By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — There was a time, coach Russ Huesman admitted, when his Chattanooga football team would not have pulled out a win like it did Saturday afternoon at Wofford’s Gibbs Stadium.
But when Henrique Ribeiro drilled his 38-yard field goal on the final play of the game to give the Mocs its 20-17 Southern Conference victory, it might have been a sign that things are changing for No. 6-ranked UTC.
“Four years ago, we don’t win this game,” Huesman told his team during an enthusiastic post-game, locker room celebration that lifted the Mocs to their sixth straight triumph and gave them a record of 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the SoCon. “Wofford probably outplayed us, but we found a way to win.”
Huesman is well aware of Chattanooga’s record in close games during his seven years as head coach. The Mocs had a record of 3-13 in games decided by five points or less, including the last five in a row before Saturday.
Against Wofford, UTC had lost by three points in 2012 and one point in 2011 — contests that seniors and juniors on this team remembered well.
Wofford (3-5, 1-3) put the Mocs in peril in this year’s edition by constructing a 16-play, 61-yard drive, capped by Brad Butler’s slashing option runs of six yards for a touchdown and three more on the two-point conversion try that tied the game at 17 with 2:25 remaining.
Fullback Lorenzo Long was a big part of Wofford’s success throughout the day, with 24 carries for 143 yards on a day where the Terriers out-gained the Mocs 318-265 and won the time of possession battle 35:39 to 24:21.
Chattanooga started its winning drive at its own 25 and senior quarterback Jacob Huesman — the coach’s son — combining running and passing to push the ball to the Wofford 47 with 1:20 left on the clock.
It was here that the Mocs faced a big decision on fourth and two.
Punt the ball to safety and get prepared for overtime, or go for it against a fired-up Terrier defense and leave the possibility open of giving Wofford a short field to set up a field goal of its own?
“On the last drive, we told ourselves not to panic, that we were going to go down and win the game,” said Jacob Huesman.
Gambling on fourth down turned out to be the winning decision as Jacob Huesman ran the option to the Wofford side of the field perfectly before pitching to Derrick Craine (14 carries, 90 yards one touchdown) for 16 yards and the first down at the Terrier 31.
One play later, Jacob Huesman (15-of-23 passing for 109 yards and two interceptions, 15 carries for 58 yards and one TD rushing) came through brilliantly again, zipping through the Terrier defense for 10 yards on a nifty, quarterback draw in the middle of the field to set up Ribeiro’s clutch kick.
“I tried not to think about anything,” Ribeiro said of Wofford’s attempt to ice him with a time out. “You really don’t want to over-think things.”
Concerned with some wind that was blowing across the end zone, Ribeiro said he kicked the ball towards the right upright and allowed the breeze to carry it back into the center of the target for the winning three-pointer.
“I just wanted to help my teammates win,” said the junior Ribeiro, who booted his first game-winning kick since high school.
The game was filled with sloppy play for both teams through much of the afternoon, before the Mocs and Terriers showed off their offensive execution down the stretch.
Jacob Huesman fired two interceptions to Wofford’s Brian Anderson and JoJo Tillery to kill Chattanooga drives — one on a third-down force in the red zone. Wofford countered with a pair of fumbles, on either side of Jacob Huesman’s second pick, to obliterate the Terriers’ momentum.
Chattanooga needing only nine plays to go 75 yards on its opening drive as Jacob Huesman scooted 12 yards for its first score. But the Mocs were their own worst enemy for the rest of the first half.
Wofford had chances to take control in the second quarter, but had to settle for David Marvin’s 33-yard field goal on one deep drive before Butler (8-11, 63 yards passing, 10 carries, 20 yards and two TDs rushing) finished off another one of 12 plays and 88 yards by plunging into the end zone on fourth and goal from the one.
Marvin’s missed PAT made it a 9-7 Terrier lead at the break.
Following Wofford’s second turnover, giving the Mocs the ball at the Terrier 12, Craine struck quickly with runs of nine yards and one yard to give Chattanooga the lead again at 14-9 in the third quarter.
Wofford gamble on fourth and two from its own 39 backfired when Butler’s pass to Paul Nelson went for a two-yard loss and Ribeiro turned that short field into three points with his 34-yard field goal.
Ahead 17-9, Chattanooga seemed to be wearing down against Wofford’s triple-option attack in the fourth period, however, as the Terriers scored to tie the game.
It has been a tough few weeks for the Terriers, who started the season with high hopes and an experienced team, but have been decimated by injuries.
Wofford had Idaho on the ropes before watching a potential Football Bowl Subdivision victory slip away in the fourth quarter of its 41-38 loss to the Vandals and after their one-point against Mercer, 34-33, to start SoCon play, the Terriers had lost to The Citadel and Western Carolina.
“I couldn’t have asked for any more effort than this team gave today,” veteran coach Mike Ayers said of his Terriers afterwards. “Good teams find a way to win and Chattanooga is a very good team. Chattanooga is a mature team.”
And that maturity might translate into a deep playoff run for the Mocs in 2015, one year after they were ousted by New Hampshire on the road in last year’s Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
“We’re playing for more than winning one game now,” said Jacob Huesman. “We’re thinking big picture. We would like to be able to play playoff games in front of our home crowd this season.”
That is a real possibility if Chattanooga stays on its steady course in the midst of tougher Southern Conference competition than we’ve seen in the past few years and if other leagues continue to experience the type of upsets that have characterized the first two-thirds of the season.
“The culture and the mentality has changed (at Chattanooga),” Jacob Huesman said.
His dad would be the first to agree.
“Our guys are playing with more confidence,” said Russ Huesman. “Where we used to hope we would win, now we expect to win.”