Nick Tiano couldn't quit smiling. Who could blame the senior quarterback? When you've just scored the tying touchdown with 28 seconds to play to cement the third-largest fourth-quarter comeback in University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football history, you deserve to break into a massive grin.
"What a day," said Tiano, whose team trailed The Citadel 26-12 entering Saturday afternoon's final period at Finley Stadium before winning 34-33. "It's unbelievable. Something you'll never forget."
Tiano's 12-yard run and kicker Victor Ulmo's extra point added another chapter to a fairly unbelievable season, not that too many people can say they were actually in the Finley stands to celebrate it. Despite big brother University of Tennessee being off, Georgia's showdown with Auburn starting 90 minutes after the UTC game and the weather being pretty much picture perfect for a mid-November football game, my 13-year-old daughter Ella Beth took one look at the surprisingly empty stands near the close of the third quarter and astutely surmised, "This is a sad crowd."
Still, whatever the actual number of Mocs Maniacs among the seemingly exaggerated announced crowd of 7,363, this was a classic win, and certainly something for first-year coach Rusty Wright to build on.
"Personally, as a football program, it means everything," he said of the Mocs' sixth win of the season against five defeats, five of those victories coming against Southern Conference foes.
Not that it didn't look to be a sad end to the home season for so much of this contest against the ball-control Bulldogs.
Down 12-9 at halftime, The Citadel scored 15 consecutive points in the third period to lead 26-12 heading into the fourth quarter. Then, when the Mocs scored early in the final period — successfully executing a 2-point conversion to pull within 26-20 after a 45-yard Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks touchdown run — The Citadel answered for a 33-20 advantage with 8:40 to go.
Yet this was also where Wright and his staff again proved how right UTC athletic director Mark Wharton was to hire him last December after Tom Arth left the Mocs to take the Akron job.
Because in that final 8:40, the Mocs made all the Wright moves.
"It wasn't me," he said afterward. "Those kids went out and played. That defense played 40 minutes of football. It was as ugly as you'll ever be around. But I told them, 'If we keep playing, you never know.'"
Know this, as longtime Mocs fan Bo Hollis noted at the start of this one: "(The staff) has been coaching them up all year. They've had a chance in almost every game. This is a hire we should have made a long time ago."
Perhaps. It certainly seems now as if Wright should have been hired instead of Arth at the close of the 2016 season. But he wasn't. He's there now, however, along with a staff that may be as impressive across the board as any in the Football Championship Subdivision.
For starters, let us listen to senior linebacker Marshall Cooper's words regarding defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward's adjustments to thwart a Bulldogs offense that wound up with 351 rushing yards and a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession.
"Coach Ward started having us slant inside to mess up their blocking scheme," said Cooper, who led the Mocs with 13 tackles.
That adjustment didn't stop the Bulldogs cold, but after piling up 22 first downs and averaging nearly 6 yards a carry on the ground, they were forced to punt their final two possessions.
And of the Mocs' final two possessions, the next-to-last one caused a few football know-it-alls (blush, blush) to shake their heads when UTC threw three incompletions and burned none of its three timeouts in turning it back over to the Bulldogs with 2:16 to go.
But in retrospect, it was a touch of coaching brilliance. Those three incompletions saved a lot of clock that was desperately needed a short time later. Especially when Wright still had all three of his timeouts left to guarantee the Mocs would have more than 90 seconds to work with if they could just force one last punt.
Had the Bulldogs gotten a first down, this coaching wisdom might quite fairly have been questioned. But the Mocs held, a couple of 15-yard penalties gave UTC 30 free yards and Tiano's improvisational gallop from 12 yards out delivered a victory that should be recalled over and over again through the years.
"It wasn't a called play," Nifty Nick said afterward. "But they spread out to cover the receivers. So I ran. Thankfully, nobody was there."
It's doubtful many UTC fans will be there in Lexington, Virginia, next Saturday for the season and SoCon finale against Virginia Military Institute. Even a win there won't be enough to make the Mocs SoCon co-champs unless The Citadel can beat Wofford. And a three-way tie with Wofford and Furman would still award Wofford the automatic berth for the FCS playoffs because UTC lost to both and Wofford beat Furman.
Still, until the selection committee says otherwise, a victory at VMI, coupled with a Bulldogs win over the Terriers, not only would allow the Mocs to proclaim themselves SoCon tri-champs, but as Cooper noted, "We'd have a chance to make the (playoffs)."
Yet whether that scenario happens or not, to return to a quote from Wright, "Seven wins sounds a lot better than six."
It sounds good enough that should it happen, this UTC football season should be one that no Mocs fan ever forgets.
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