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some text Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / UTC's Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks (24) cannot bring down Tennessee's Ty Chandler as he returns the opening kickoff 58 yards during Saturday's game in Knoxville.

KNOXVILLE — It was Tuesday and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football coach Rusty Wright was discussing the biggest problem with a Championship Subdivision program such as his facing a Bowl Subdivision school such as the University of Tennessee.

"The kicking game might be the biggest key," he said. "That's where the game can get out of control."

And how.

Thanks to two colossal early failures in the Mocs' kicking game Saturday afternoon, it took less than five minutes for the Volunteers to grab a 14-0 lead against UTC on their way to a 45-0 victory, UT's first of the year after losses to Georgia State and BYU at Neyland Stadium.

"You can't let them return the opening kickoff past the 50," a frustrated Wright said at the start of his postgame remarks. "You can't get your first punt blocked."

But that's exactly what happened. And at least a teeny, weeny bit because those two mistakes occurred, the Mocs were crushed on the same day that Southern Conference brother The Citadel shocked Georgia Tech and fellow SoCon member Furman nearly upset Virginia Tech.

some text Mark Wiedmer

And to make matters worse, UT probably was considered to be of a similar level to those two Techs before it faced the Mocs.

Not that the blown kickoff coverage and blocked punt were UTC's only miscues. The Mocs threw four interceptions. They lost one fumble. They were penalized four times for 49 yards, one of those a false-start penalty late in the first quarter that moved the Mocs from third-and-goal on the UT 1 to third-and-goal at the UT 6.

UTC fumbled on the next play, UT recovered and instead of possibly being down 21-7, the visitors were suddenly in a 28-0 hole three minutes into the second quarter.

But it was pretty much over long before that because of the warning Wright had delivered to his team early in the week that it failed to heed. And that doesn't even take into account the interception that Mocs defensive back Jordan Jones dropped on the Vols' first play from scrimmage.

"You've got to make a play," Wright continued. "We've got guys on scholarship, too. They've got to make plays."

A few Mocs did make plays that could have kept this closer, which also might have helped hold down the repeated singing of "Rocky Top" among the announced crowd of 86,208. Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks ran for 85 yards, more than any two Vols combined. Ailym Ford picked up 41. Reserve quarterback Drayton Arnold ran for 9 yards and threw for 36 against heavy pressure.

"Good, not good enough" was how Ibitokun-Hanks rated his performance.

Added safety Jerrell Lawson: "It takes every side of the ball — offense, defense, special teams. It shows if we're down on one side how we've got to be able to pick the other side up."

The Vols clearly picked themselves up from their opening two defeats. They outgained the Mocs 360 to 227 in total yards. They averaged 57 yards a punt. They gained 5.1 yards per rush, and many of the yards were earned by nonstarters across the board.

That doesn't mean the Big Orange is ready for its noon visit to the Swamp next Saturday against the Florida Gators. It does mean this would appear to be a better team than its 1-2 record, quite possibly enough better to still win five of its final nine games and earn a bowl bid.

"We definitely improved from last week to this week," Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "When you look at the makeup of the guys on our football team, in the last three seasons today was the 10th win. The guys that have been here for three and four years have not had a lot of success, and they need it."

Go back to the start of the 2017 season and the Mocs have also won only 10 games, including this season.

With the schedule still to come — FCS power James Madison next Saturday, Western Carolina the week after that, at Mercer the week after that — UTC will have to vastly improve on Saturday's performance to pick up its second win of this season any time soon. But better grasping the importance of the kicking game between now and those future games would surely help.

"Hopefully we'll learn from this," Wright said. "We've got to learn or history will repeat itself."

Fortunately for the Mocs, and perhaps unfortunately for the Vols, neither will face an opponent the rest of this season that will mirror the one faced Saturday.

That fact would seem to help UTC more than UT, unless, of course, the Mocs decide to turn it over five times again and ignore the importance of the kicking game.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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