CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (UTC Athletics) — Call it a comeback. Feel free, it’s why there’s 60 minutes on the clock. The Chattanooga Mocs entered the fourth quarter down 26-12 to The Citadel. They left Finley Stadium with a pivotal 34-33 Southern Conference victory.
“I was playing with everything I got,” Coach Rusty Wright explained in the post-game press conference. “Trying every way we know how to win a football game. I didn’t do anything. Those kids went and played. We just tried to put them in the best spots we could put them in, and hopefully that is good enough.
“The one thing I hope they realize is, if we keep playing, you never know. That is one thing we are starting to learn around here a little bit, because it is ugly (the adversity). It is as ugly as you will ever be around, but I can’t tell you how proud I am of those guys in that locker room.
“We lost our starting center early,” he continued. “Had guys go down…we didn’t have one of our wideouts that last drive. That defense played 40 minutes of football. They just kept lining up and playing.
“I hope it will go a long way for us in the future.”
An offense the put 167 yards on the board over the first 45 minutes. The Mocs accumulated 249 in the final frame. It began with Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks’ 45-yard dash to the end zone. Wright chose to go for two cutting the margin to 26-20.
It seemed like the Bulldogs put the game away with 8:49 to go. Clay Harris bulled his way in from seven yards out making it a 13-point advantage.
Nick Tiano and the offense took over at the 25. An 11-yard pass to Reginald Henderson was followed by 13 more to Chris James. He went deep to Bryce Nunnelly down the left sideline for 40 yards to the 11. Ibitokun-Hanks scored on the next play for a quick-strike response and a 33-27 score.
The defense forced a three-and-out giving the offense the ball back at their own 12 with 5:07 remaining. Tiano and Nunnelly connected again for 50 yards. Ibitokun-Hanks ran for 22 and the Mocs were in business at the Bulldogs 16. It stalled at the 11 as two passes into the end zone fell to the turf.
A defense that spent nearly 40 minutes on the field went back out in desperation mode with 2:16 on the clock. Three plays for seven yards with all three timeouts spent and the offense would get one more chance after Matt Campbell boomed a 55-yard punt downed at the Mocs 27.
No timeouts and 1:41 to work with. It started well as Tiano scrambled out of pressure for eight yards than included an additional 15 for a facemask. Three plays, three incompletions as the Bulldogs continued their game-long pursuit of Tiano. He looked deep on fourth-and-10. The line stood strong and as Kanore McKinnon came back to the ball, the defensive back was early giving a ray of hope and a first down at The Citadel 35.
Two plays later, Tiano hit Summers on a slant to the 20. An out to Juwan Tyus put the ball on 12. Tiano took the next snap and scrambled 12 yards for the score. We’ll let him describe it…
“Unbelievable,” he began to explain. “I couldn’t dream of a better way for us to finish here (at Finley Stadium). Just a dramatic, emotional win. It physical, we fought all game.
“That play, I dropped back, didn’t really see anybody and felt the middle open. I just ran and thankfully got in there.”
That left just 21 seconds for The Citadel to answer down 34-33. Javonte Middleton took the ensuing kickoff at the goal line. He had a sliver and broke through the hole before kicker Victor Ulmo made the stop at the 28.
Marshall Cooper broke up the first pass attempt. Khayyan Edwards had the hurry on Brandon Rainey forcing the second with just two seconds to go. Rainey hit Jacob Godak for 15 yards in the middle of the field. He tried the hook-and-ladder but the lateral attempt was fumbled and recovered by CaMiron Smith cementing the triumph.
Despite an early safety, it was a good start for the Mocs. Tiano hit Summers for a 75-yard score and Nunnelly from 27 out in the first quarter. A missed PAT and two-point conversion had the tally at 12-2 for the good guys.
The Bulldogs came back with a vengeance scoring 24 unanswered points over the next 30-plus minutes. Rainey scored once with his legs and twice via his arm in building the 26-12 advantage setting up the Mocs dramatic victory.
RECORDS – Chattanooga (6-5/4-3) | The Citadel (6-5/4-3)
SERIES – Chattanooga leads 32-19-2.
“We knew what we had to do and just went out there trying to make the best out of it. Everybody played their gaps the right way and saw what they were doing. It worked out. I’m just happy we found a way to get it back in the offense’s hands.” – Cooper on the crucial three-and-out setting up the offensive heroics
“How many times do you play an option team when you are down seven with four minutes to go and you never get it back. We didn’t do anything different than what we did in the first half. That is what I told them at the timeout. I told them not to worry about going for the football, just tackle them. I will use the timeouts, just tackle them. Stop them short of a first down.” – Wright on the three-and-out stop before the winning touchdown drive
“The injuries we had all season and then today. I mean, we had guys playing positions they never played before…snaps they’ve never had before…we just kept playing. Finally, we got to the fourth quarter and we had enough in us to go put points on the board.” – Tiano on the fight of the offense after three tough quarters
Check out all we heard at the quotes link at the top of the story.
3 NOTES TO KNOW
– Bryce Nunnelly topped the 2,000-mark in career receiving yards during the fourth quarter flurry. He now has 2,026 (137 receptions) which is sixth all-time at UTC. He’s six yards behind Jacksonville Jaguars wideout C.J. Board in fifth-place on the all-time list.
– Third-largest comeback in school history. The Mocs came back from 18 down in wins at Furman (10-28/36-28) on Oct. 23, 1010 and Nov. 14, 2009 in Finley Stadium against The Citadel (3-21/31-28). It’s also the third-largest in the fourth quarter behind the same two contests. It was 18 at Furman, but 15, 13-28, against the Bulldogs.
– The Mocs possessed the ball for 9:57 in the first and fourth quarters amassing 365 yards of offense. In 12:02 in the middle of the contest, it was 51 yards. The Bulldogs had 326 yards in the middle of the contest bookended by 173 over the first and final 15.
Check out all the extra info at the notes link at the top of the story.
3 STATS TO KNOW
– Ibitokun-Hanks ran for 119 yards on 19 carries with two TDs. He had 83 of the 119 in the fourth quarter. Along with Ailym Ford, it’s the seventh straight week the Mocs have had at least one RB with 100 yards on the ground.
– Season-high 129 yards receiving for Nunnelly. It’s third time this season with 100 or more yards in a game and ninth of his career which is tied with Cos DeMatteo ’01 for second all-time at Chattanooga. The two deep balls in the fourth period marks 16 in the last two years of 40 or more yards between he and Tiano.
– Cooper led a defensive effort that was on the field for 38:01 with 13 stops. The defense recovered three fumbles – Smith, C.J. Winston & Ty Boeck.
Check out all the numbers at the stats link at the top of the story.
NEXT GAME – Chattanooga at VMI | Sat., Nov. 23 | 1:30 p.m.