It’s hard to believe that a little over five years ago he University of Tennessee at Chattanooga held meetings to discuss whether to disband the football program.
The long and storied program had been on hard times since the late ‘80s and even a new state-of-the-art stadium that opened in 1997 did not change the fate of the program.
After coach Bill Oliver left the school could literally count the winning seasons on one hand with the last coming in 1997 the inaugural season of Finley Stadium.
The program had become a liability and was losing a lot of money. And while the program was struggling the women’s basketball team had attracted national attention and was ranked in the top 25 on a regular basis. Even the men’s basketball team that was a little down had been a winning program since the 1940s. Yes, hard line football fans of the school were beginning to wonder if UTC was a basketball school and not a football school.
Well, the administration looked to decide that and were serious about dropping the program citing mounting financial losses. East Tennessee State University dropped their program years earlier (and since reinstated it), so was UTC next?
To add insult to injury the football program suffered their worst record in school history as they dropped double-digit losses. Coach Rodney Allison was shown the door. Allison was supposed to be the program’s savior. He was a top recruiter. Twice while at the UTC Allison’s recruiting class ranked was the tops in 1-AA (now FCS).
Just because you have the top recruiting class, you have to be able to coach them. The program fell into the abyss with no end in sight.
Then the real bad news hit Chattanooga.
The city of Chattanooga had been the longtime host of the 1-AA National Championship Game. In fact the city got so used to having it that it seemed like it took the game for granted. Despite every major media outlet coming to town for one week including ESPN the town had problem drawing local support as very few locals attended the game. And then in 2007 there was “Turf-Gate”. The field’s turf had gotten so bad that chunks were visibly seen on network TV as players ran. The field condition made more news outlets than the outcome of the game.
The following year the Stadium Corporation invested in new turf similar to what the Georgia Dome was using and hosted the game another year to much praise.
However before the game was played it was announced that a city in Texas was going to be the new home for the 1-AA National Championship Game (now the FCS Championship Game). Add to that the woes of the football program and the school was ripe to drop the program.
Enter Russ Huesman. Huesman, defensive coordinator for Richmond, the team that won the last national championship game hosted at Finley Stadium had his name pop up as a candidate to take over the floundering program almost as soon as the game at Finley was over.
Huesman had ties to the school. He was an alumnus and played under Coach Joe Morrison. Morrison, a former New York Giant in a little over five years turned a mediocre program into a dynasty. In his short time at the school he quickly accumulated the second best winning percentage at UTC – even higher than the legendary Scrappy Moore and took the team from small no name school to not only joining the Southern Conference, but dominating it. Under Morrison the UTC football team put scares into SEC foes Vanderbilt and Auburn losing by single digits.
Then what happens to all great coaches who coach at small schools… the bigger programs call. Morrison left for New Mexico State and then later South Carolina. UTC’s teams won for a couple of more years after his departure but the winning percentages gradually slipped.
The last FCS Championship game hosted by Chattanooga saw the Richmond Spiders dominate to win the title. A daunting defense run by defensive coordinator Russ Huesman led the Spiders to the title. After winning the game rumors began to swirl.
Huesman, an alumnus not only of UTC but who played under coach Joe Morrison, who many consider the greatest era in the football team’s history was all of a sudden a candidate to take over the downtrodden program.
The rumors were true and Huesman accepted to take over a team that had won only one game the previous season.
Huesman was looked by many who remember the glory days of Joe Morrison as hopefully a throwback to those days. And that’s how the program was promoted. Even the city got behind the football program in an ad campaign to “restore the glory”.
It took a couple of years but it happened. Coming into Saturday’s game against Furman the UTC Mocs were ranked sixth in the country – their highest ranking in school history. They were also riding a streak of being ranked in the top 25 for an unprecedented school record that continues to get longer with each week.
Saturday’s opponent for the Mocs was Furman, a formidable foe. Furman was no stranger to the playoffs and they even made a stop in Chattanooga a while back in the national championship game. They were also used to being a thorn in the side of Chattanooga.
Furman took the opening kickoff and marched deep into Moc territory before the defense finally stopped them. Furman led 3-0 and the lead lasted for a quarter before the Mocs scored 31 unanswered points on their way to a 31-3 win to improve their record to 4-1 and their Southern Conference record to 2-0.
Led by running back Derrick Craine and quarterback Jacob Huesman as well as an opportunistic defense, the Mocs easily had their way with the Paladins and never showed any signs of a letdown as in other games to win easily.
Craine had 138 yards rushing to lead the team and three touchdowns – all from four yards out to pace with win. Huesman added 68 yards on 18 carries as he led a very one-sided offense. The senior signal caller was 9-of-15 for 104 yards through the air. His combined 172 yards made him the only the third Southern Conference player to account for over 10,000 yards of offense. He is also only the 49th player in FCS history to do so.
The only issue with Huesman is he would much rather run the ball than pass it. The Moc QB actually has a pretty good arm and with a decent touch. He just opts to run first instead of passing. That’s fine if you are in the lead, but the lack of a true passing game may become a liability in the FCS tournament (which we are assuming they will be in again this season). Huesman had a nice game against Mars Hill passing the ball, but Mars Hill is a Division II school. Any Division I school should have a good day throwing the ball against them.
Trailing 3-0 to Furman, the Paladins were driving again but a dropped pass put an end to the drive and the Mocs never looked back. Craine scored twice from four yards on the next two UTC offensive series.
Then things really took off for the Mocs. On the fist play of Furman’s next possession Paladin quarterback Reese Hannon was intercepted by cornerback Lucas Webb who returned the ball back 35 yards for a touchdown and a 21-0 lead
Furman never really mounted any offensive threat after that until late in the fourth quarter but their fate was already decided as Chattanooga had no letdown as they won 31-3.
Craine’s 138 yards gives him 477 for the season to lead the team. His three rushing touchdowns gave him a total of six for the season that leads the team. The running back is also averaging 5.5 yards a carry.
Ironically breathing down his back for the team lead in rushing is Huesman. The senior QB has gained 444 yards so far.
The Mocs are on the road this weekend as they travel to face another Southern Conference foe, VMI. After a bye week the Mocs return home on Halloween for Homecoming. Indeed, it looks as if the glory has been restored.
– Dave Weinthal
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