The 22nd-ranked Chattanooga Mocs football team held a fourth quarter lead and nearly shocked college football fans around the country, but ultimately saw its upset bid come up short to unbeaten SEC-leader Kentucky, 28-23, on Saturday afternoon at Kroger Field in front of 55,214 fans. Chattanooga falls to 1-2 on the season while Kentucky, who received votes in the latest national top 25 polls, improves to 3-0. It was the slimmest of margins to an SEC foe since a 31-29 loss to Vanderbilt on November 22, 1980.
Attention to detail is always an important aspect in games of this magnitude. One play here, one play there proved to be the ultimate difference.
“The kids played hard. We didn’t make enough plays when we had a chance,” said head coach Rusty Wright. “We didn’t do anything crazy. We have to find a way to just make basic football plays.
“I don’t care who we play. I expected to win today. Whether anybody though we had a chance or not, I expected to go out there and give ourselves an opportunity to win. And we did.”
Kentucky received the opening kickoff and started the game’s scoring after marching 70 yards down the field in nine plays totaling 4:11 to take an early 7-0 lead. The touchdown drive was capped off by a Josh Ali 11-yard rush, the first touchdown of his collegiate career.
The Chattanooga offense responded to the opening score in emphatic fashion. Ailym Ford broke off a 48-yard run on third down to put the Mocs at the UK 18 before Reginald Henderson hauled in a 12-yard touchdown pass, also on third down, to tie things up 7-7 with 6:56 left in the first.
Kentucky regained the lead, 14-7, with 13:29 in the second quarter after quarterback Will Levis found a wide-open Isaiah Epps for a 20-yard score to cap off a 7-play, 68-yard drive. After an exchange in possessions, the Chattanooga defense stood tall as CaMiron Smith picked off a Levis pass and returned it to the UK 15 with 10:23 on the clock.
Aaron Sears drilled a 27-yard field goal after the short field drive stalled in just three plays, cutting the UK lead to 14-10 with 8:47 left before half. The defense showed its force again as Ty Boeck created the second turnover of the day behind a fourth down strip sack, recovered by Jay Person, at the UTC 38 with 3:39 left before half. The teams would head to the locker room with the four-point separation.
Chattanooga received the second half kickoff and put together an 11-play, 49-yard drive that ended in a career long 43-yard field goal from Sears to pull within one, 14-13. The Mocs continued to apply pressure and forced its third turnover of the game when Rashun Freeman stepped in front of a Levis pass at the UTC 34 with 1:03 left in the third.
The possession spilled over into the fourth quarter and ended with a Sears 30-yard field goal, his third successful kick of the day, to push Chattanooga ahead 16-14 with 13:27 remaining in the game. UK responded with a quick 7-play, 77-yard touchdown drive that took just over three minutes to regain the advantage, 21-16.
After a Ford carry for seven yards and a Chris James reception for 10, quarterback Cole Copeland connected with Kanore Mackinnon on an acrobatic 25-yard completion to put the Mocs in striking distance at the UK 33. Two plays later, Copeland saw a potential go-ahead score intercepted and returned 95 yards which gave the Wildcats a 28-16 lead with 7:40 on the clock.
UTC continued its push for heroics after the pick-six and rolled 75 yards down the field in 15 plays, capped off by a Copeland two-yard touchdown run, to pull within five at 28-23. The ensuing onside kick effort was hauled in by the hosts, who would run out the final 1:20 on the clock.
Chattanooga put up its most explosive offensive efforts in the young 2021 season, racking up a season-high 339 yards of total offense including 171 on the ground and another season-high 168 through the air. UTC held UK to a season-low 356 yards (102 rush, 254 pass) of total offense, the lowest output for the Wildcats against a non-conference opponent since January 1, 2019 (Penn State, VRBO Citrus Bowl).
Copeland finished 21-of-35 with 168 yards, two touchdowns (one rushing), and an interception. Copeland targeted Henderson a team-high 15 times that resulted in a career-high nine receptions for 75 yards and a score.
Ford carried the rock 21 times for a season-high 128 yards highlighted by a 48-yard trek in the first quarter, the second longest rush of his career and fourth of 40 or more yards. Tyrell Price added six carries for 41 yards and combined with Ford to average 6.4 yards per carry.
On the defensive side, Ty Boeck led all tacklers with 13 total which included nine solo, four assists, a sack and a forced fumble. Smith and Freeman each recorded an interception while the latter was responsible for an addition pair of pass breakups. In total, UTC collected 5.0 TFLs, forced two fumbles, picked off two passes and finished with three turnovers.
Sears connected on all three field goal attempts which were booted from 27, 43 (career long) and 30 yards. The redshirt freshman is now a perfect 5-of-5 on FG attempts this season.