The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team unabashedly hangs its hat on defense.
Throw in a pretty good offense and the Mocs have the capability to contend for a Southern Conference championship in most years.
When UTC (4-3, 3-1 SoCon) entertains second-ranked Georgia Southern (6-1, 5-1) on Saturday at Finley Stadium – the kickoff is set for 6 p.m. – it will be going against the conference’s best defense, not to mention second-best offense.
The way Mocs coach Russ Huesman sees it, Georgia Southern’s defense is due its just reward when it comes to that unit’s accomplishments.
“I don’t know if Georgia Southern’s defense gets enough credit,” Huesman said Tuesday at his weekly press conference. “I think that’s the same way with all option teams. Wofford has a really good defense, but all anybody wants to talk about is that offense. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.”
Well, there is a story within the defensive numbers for both teams in league play. Here is a look at the Eagles and Mocs with conference ranking and per-game averages in parenthesis:
Georgia Southern Defense UT-Chattanooga
No. 1 (14.43) Scoring No. 3 (18.29)
No. 1 (274.71) Total No. 2 (293.84)
No. 1 (152.00) Passing No. 4 (180.86)
No. 1 (105.60) Pass Efficiency No. 4 (121.42)
No. 3 (122.71) Rushing No. 2 (113.00)
“Georgia Southern,” Huesman said, “has always been pretty decent on defense in the years I’ve been here, but obviously statistically this is the best they’ve been.”
That’s certainly the case, at least on paper.
In the five defensive categories above, the Mocs lead in just one – rushing defense. Granted, UTC is not far behind the Eagles’ defense when analyze the numbers, but Huesman is not about to sell Georgia Southern short when it comes to fielding a hard-nosed defense.
On Tuesday morning’s SoCon teleconference, Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said the Mocs truly do play great defense, but gave the Mocs a little too much credit.
“(The Mocs) are tops in the league in total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense,” said Monken, although he was right on just the rushing part of his assessment. “They do a lot of things well.”
But, so does Georgia Southern.
Monken was right when he later said the Mocs “stop people on third down and get them off the field. I think that’s an important statistic in football.”
UTC opponents convert 31.1 percent (28 of 90) of third downs, which ranks No. 2 behind Samford (25.6 percent, 30 of 117) in the league. There again, the Eagles are in the mix at No. 3 (31.6 percent, 31 of 98).
Huesman, a defense-minded coach throughout his career, says the biggest asset Georgia Southern brings to the field is overall speed.
“They’ve probably got more team speed on that side of the ball than anybody in the conference and they’re fundamentally sound,” Huesman said.
Without being asked, Huesman quickly added, “I think we play pretty decent defense and Adam (Fuller, coordinator) does a great job. We know what we want to do. We’re sound. We’re not a gimmicky defense. We line up and try to come off blocks and tackle people.”
Another defensive statistic in the Eagles’ favor is sacks. Georgia Southern has racked up 17 – the league’s second-best total – while UTC’s offense is last in the league with 19 sacks allowed.
UTC’s smothering defense has been a big factor in the Mocs’ three-game winning streak. They’ve beaten then-No. 11 Citadel, Furman and Samford by holding each foe to 13 or fewer points and moved to 4-3 overall and 3-1 in league play.
Now, with the defenses having been scrutinized, how do the offenses stack up. Well, there again Georgia Southern has an even bigger edge over the Mocs.
Here’s a peek at the offensive SoCon numbers:
Georgia Southern Offense UT-Chattanooga
No. 2 (34.29) Scoring No. 3 (24.00)
No. 3 (442.43) Total No. 9 (336.00)
No. 2 (389.26) Rushing No. 7 (147.71)
No. 9 (53.14) Passing No. 5 (188.29)
Georgia Southern leads the Mocs in three of those four categories, with a tangible disparity of 241.55 yards in the ground game. When it comes to passing, the Eagles rank dead last among all 121 FBS football-playing schools. Throwing the ball is basically an afterthought, so defenses better play strong against the run to beat the Eagles.
“We have to play lights out on defense,” Huesman said. “We can’t expect to give up 31 points and win this game. The kicking game is going to be huge in this game.
“And field position will be big, too. We can’t let them start drives on the 35. They’re almost unstoppable at that point. You have to make them snap the ball 12 to 15 times and hope they get off schedule (face third-and-longs) and hope they make a mistake and have to do something they don’t want to do. If you give them a short field and all of a sudden they need just six plays, it gets hard on your defense.”
Georgia Southern’s ground game is led by Dominique Swope, who has rushed for 729 yards with an average of 104.1 per game, with 12 touchdowns.
UTC’s leading rusher is quarterback Jacob Huesman, who has 427 yards, which calculates to 61 per game.
UTC junior linebacker Wes Dothard doesn’t even like preparing for a triple option offense.
“It is one of the roughest weeks that we have throughout the season,” said Dothard, who ranks among the league’s top 20 tacklers with 51 stops. “It is a lot of running and running plays to perfection. It is hard, but it comes a lot easier on game day because you practice is all week.”
But Huesman gives UTC a distinct advantage in passing. The redshirt freshman has completed 107 of 159 passes for 1,040 yards and three touchdowns, with just three interceptions. Throw in sophomore Terrell Robinson’s stats and the Mocs have 1,318 passing yards and 11 scores.
Georgia Southern’s passing game is virtually non-existent. Ezayi Youyoute and Jerick McKinnon have combined to complete just 18 of 37 attempts for 372 yards and four touchdowns, but the Eagles make up for a lack of passing with a monster rushing attack.
“I think this is a scarier offense than it has been in the past because the quarterback is a threat to take it to the house,” Russ Huesman said. “Both of their guys are really good.”
Package Jacob Huesman and Robinson in a complete rushing, passing and receiving deal and the Mocs have a pretty potent two-headed weapon. In that scenario, those two players have produced a combined 2,192 total yards and 18 touchdowns.
“Offensively, what is so impressive is not only do they (Mocs) have two quarterbacks that are good players, a bunch of skill players are around them with a good offensive line, but they control the football,” Monken said. “They’re leading our league in time of possession (34.03 minutes) and that’s just ridiculous. They don’t turn the ball over; they’re plus-six in turnover margin.”
Yet, the fact remains that UTC has to perform at a high level on Saturday against a team that comes in riding a four-game winning streak and has the best chance of any SoCon team to go deep into the playoffs.
“The team has to focus, take care of business and play a game of football,” Robinson said.
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com)