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Staff photo by Robin Rudd / Austin Peay's DJ Render celebrates as he outruns UTC's CaMiron Smith (5) and Jerrell Lawson to score the Governors' second touchdown of Thursday night's season opener for both teams at Finley Stadium.

What a waste of a perfect early September evening.

The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football program couldn't have asked for a more perfect stage to debut the 2021 Mocs than Thursday night at Finley Stadium. The temperature was in the 70s and far from humid. The opponent, Austin Peay, was ranked in both Football Championship Subdivision polls listed by the NCAA, which meant this was a potential win that would mean something going forward.

Especially with UTC in the top 20 in both of those polls.

And Mocs Nation seemed excited as it had not been excited for years regarding an opening night.

Or as lifelong fan and longtime season ticket holder Bo Hollis said before this one began, the First Horizon Pavilion filled with equal measures of fans and hope: "I can't remember ever having so many people calling wanting to buy my tickets."

Unfortunately, after scrapping and clawing their way to a 20-16 lead midway through the third quarter, this game turned into the same disappointing finish as far too many Moc openers before it. The home team lost 30-20, completely dominated on both sides of the ball over the game's final 21 minutes and 41 seconds, outscored 14-0 down the stretch.

The good news is it truly is just one game, and the opening game at that. Also, because it was played on Thursday, the Mocs will have a couple of extra preparation days before traveling to North Alabama for their next game on Sept. 11.

But there was no other way to look at this than a disappointing beginning to a season in which 72 of 76 letter-winners returned.

Heck, Finley Stadium's mysterious turf monster — Scary Scrappy? — even tripped up Governors freshman return man Kam Thomas after he appeared to return UTC's kickoff after the Mocs' opening touchdown. With luck such as that, how could these guys lose?

But they did, and with Big Brother Tennessee easily rolling past Bowling Green on this same night just up the road in Knoxville, one can't help but think Hollis won't have near as much interest in his season tickets the rest of schedule.

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AP photo by Wade Payne / Tennessee running back Jabari Small (2) celebrates a touchdown against Bowling Green with his teammates during the first half of Thursday night's game at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville.

Of course, because it's just one game, there could also be much improvement going forward. If this team is to achieve its preseason goals of making a deep playoff run in the FCS playoffs, that change would appear to be most needed on offense, where the Mocs were doubled on the stat sheet and embarrassed in the fourth quarter.

Does that mean changing quarterbacks from Drayton Arnold to Cole Copeland or Robert Riddle? Perhaps. The passing game never went anywhere, which finally bogged down a promising running game.

College football is no longer a grind. It's a glide, with vertical passing and zone runs and no-huddle attacks.

It's not the only way to win. But when you can't bottle up the opposing offense — and a very promising UTC defense surrendered more than 400 yards of offense to the Governors — you better be able to both move the ball and rest your defense as much as possible.

One moment to explain 60 lost minutes. A tired Mocs defense got a key interception early in the fourth still down but 23-20. The offense stayed on the field 90 seconds and punted. You can't do that and expect to win.

UTC coach Rusty Wright has done wonders with this program over difficult, if not semi-impossible circumstances.

COVID-19 is obvious. A spring practice schedule disrupted by flooding before we'd ever heard of COVID-19 did similar damage for a new coaching staff trying to change a culture.

But none of that is likely to get the weight it should this weekend. The Mocs lost, and they got dominated down the stretch in doing so.

Moreover, on that same night, Tennessee won, showing much promise along the way.

This was a night to potentially give an enthusiastic crowd at Finley strong reasons to return.

Now the Mocs don't return to Finley until Oct. 2 against Western Carolina.

Whether UTC can improve enough between now and then to attract the kind of interest that came to Finley on Thursday night is up for debate.

But it won't ever again have a better stage to try.

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Mark Wiedmer

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

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