Photo by Olivia Ross
The No. 9 Chattanooga Mocs football team is set to play host this weekend to the Mercer Bears in what is the first time a UTC team has played a game ranked inside the top 10 since 2016.
Over the last few weeks, head coach Rusty Wright and the Mocs have checked multiple milestones off their list. Not only is this the highest the team has been ranked in five years, but last week’s win over Furman marked the first time UTC has beaten two ranked opponents in one season since 2015 — Furman and Wofford, respectively.
Saturday’s game will also see an off-the-field first for this season. Fans will be allowed into Finley Stadium for the first time this spring. The university will admit 5,000 fans to enjoy the stellar season UTC is having thus far.
This season began with relatively low expectations for the Mocs, as an unexpected spring season sent plans into a whirlwind. UTC has quickly turned those expectations on their heads, winning their first three games, and positioning themselves as one of the two remaining undefeated teams in the Southern Conference. (Interestingly, the other undefeated team in the conference is VMI, whom UTC was supposed to play to start the year but was postponed due to COVID-19 complications).
Sitting up atop the conference standings isn’t all fun and games. Being the top team in the league garners a little more respect, and with it, a giant bullseye plastered on your back. Everyone wants to beat the best and UTC will have to put that newfound pressure to the test against Mercer.
The first thing to look for on Saturday is a shootout. Mercer has scored 40 or more points on two separate occasions this spring season — 42 points against the Citadel and 45 last week against Western Carolina. The Mocs have been a team predicated on their defense this season. Hopefully that trend continues, but if the game gets out to a fast pace it will put UTC and quarterback Drayton Arnold in an unfamiliar position.
Arnold’s best game this season came in the opener against Wofford where he threw for 223 yards and a touchdown. He’s been solid all year, the Mocs haven’t asked Arnold to do a lot or make too many plays. This could be the game Wright is forced to unleash Arnold’s arm and the passing game for the first time this season.
Another place to watch for the Mocs is can they finish drives. Despite being one of the top teams in the SoCon, UTC ranks just seventh in scoring offense. Last week against Furman the Mocs had a season-high 390 yards of offense, but only two touchdowns to show for it. Punching in scores rather than eating up empty yards will crucial for UTC’s success this weekend and going forward.
As the old cliché goes, football is a game of inches, and sometimes that boils down to simply giving your opponent the least amount of inches possible. Due to three interceptions and a muffed punt against Furman, UTC repeatedly gave the Paladins a short field to work with, nearly resulting in a loss. Wright expressed his field-position frustrations after the game.
“If we could ever figure out a way to make a field longer on people, our defense would be really good,” Wright said.
Wright might be selling his team short, his defense is already really good. However, a dam can only hold raging waters for so long before it springs a leak. The Mocs need to shore up that leak and give their defense a break. Whether that means cutting down on turnovers or being more efficient in the punting game, UTC should be doing whatever it can to find linebacker Ty Boeck and the defense some cushion.
With four games left it’s a little early to be talking playoffs. Though, in order to achieve that feat, UTC must take things one step at a time. Their next step in that journey is facing off against Mercer in Chattanooga at 12 pm on Saturday.