Missed opportunities, late returns doom UTC in loss
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6296. Follow him on Twitter @youngsports22.
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.