By John Mitchell — Sports Editor
The football team punched their ticket to a second-round game in east Texas last Saturday with a 45-14 win over Weber State. The first round win in the FCS Playoffs marked the third postseason victory in school history, and improved the No. 9-ranked Mocs’ record to 9-3.
A 99-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown by sophomore Montrell Pardue, Clarksville, Tenn., broke the game open less than three minutes before the halftime break. Pardue’s second-career touchdown hiked up UTC’s lead to 24 points at the time, and helped the Mocs defense keep a team scoreless at the half for the sixth time this season.
UTC ended up scoring 31 unanswered points before Weber State responded with a touchdown pass off a fake field goal. Chattanooga finished the game strong with two touchdowns via running back Derrick Craine. McDonough Ga., and cornerback Trevor Wright, Greeneville, Tenn.
“Normal” day for Craine
The senior running back’s numbers have been off since injuring his ankle against Mercer in early October, but the Mocs’ leading rusher put the offense on his back last Saturday with 160 yards and a touchdown off 20 carries.
Despite the great day, Craine deflected praise to the unsung heroes of the offense.
“The offensive line,” Craine said when asked why the running game was so effective against Weber State. “Those are the guys that kind of go unnoticed a little bit. The other 10 guys that are on the field with me are really creating the opportunities for me to be successful in the running game.
“The offensive line was moving people out the way; then when we were able to get to the second-level, the receivers were out there running right beside me making blocks as well,” he added.
Craine’s performance Saturday notched his 11th career 100-yard rushing game, and the first since his injury.
More for the record books
The Mocs are now 3-3 all-time in the postseason. The Weber State win was also the third year in a row UTC has won a playoff game.
This season is the seventh nine-win season in school history and the third within the Russ Huesman era. Junior safety Lucas Webb, Northport, Ala., passed coach Huesman Saturday in the career interceptions category. Webb caught the milestone-10th interception in the second quarter.
Senior kicker Henrique Ribeiro, Chattanooga, staked his claim as the best in school history when his 45th career field goal went in — making him UTC’s all-time leader in made field goals.
Being minus-five in the turnover margin isn’t where any team team wants to be at the end of a football game — especially in the playoffs. Just ask Weber State head coach Jay Hill.
“When you come in and play a team like Chattanooga, you know that you can’t turn the ball over five times without getting one or two back,” Hill said. “If you lose the turnover margin like that then you’ll be in for a long day. I was really impressed with their defensive players flying around and they were everything that we thought they were. They made some offensive plays and executed well, they’re a really good football team. We knew that coming in and you have to give them a lot of credit.”
The five turnovers — three fumbles and two interceptions — is the most UTC has forced since 2011 in a route over Western Carolina. Pardue’s defensive score is the 20th of its kind in the Coach Huesman era.
First game jitters
Junior quarterback Alejandro Bennifield, Lovejoy, Ga., built off an encouraging showing against Alabama by translating that success into his first-career playoff start.
“He’s really taking charge of the offense,” Craine said of his quarterback. “Anytime something isn’t going right he steps up as a leader. You can hear his voice and can get everybody back on track… He’s a playmaker too. There’s been plenty of times where a play has broken down and he’s been able to roll out and make something happen.”
Bennifield used his playmaking abilities to the tone of 184 yards from scrimmage against the Wildcats. Through the air, Bennifield was 15-26 for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He also added 30 yards and a score on the ground.
The attendance numbers for UTC’s home first-round playoff game fell right above the halfway mark of the regular season average of 9,494. Despite the low numbers, UTC drew the second highest crowd among FCS playoff games played last Saturday. Finley Stadium’s attendance trailed only to Ohio’s Youngstown State when they hosted and defeated Southern Conference member Samford. That game drew 5, 322 people, about 9,000 people short of Youngstown State’s regular season average.