It's one thing to build a Southern Conference championship team with all of your best tools at your disposal. It's another to do what the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team has done this season, build a winner when the tool box seems half full at times.
With Saturday's 20-10 win over No. 15 Wofford, the 23rd-ranked Mocs assured themselves of at least a share of the program's first SoCon title since 1984. It was UTC's sixth straight win and earned the Mocs (8-2, 6-1 SoCon) their first eight-win season since 1980.
And it all happened without contributions, either all season, the past few weeks or somewhere in between, of some starters or potential key contributors. Among them are: defensive ends Vantrell McMillan and Zach Rayl, safety Dean Haynes, cornerback Will Johnson, defensive tackle Derrick Lott, offensive lineman Hunter Dockery, running back Keon Williams and linebacker Gunner Miller.
McMillan, Rayl and Haynes have been out all season, and all of those players were out Saturday as UTC clinched, with the help of Furman's 35-17 win over No. 22 Samford. UTC can claim the title outright with a win this week at Samford.
"So many people are out," Mocs coach Russ Huesman said after winning his first title in five seasons coaching his alma mater. "We've never had this happen to us since we've been here, this type of year."
How does a such a thin team, especially on defense, win the title? How does such a thin defense -- three went out in the Nov. 2 win at Appalachian State and none of the three played versus Wofford -- continue to lead the Southern Conference in scoring defense and total defense?
"The bottom line is, our great players, the great ones, the All-Americans, the all-conference guys, they're the ones that have been making plays all year," Huesman said. "And it's fun to talk about a guy that comes in and substitutes in and does a great job, and we should talk about those guys, but the ones that have led this football team are the ones that are the special players."
Huesman is referring to players like defensive end Davis Tull, the defending SoCon defensive player of the year, two-time All-American linebacker Wes Dothard, and All-SoCon regulars safety D.J. Key and cornerback Kadeem Wise.
That mix of stars and newcomers rising to the occasion was evident Saturday. Dothard had nine tackles, disrupted numerous other plays and his interception of an Evan Jacks pass late in the game locked up the win and title.
Playing beside him was redshirt freshman Nakevion Leslie, the hero of the App State win with his game-winning interception return for a touchdown. Leslie had never started at Sam linebacker before -- he was filling in for Miller -- but in his first start he had a career-high 14 tackles.
"At first I was kind of nervous because it's a big position to fill," Leslie said. "It just took me a minute to get in my groove. After the first or second drive I started to feel better about it."
Miller, a senior out with a shoulder stinger, didn't enjoy not being on the field. But he donned his traditional warpaint, went out for the coin toss as one of the captains and then watched as his teammates brought home a long-sought-after title.
"Best view in the house," he said.
Tull had five tackles, a half sack and he forced a fourth-quarter fumble. Tull leads the SoCon with nine sacks and is tied with Samford linebacker Justin Shade with 13 tackles for loss.
"We've hit some adversity, but it's like I've said before, if everybody believes, and if these backups come in and they've got confidence like the starters, and they come out and are playing great -- it's leading to wins," Tull said.
The offense has mostly remained healthy, though Williams has essentially missed the past three games with an ankle injury and wideout Tommy Hudson returned with three catches Saturday after missing the App State win with a concussion.
Miller said after the game that he was "day-to-day" with his shoulder injury. Williams was out of the ankle boot Saturday and Huesman said he might be available this week. Linebacker Muhasibi Wakeel (ankle) could have played against Wofford, but UTC was able to hold him out because of the play of Leslie.
Contact John Frierson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6268. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MocsBeat.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...
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