Homecoming games are routinely scheduled so the team enjoying the festivities of the week is almost assured of winning.
Not so much at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The Mocs’ scheduling gurus have not necessarily been inclined to put sacrificial lambs into the team’s homecoming slot. UTC has won three such games in succession, all under coach Russ Huesman, but had to beat two nationally ranked teams to do so.
Since 1985, Appalachian State University, one of the Mocs’ top Southern Conference rivals and a team that won three successive national championships from 2005-07, has provided UTC’s homecoming competition six times.
UTC has lost all six of those games, with the Mountaineers’ margin of victory ranging from three to 35 points.
The Mocs celebrate their 2012 homecoming Saturday at 6 p.m. at Finley Stadium, and – you guessed it – the Mountaineers will provide the opposition, and UTC hasn’t beat ASU since surviving a wild 59-56 shootout in 2004.
UTC hasn’t won a Southern Conference opener since beating Georgia Southern, 45-38, in overtime on Sept. 22, 2007.
The Mountaineers (1-2, 0-1) lead the Mocs (1-2, 0-0) 25-10 in the overall series and have won 24 of the past 27 meetings.
“Since I’ve been here,” senior linebacker Shane Hatherly said. “I’m from North Carolina (Waynesville), so every time I go home I’m reminded that I’ve never beat them.”
Huesman, who played at UTC from 1978-81, fully understands the appeal of homecoming and the importance of opening the SoCon season against a perennial championship contender who has dominated the Mocs in recent years.
“It’s a big game for Appy and us,” Huesman said, “just because we need to figure out a way to win close games, we need to figure out how to beat App and we haven’t done that in seven years. All the conference games are critical right now. Hopefully, our kids will come ready to play.”
One reason UTC keeps scheduling ASU – ranked 17th this week – for homecoming games is the fact the Mountaineers’ recent success translates into gold at the gate.
On Sept. 4, 2010, the Mountaineers defeated the Mocs, 42-41, before 15,235, the third-largest home crowd in Finley Stadium’s 15-year history.
It’s certainly a much better draw than UTC’s home opener against outclassed Glenville State, a Division II team that attracted just 9,077 to a 20,000-seat stadium.
The fact that ASU lost its conference opener to The Citadel, 52-28, last week – the Mountaineers’ worst loss to a FCS opponent in eight years – should have no bearing on the turnout for Saturday’s game.
Huesman said forget that rare one-sided loss on Saturday. App State is still App State.
“I was extremely shocked,” Huesman said. “But we know we’re playing a good football team. They’ve got a talented football team and anybody that doesn’t believe that you’re nuts.
“They’ve got playmakers, quality football players on both sides of the ball and they’re well-coached. They (ASU coaches) didn’t become stupid overnight. Those things happen, but it doesn’t make you a bad football team.”
The last time UTC hosted Appalachian State on homecoming – Oct. 7, 2006 – the Mountaineers whipped the Mocs, 56-21. In six homecoming games against the Mocs, ASU has averaged scoring 34 points while holding UTC to 16.
UTC is 38-19-1 all-time in homecoming games, just 8-6 at Finley Stadium.
The Mocs are coming off a 35-0 victory over Division II Glenville State, the team’s first shutout since blanking Western Carolina, 38-0, in 2003.
“I know App will be ready to play,” Huesman said. “We have to make sure our players are ready to go. I think they know we’re in for a battle.”
Huesman would certainly like to see better point production from an offense which has put up 400-plus yards in each of the last two games. However, when it comes to ASU, the Mocs have lost the past three games by a total of eight points.
In those games, UTC either held a fourth-quarter lead or was within a point in the final period.
Huesman was asked about the Mocs’ having allowed those close games slip away.
“That’s what good teams do,” he said. “You don’t win three national championships without figuring out ways of winning close ones. They’ve done that. We haven’t done it. Someday, somehow we’re going to figure it out and get it done. It is frustrating to lose close ones like that.”
Two years ago, UTC led ASU by 34-14 with 14 minutes left when the Mountaineers mounted a miraculous comeback to win, 42-41, and break the Mocs’ heart.
“We were winning (big) at one point, but we made the mistake of relaxing,” Heatherly said. “You can’t relax on a team like App State. That game in particular has bothered me more than any once since I’ve played here.”
On the road against Jacksonville State that same year, the Mocs led, 17-7 in the fourth quarter and lost, 21-17. UTC erased a 21-point deficit to tie Elon at 35-all in the fourth quarter only to eventually lose, 49-35.
“Every year is a new year,” Huesman said, referring to Saturday’s ASU showdown. “Every game is a new game. I don’t think you can put an emphasis on the past. I know our kids will be fired up. (ASU) will be fired up. It’ll be a great game.”
A win over the Mountaineers would sustain the momentum built by blasting an inferior Glenville State squad on Saturday.
“We started 0-2, which was a real downer for us,” sophomore tight end Faysal Shafaat said. “Then we beat Glenville State and got some momentum. Beating App State when getting into conference play is real important. I know the next eight games are all conference games, so we need to start growing.”
One area of concern for Huesman and the Mocs is scoring. UTC averages 24 points per game, dead last in the nine-team SoCon. ASU is only slightly better, scoring 25.3 points.
“We have to be more efficient on third down and, especially on first down getting a good chunk of yards.” Shafaat said. “When we get in the red zone we have to score, not just kick field goals. We have to convert.”
Huesman agrees the offense needs to score, not just roll up large amounts of yardage – the Mocs have gained 400 yards of offense in back-to-back games.
“If you’re putting up those types of numbers, you’ve got to get points,” Huesman said.
What’s the best way to do that?
“We have to get more big plays,” the coach said. “We beat Glenville State three to nothing in the big-play battle – plays of 20 yards or more. That’s not near good enough. We have to get more explosive plays out of this offense. We have some kids who can make plays, who can run and stretch the field.”
The Mocs’ defense held Glenville State to 78 yards of offense last weekend, but will get a much stiffer test from the Mountaineers, who are averaging 417.7 yards of total offense through three games, on Saturday.
UTC’s defense yields 274.0 yards per game and is ranked No. 2 in the conference behind Georgia Southern (215.5) and 12th nationally.
“They’ve been a great team for a long time,” Heatherly said. “They’ve got great players. They are always coached really well and they’re going to come ready to play Saturday. I believe our team is ready.”
(Contact Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)