The Chattanooga Mocs may have been down, but they were never out.
Putting together one of the most exciting and stirring comebacks in UTC history, the Mocs rallied for three touchdowns in the final quarter to defeat The Citadel Bulldogs by a 34-33 final.
The difference maker was a 12-yard run by senior quarterback Nick Tiano to tie the game with 28 seconds to play. Victor Ulmo’s extra-point kick provided the margin of victory as the Mocs somehow found a will and a way to win their final home game of the season.
“We just did all we could do to win this football game, but I kept telling our guys that if we keep playing, you never know what might happen,” UTC coach Rusty Wright began his post-game interview.
“It was ugly and our defense played almost 40 minutes of football, but I knew if we could get the ball back that one last time, we had a shot at winning. Thank goodness we were able to stop them and get it back,” Wright said, still not fully believing the amazing comeback his team had just pulled off.
While there were several heros wearing Chattanooga jerseys, none were any bigger or more important than Tiano, the 22-year-old senior who was one of 14 players honored before the game.
The former Baylor standout, who transferred to UTC from Mississippi State, had thrown two touchdown passes in the first half as the Mocs overcame a 2-0 deficit to build a 12-9 lead at intermission.
Tiano had his first pass in the second half intercepted and he lost a fumble on his first carry some two minutes later as the Bulldogs took advantage with two quick scores for a 23-12 lead with 12:17 left in the third period.
A 21-yard field goal by Jacob Godek with 28 seconds left in the third quarter put the visitors from Charleston, S.C. up 26-12 when the final 15 minutes began.
And what an amazing final quarter it turned out to be.
Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks, who was stuffed for a four-yard loss and a safety on his first carry and was limited to just 10 yards on eight carries in the first half, turned things around in the final two stanzas.
It all began with a 45-yard run with 13:20 to play to get Chattanooga within a score at 26-20.
The Bulldogs came right back and answered with a touchdown run of seven yards by Clay Harris with 8:49 to play. Godek’s kick put his team ahead by 13 with still plenty of time to play.
Ibitokun-Hanks then scored on an 11-yard run on UTC’s next drive and the difference was 33-27 following Ulmo’s first point-after kick with 7:21 to play.
The Mocs then forced a three-and-out while using all three timeouts after The Citadel had gotten the ball with 2:16 to play.
A 55-yard punt gave Chattanooga possession at its own 27 with 1:41 to play.
A pair of 15-yard penalties helped the Mocs, but it was ultimately Tiano’s 12-yard run in the final minute that saved the day for Chattanooga.
“That’s what a senior quarterback should do, but he just kept battling and never got rattled. Good players find ways to get the job done and Nick did exactly that,” Wright praised his quarterback.
Tiano has been playing football at Finley Stadium for a long time, starting way back when he was in the third grade playing for the Hixson Steelers. Fast-forward about 14 years and he was playing at Finley for the very last time.
“I tried to not think about it being my last game here, but what a game. That was something I’ll never forget,” Tiano said outside the UTC dressing room after the see-saw game finally ended.
“We’ve gone through some tough times this fall, but we’ve learned how to play hard for each other. On that last play, I was looking for an open receiver, but didn’t see anything I liked, so I tucked it and started running. I’m just glad nobody was there as I was able to sneak it in for a touchdown,” he said.
Tiano finished the day with 31 net yards rushing and 268 yards passing.
The Bulldogs finished with 499 total yards to just 416 for the Mocs.
Remus Bulmer was the leading rusher for the Bulldogs with 130 yards on a dozen carries. Dante Smith had 88 yards on six trips while Brandon Rainey had 67 yards on 22 carries.
Rainey also completed six of 14 passes for 148 yards and two touchdowns, one of 53 yards to Ryan McCarthy in the second quarter and then one of 40 yards to Raleigh Webb to start the third quarter.
The Citadel finished the game with 351 rushing yards and 148 through the air.
While the Mocs were limited to just six yards rushing on 13 carries in the first half, they finished with 148 yards as Ibitokun-Hanks with the game with 119 yards and those two touchdowns.
Bryce Nunnelly had four catches for 129 yards, including a 27-yard TD catch in the first quarter.
Tyrin Summers had two catches for 90 yards, including a 75-yard pass down the middle that gave the Mocs their first lead.
The Mocs will conclude their season with a game at VMI next Saturday.
The Mocs are now 6-5 overall and 5-2 in SoCon play while The Citadel is now 6-5 overall and 4-3 in conference play. Saturday's loss snapped a four-game winning streak for the Bulldogs.
With league-leader Furman losing at Wofford on Saturday, the Mocs could finish in a three-way tie for first as long as The Citadel beats Wofford and the Mocs defeat VMI.
THE CITADEL 2 7 17 7 -- 33
CHATTANOOGA 12 0 0 22 -- 34
CIT – Safely when Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks tackled in end zone, 11:16 left in first;
UTC – Tyrin Summers 75 pass from Nick Tiano (kick failed), 2:24 left in first;
UTC -- Bryce Nunnelly 27 pass from Tiano (pass failed), 0:58 left in first;
CIT – Ryan McCarthy 53 pass from Brandon Rainey (Jacob Godek kick), 6:45 left in second;
CIT – Rainey 8 run (Godek kick), 14:10 left in third;
CIT – Raleigh Webb 40 pass from Rainey (Godek kick), 12:17 left in third;
CIT – Godek 21 field goal, 0:28 left in third;
UTC – Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks 45 run (Chris James pass from Tiano), 13:20 left in fourth;
CIT – Clay Harris 7 run (Godek kick), 8:49 left in fourth;
UTC – Ibitokun-Hanks 11 run (Victor Ulmo kick), 7:21 left in fourth;
UTC – Tiano 12 run (Ulmo kick), 0:28 left in fourth.
YARDSTICK THE CITADEL CHATTANOOGA
First Downs 22 21
Rushes-Yards 63-351 31-148
Passing Yards 148 268
Plays-Total Yards 77-499 60-416
Passes (Comp-Att-Int) 6-14-0 11-29-1
Penalties-Yards 7-78 3-27
Punts-Average 5-49.6 5-41.4
Fumbles-Lost 4-3 1-1
Time of Possession 40:17 19:38
CITADEL RUSHING: Remus Bulmer 12 for 130 yards; Dante Smith 6 for 88 yards; Brandon Rainey 22 for 67 yards; Clay Harris 18 for 58 yards.
CITADEL RECEIVING: Ryan McCarthy 2 for 63 yards; Raleigh Webb 1 for 40 yards; Keyonte Session 1 for 19 yards.
CITADEL PASSING: Brandon Rainey 6 of 14 for 148 yards and 2 TDs.
CHATTANOOGA RUSHING: Elijah Ibitokun-Hanks 19 for 119 yards; Nick Tiano 11 for 31 yards.
CHATTANOOGA RECEIVING: Bryce Nunnelly 4 for 129 yards; Tyrin Summers 2 for 90 yards; Chris James 2 for 19 yards.
CHATTANOOGA PASSING: Nick Tiano 11 of 29 with 1 interception for 268 yards and 2 TDs.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)