Wright was, deep down, more upset with his team or the officials over that penalty, there was no mistaking where the first-year coach's anger was directed after senior defensive end Khayyan Edwards jumped offside on an Eastern Illinois fourth-and-1 at the UTC 19.

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Mark Wiedmer

A minute or two later the Panthers would score their lone touchdown of the night, and Edwards looked as if he might have wanted to immediately enter the NCAA's transfer portal, hoping he could instantly become a Panther, if only to be as far away as possible from Wright's wrath for the rest of the season.

"I heard a lot of things," Edwards said of that moment, though he recovered well enough to record five total tackles and a pass breakup. "I just knew I was in the wrong. I was expecting it."

No one ever knows what to expect from a first game. Especially when both teams have new coaching staffs.

And Wright found at least one thing in this rather scratchy performance that all coaches want to see regardless of how experienced or inexperienced is the team they coach.

"We didn't quit," he said. "No matter how bad things got, we kept playing."

In truth, the Mocs never got that bad. A 17-10 halftime lead swelled to the final score less than five minutes into the third quarter when freshman running back Ailym Ford capped a nine-play, 75-yard drive with a 1-yard run to put the home team up 24-10 after Victor Ulmo's third extra point.

"The kid plays the game the way you're supposed to play it," Wright said of Ford. "He's going to play a lot of football here."

And however many fans decide to join the 8,254 who came to Finley for the opener are almost certain to be entertained by the way Wright coaches.

Merely consider Tiano's reaction to Wright ripping off his ballcap and calling a timeout with 2:42 to go after a Panthers first down.

"That's what you love about him," Tiano said of his coach's constant pacing and gesturing and talking. "That's Coach Wright every day. He expects us to match his intensity."

It clearly wasn't a piece of fine art. There were 11 penalties totaling 95 yards. Expected to have a strong ground game, UTC piled up only 94 yards on the ground, 44 fewer than Eastern Illinois, which went 3-8 last season. With a trip to powerful Jacksonville State on the schedule for Sept. 7, another road trip to Football Bowl Subdivision big brother Tennessee the week after that and Football Championship Subdivision power James Madison set to visit the week after that, Wright is right to moan about the Mocs not being able to play football like this and be any good.

But it's only an opener. A lot of rust will disappear between now and a week from Saturday. Penalties will decline, along with other mistakes.

Asked what he liked most, other than the final scoreboard, Wright cracked a small smile and said, "We won the coin toss."

A few seconds later he became more reflective.

"It beats the alternative," Wright said. "Half of the people in my business are upset the next day."

The scariest part for UTC fans is how badly their new football coach might have injured himself if the Mocs had lost this one rather than winning it.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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