published Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Tough end doesn't negate UTC Mocs' breakthrough season

UTC linebacker C.J. Murrell (32) celebrates UTC's Southern Conference football win over Wofford with fans on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Mocs defeated the Terriers 20-10.
UTC linebacker C.J. Murrell (32) celebrates UTC's Southern Conference football win over Wofford with fans on Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Mocs defeated the Terriers 20-10.
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

For now, the sting of missing the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs obscures many of the positive feelings the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has after its best season in decades.

"We made some noise this year and I feel we went out with a bang, but unfortunately we didn't get to the playoffs," senior cornerback Chaz Moore said Monday, a day after UTC (8-4) learned that it wasn't in the 24-team playoff field. "Words can't even explain that feeling."

The Mocs went 6-2 in the Southern Conference and shared the league championship with Samford and Furman. UTC won six straight SoCon games -- the longest win streak since joining the conference in 1977 -- after a 2-2 start. It's the first SoCon title for UTC since 1984, and eight wins are the most for a Mocs team since 1980.

That's a lot of good happening in a program that was really bad for a long time. Yet even Tuesday's All-SoCon announcements, which included a UTC sweep of the top awards from the coaches and a league-high seven first-team selections, didn't brighten the mood too much.

"It's kind of been a sullen mood after Sunday, but I'm sure when we look back on this year it's going to be great," said redshirt junior defensive end Davis Tull, who was voted defensive player of the year by the coaches for the second straight season.

UTC's 20-10 win over Wofford on Nov. 9 clinched at least a share of the SoCon championship, the program's first since 1984. UTC was 6-1 in SoCon play at that point and needed a win at Samford the following week to claim the title outright and secure the league's automatic bid to the playoffs. But the Mocs were far from full strength.

Hit hard by injuries all season, UTC had kept on winning, but the offense against Samford wasn't the same without a healthy Jacob Huesman -- the coaches' offensive player of the year -- at quarterback. A minor knee injury took away his mobility, and the offense already was without running back Keon Williams because of an ankle injury.

The Mocs scored only one offensive touchdown in a crushing 17-14 overtime loss. After that, their playoff fate was out of their hands.

UTC nearly got the help it needed last Saturday, the final day of the FCS regular season, when Elon led Samford 32-27 with seconds remaining. But on the game's final play from scrimmage, the Bulldogs scored a 12-yard touchdown on fourth-and-goal.

Samford clinched a three-way tie for the SoCon title with UTC and Furmam, and in the end it was Samford that got an at-large bid to the playoffs and the Paladins, who won their final five SoCon games, claimed the automatic bid via tiebreakers.

Last Saturday was a rough day for the Mocs, who endured a 49-0 loss to Alabama as well as the gut-wrenching ending of the Samford-Elon game, which they tracked on the bus ride back from Tuscaloosa. Then came the release Sunday of the playoff field on ESPNU.

"I tried to make them feel better [Sunday] by saying, 'Gentlemen, you don't get rings for going to the playoffs. You get rings for winning championships,'" said Russ Huesman, the coaches' pick for coach of the year. "And y'all are going to get a ring."

For a local player like linebacker Gunner Miller, who as an East Ridge High School senior had seen UTC hit rock bottom with a 1-11 season in 2008, that championship symbolized how far the program has come in the last five years.

"It seems like every year Coach Huesman's been here we've been able to do something that we haven't done in a long time," said Miller, who was part of Huesman's first recruiting class in 2009. "The next thing for these guys to do is take it to the playoffs, then a national championship. Now you're talking some pretty high standards.

"To come from 1-11 to thinking about national championships, that's pretty crazy."

UTC made crucial plays in the fourth quarter to beat The Citadel and Appalachian State, including redshirt freshman linebacker Nakevion Leslie's game-winning interception return for a touchdown against App State.

Leslie was one of several young players who emerged on a Mocs defense that never faltered amid a slew of season-ending injuries. UTC led the SoCon in both scoring defense (20.4 points per game) and total defense (328.9).

The Mocs will return all key personnel on offense except center Patrick Sutton and right guard Kevin Revis. The defense will take a hit with the loss of linebackers Wes Dothard and Miller and defensive backs D.J. Key, Kadeem Wise and Moore.

It will be a different SoCon next season with App State, Georgia Southern and Elon gone and Mercer and VMI joining the league. And the Mocs will be out to defend a SoCon championship.

Contact John Frierson at jfrierson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.

about John Frierson...

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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