published Sunday, October 13th, 2013

Wiedmer: Mocs taking right steps toward playoffs

On paper only, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Mocs couldn't have put more pressure on themselves Saturday evening.

After all, homecoming is supposed to be the week above all other weeks you play the weak. The weaker the better.

So even if Furman isn't the formidable foe for most Southern Conference foes it once was, when it routinely challenged for the conference championship and sometimes made deep playoff runs, it still arrived at Finley Stadium having never lost to UTC inside that fine facility. And Finley opened in 1997.

But these Mocs also are proving every week that they aren't much like most of their relatively recent predecessors. And that doesn't just include those eight previous UTC teams that fell to Furman at Finley.

"When we first got here, I think the team had just gone 1-11," said senior defensive back Kadeem Wise. "We've been trying to build a championship program ever since. And we're getting better every week."

They got enough better Saturday to defeat Furman 31-9 despite throwing an interception and losing two fumbles. Such solid play improves the Mocs to 4-2 overall and 2-1 within the SoCon heading into Saturday's trip to Elon.

It also brought a wide smile to fifth-year coach Russ Huesman's face after the 1983 UTC grad won his fourth homecoming game in five tries

"This is huge," he said. "As the head coach, as a guy who played here, this weekend's always special. I went to the alumni breakfast this morning. I went to the Chamberlain Pavilion dedication today. Chamberlain was the field I played on here. So many great memories there, so this was a very special weekend."

No one knows yet if this will become a very special season. Six games are done. Six are yet to be played. Throw out a Nov. 23 game at two-time defending BCS champ Alabama and the consensus seems to be that anything shy of four wins in the remaining five games will keep the Mocs out of the playoffs for a 29th straight year.

On the other hand, playing as they have every week save the opening stinker against UT-Martin, the Mocs should have a healthy chance to win all five of their remaining FCS games.

"We're trying to change the culture around here," said UTC quarterback Jacob Huesman, the coach's son who threw for 84 yards, ran for 73 and scored two rushing touchdowns. "We talked about [UTC never previously having beaten Furman at Finley]. We talked about it in a team meeting."

Yet the younger Huesman also thought it was something his father didn't talk much about at halftime -- three UTC turnovers -- that may have had a profound impact on UTC's second-half performance, when it turned a vaguely nervous 14-6 halftime lead into a comfortable win.

"He was pretty calm," Jacob said. "And it kind of surprised me. He doesn't like turnovers, especially from me. He'll usually tear into you when you cough up a football. But this time he didn't say much. And I think that really helped us in the second half."

Even Alabama's Nick Saban doesn't push all the right buttons every minute of every day. Yes, this is a veteran team, but it's also a big season -- a season many believe will set the course for this team for years to come.

If the Mocs indeed reach the playoffs for the first time since 1984, Coach Huesman has a huge recruiting tool from which to go forward. What mostly has been hope can become a realistic expectation. Ticket sales would increase. Money would float in for more facility upgrades. But only wins will make that happen. Both Father and Son Huesman know that. The fans know that. The Chattanooga community knows that.

But Huesman the coach also knows he likes what he sees.

"The best game we've played here in a long time," he said. "And we played the second half pretty error free."

It's still a long way to a possible SoCon title and an automatic playoff berth. Given the perception that the league is down this year, it may take that title to earn that berth.

But no one can watch where this team was after the UT-Martin loss and not feel something special is now possible.

Said Wise: "I think we're taking steps in that direction."

Given the direction home games with Furman had gone prior to Saturday night, it would be hard to argue otherwise.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com

about Mark Wiedmer...

Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...

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