Missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, late re­turns doom UTC in loss

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - SPORTS - BY LIND­SEY YOUNG STAFF WRITER

A sim­ple shake of his head and a wipe of his troubled brow could have ended Univer­sity of Ten­nessee at Chat­tanooga foot­ball coach Tom Arth’s postgame news con­fer­ence Satur­day.

Though Arth went on to ex­pound on what was a se­quence of bizarre and frus­trat­ing events that led to the Mocs’ 13-9 loss to Mercer at Fin­ley Sta­dium, the ges­tures said it all. A team that more than dou­bled its op­po­nent in to­tal of­fense (309 yards to 149), had eight more first downs, had 11 more min­utes of pos­ses­sion and ran 17 more plays from scrim­mage had just lost.

That, how­ever, only be­gins to de­scribe the missed op­por­tu­ni­ties for UTC (6-4, 4-4 South­ern Con­fer­ence) in its con­fer­ence and home fi­nales for the sea­son, with only this Satur­day’s trip to South Carolina re­main­ing.

“Ob­vi­ously, a tough day and a re­ally bad fin­ish for us here,” said Arth, whose team was coming off an­other of­fen­sive strug­gle in a 16-10 loss to Fur­man the week be­fore. “De­fen­sively, I thought we played lights out and did a lot of re­ally great things. We had some very costly er­rors and we strug­gled of­fen­sively all game long, but at the end of the day we had the lead with a cou­ple of min­utes left.”

De­spite a myr­iad of missed op­por­tu­ni­ties, the Mocs seemed to have out­lasted the foot­ball gods in the fi­nal quar­ter. Three per­sonal fouls — two on one play — against Mercer (5-5, 4-3) helped lead to a UTC drive that reached the Bears’ 2. How­ever, as was the case all game, a short-yardage run was stuffed, and UTC had to set­tle for Vic­tor Ulmo’s third field goal of the half and a 9-7 lead with 2:29 to play.

The ex­hale of pos­si­ble vic­tory lasted just a few sec­onds, long enough for Mercer re­turn spe­cial­ist Stephen Houzah to take the en­su­ing kick­off 91 yards to the 1. It was his sec­ond long re­turn of the quar­ter, with the other go­ing 73 yards and set­ting up the Bears’ first touch­down.

The UTC de­fense, as it had done all game, stood tall, but Tyray Devezin’s third run fi­nally reached pay­dirt and, af­ter the pass for two points failed, Mercer held an im­prob­a­ble 13-9 lead with 1:50 re­main­ing.

Arth took full blame for al­low­ing Houzah the chance to turn the game around a sec­ond time.

“I made the de­ci­sion on whether to squib the kick­off, pop it up or kick it deep, and I made the de­ci­sion to kick it deep,” the sec­ond-year Mocs coach said. “That was my call, and I trusted my kick­off team and un­for­tu­nately they didn’t make the tackle. That’s my fault and my call. That’s the only thing that can­not hap­pen.

“I prob­a­bly should have

“A loss like this hurts, and we didn’t do enough on of­fense to de­serve the win. The de­fense played great, but un­for­tu­nately we just didn’t get it done.”

— UTC QUAR­TER­BACK NICK TIANO

kicked it out of bounds and made them drive.”

The Mocs were un­able to muster a first down on the fi­nal pos­ses­sion and walked off the field with a col­lec­tive shake of their heads.

“Hon­estly, it’s tough,” UTC ju­nior quar­ter­back Nick Tiano said. “A loss like this hurts, and

we didn’t do enough on of­fense to de­serve the win. The de­fense played great, but un­for­tu­nately we just didn’t get it done.”

UTC’s of­fen­sive strug­gles be­gan on the game’s sec­ond play from scrim­mage, when se­nior Alex Trot­ter broke off a 63-yard run. As he tried to get into the end zone, the ball was stripped by Mercer’s Kam Lott and re­cov­ered by team­mate Eric Jack­son at the 1.

The Mocs also had a pair of missed field-goal at­tempts in the first half by backup Thomas Burks, who was kick­ing with starter Ulmo ap­par­ently un­avail­able early. UTC’s best drive, keyed by a 50-yard Tiano pass to Bryce Nun­nelly mid­way through the sec­ond quar­ter, ended at the 1 when both Tyrell Price and Tiano were stopped on con­sec­u­tive runs.

Those mis­cues were topped later in the quar­ter when nose­guard Derek Ma­haf­fey sniffed out a Mercer screen pass, in­ter­cepted it at the Bears’ 39 and ram­bled down the field with a car­a­van of team­mates. Ad­mit­tedly caught up in the mo­ment, he slowed his sprint in­side the 10 and, in the as­sess­ment of of­fi­cials, high-stepped into the end zone.

Ma­haf­fey was called for a 15-yard un­sports­man­like penalty that negated the touch­down. Mak­ing mat­ters worse, a sec­ond penalty was called as a UTC player rushed from the side­line onto the field to cel­e­brate. With the Mocs pushed back to the 32, their drive ended with Burks miss­ing a field goal.

“He cel­e­brated on the way to the end zone, but I re­ally didn’t see it,” Arth said. “It sounds like he high-stepped in, and you can­not do that.”

Ma­haf­fey’s ex­pla­na­tion: “I just wanted to get as far away from the other team as pos­si­ble. I guess I was hav­ing too much fun.”

The sec­ond half, while more pro­duc­tive, was nearly as frus­trat­ing for the of­fense. A blocked punt by Cody Swabek at the Mercer 20 to start the half led to Ulmo’s first field goal — this one from 38 yards, with the oth­ers from 28 and 19. His sec­ond field goal capped a de­cent drive that reached the 11 to start the fi­nal quar­ter, but

Trot­ter’s third-and-1 run was stopped by Jack Raines.

Houzah made the Mocs pay with the first of his two game-chang­ing kick­off re­turns, set­ting up the fi­nal fate­ful min­utes.

“It’s real tough,” said Nun­nelly, the sopho­more re­ceiver whose 91 yards on six catches moved him into sec­ond place on the school’s sin­gle-sea­son record list for re­ceiv­ing yards.

“We had chances, even with how poorly we played of­fen­sively. We just didn’t get any­thing go­ing, and when we did, we would get penal­ties. The fight was there, but un­for­tu­nately we didn’t get the win.”

Con­tact Lind­sey Young at ly­oung@times­freep­ress.com or 423-757-6296. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @youngsports22.

STAFF PHOTO BY ERIN O. SMITH

UTC quar­ter­back Nick Tiano, bot­tom, comes up just short of the end zone dur­ing the first half of Satur­day’s game against Mercer at Fin­ley Sta­dium. Mercer ral­lied late to win 13-9.

UTC’s Alex Trot­ter runs the ball dur­ing the first half Satur­day against Mercer. Trot­ter fin­ished with 96 yards rush­ing.

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