Photo by Stephanie Swart
By Parris Clarke, Assistant Sports Editor-
March Madness has arrived for UTC. This time, however, it happened to be the football team that was involved in the festivities.
Saturday, the No. 18 ranked Mocs traveled to Charleston, South Carolina to face the Citadel Bulldogs, in a game that resulted in a UTC walk-off two-point conversion in overtime, leaving head coach Rusty Wright looking both like a genius and a hero.
The Mocs came out of the gate rolling. They scored on their first offensive possession, as quarterback Drayton Arnold hit Juwan Tyus for a 75-yard touchdown, keeping alive what is perhaps the most unusual streak in college football. In the last seven matchups against the Citadel, UTC’s first score has been a touchdown of at least 60-yards.
The score was 14-7 in UTC’s favor with 25 seconds left in the first half. It was fourth-and-15, the Mocs had the ball on the 45-yard line, conventional wisdom would have said punt and take the lead into the half. Wright decided to throw conventional wisdom out the window.
The decision proved fruitful as the Mocs completed a 30-yard pass, setting up a field goal to go up 17-7 into halftime.
“I knew he didn’t have any timeouts and I had to talk myself into it … Let’s just take a shot. See if we get a first down. See if we can make something out of this and that’s what we did,” said Wright.
After an uneventful third quarter, the Mocs turned the ball over twice in the fourth quarter, setting up a Citadel field goal and a touchdown with 41 seconds left, tying the game up and ultimately sending it into overtime.
The Citadel received the ball first in overtime and didn’t hesitate. Quarterback Jaylen Adams punched the ball in on a two-yard score, giving the Citadel their first lead of the game, 24-17.
The Mocs couldn’t get anything going on their overtime possession. They were left with a fourth down and 10 from the 25-yard line, with one play left to save the game. Arnold dropped back and lofted a pass to Reggie Henderson down the right sideline. The ball dropped to the turf, but yellow flags flew as the referees ruled that Henderson was interfered with, resulting in a UTC first down on the goal line.
Senior running back, Tyrell Price, scored for the Mocs leaving Wright with another tough decision. Do you kick the extra point and play another overtime period, or go for two and end the game right then and there?
Wright, again, tightened up his bootstraps and made the call.
The Mocs took a page out of the Kansas City Chiefs’ playbook, as tight-end Jay Gibson came in motion and caught a shovel pass from Arnold and walked into the endzone.
“As soon as they scored and kicked the extra point, I told Pizzo you get four plays and a two-point conversion. Let’s go … I said figure out a way to get in the end zone, go for two and let’s roll,” said Wright.
It’s this kind of brash, almost irrational, confidence that led UTC to a victory.
The Mocs went for it on fourth down four times and converted twice. It wasn’t just that they went for it on fourth down repeatedly, but in the fashion that they did. The two conversions came during fourth and long situations. Most coaches, especially those as early on in their tenure as Wright, wouldn’t have had the guts to pull the trigger on decisions like that. They’re the type of decisions that if they go badly they can get coaches fired.
Wright made the calls anyway, and they proved to be the deciding factor for UTC.
“A year and a half ago, I’m not sure we win this game,” said Wright. “I’m not sure when things start going bad for us, I’m not sure we step up and make plays and slow momentum down and do those things. I hope all that stuff is building these guys the right way and we and we learn from these lessons and we keep adding to ourselves and we keep doing things right.”
The Mocs seem to be adopting the resilient attitude of their second-year head coach. It would have been easy for UTC to punt on this hectic spring season. Instead, they’ve taken the adversity in stride and fashioned together two gritty wins to start the season.
UTC is off this week, as they prepare to travel back to South Carolina and face Furman on March 20.