UT Martin at No. 24 Chattanooga
Thursday, 7:37 p.m. ET
Finley Stadium (20,688) • Chattanooga, Tenn.
Radio: ESPN 105.1 FM
TV: Comcast Sports South
Series Record: Chattanooga leads 3-0
Why Thursday is important
The Mocs will be looking for their first “real” 1-0 start in the Russ Huesman era. Chattanooga, entering its fifth season under Huesman, posted a 30-13 win over Division II Glenville State in 2009 — Huesman’s first game at UTC — but has dropped its last three to Appalachian State (42-41), Nebraska (40-7), and South Florida (34-13). Thursday, the Mocs have a realistic — but not guaranteed — opportunity to start the season on a positive note. A win in Thursday’s contest, which will be broadcast live on Comcast Sports South, would be huge for exposure, momentum and fan support. A loss, on the other hand, would have plenty of people — maybe even the players themselves — questioning UTC’s lofty preseason billing.
Three things to know about UT Martin
The Skyhawks are coming off an 8-3 season in 2012, including a win over the University of Memphis and a school-record six Ohio Valley Conference victories. They were picked to finish fifth in the OVC preseason polls, which are based on votes by the league’s coaches and Sports Information Directors. ... UT Martin returns six starters to an offense that ended the season ranked No. 24 in the nation in total offense (427.45 ypg). The majority of those yards, though, came from the quarterback position, though, which is one of the team’s biggest question marks heading into 2013. Derek Carr, who has since graduated, finished the year ranked in the top 10 in the FCS in passing yards (297.81 ypg), passing efficiency (150.72) and touchdown passes (31). Redshirt sophomore signal callers Jarod Neal and Tyler Rice are currently listed atop the Skyhawks’ depth chart, but don’t be surprised if junior Dylan Favre — nephew of former NFL great Brett Favre — makes an appearance on Thursday. ... Two of the team’s six returning defensive starters — senior linebacker Ben Johnson and senior defensive lineman D.J Roberts — were named preseason All-OVC selections. Johnson recorded a league-leading 131 tackles, five tackles for loss and four sacks a season ago. Roberts, who earned All-OVC second-team honors in 2012, collected 11.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage and 3.5 sacks.
What you should know about UT Martin head coach Jason Simpson
In seven years at UT Martin, Simpson has led the Skyhawks to a 45-34 record, including a 35-20 mark against OVC opponents. Those certainly aren’t Hall of Fame numbers, but considering that Martin won just 20 OVC contests in its first 14 years in the league, it’s quite an accomplishment. Simpson, a 1994 Southern Mississippi graduate, has made coaching stops at Delta State (1995), Jacksonville State (1997-99), Blinn Junior College (2000), Texas State (2000-03) and Chattanooga (2003-05), where he served three seasons as offensive coordinator under head coach Rodney Allison. Simpson helped lead the Mocs to a 6-5 campaign in 2005 — the team’s first since winning season since 1997.
Chattanooga player to watch
Junior running back Keon Williams had a productive fall camp for the Mocs, and he should have plenty of opportunities to tote the rock on Thursday. Don’t be surprised if quarterback Jacob Huesman finishes as the team’s leading rusher, but expect the squad’s running backs, particularly Williams, to be much more involved in the offense this season.
UT Martin player to watch
Regardless of who takes the majority of snaps Thursday, the Skyhawks will be breaking in a brand new quarterback. This game will likely be decided by how quickly whichever inexperienced signal caller gets the nod. Whoever it is — Neal, Rice, Favre or a combination of all three — they’re going to have their hands full facing Chattanooga’s experienced and extremely talented defense.
Random facts to impress your friends
The game will feature a top-25 offense from 2012 against a top-25 defense. UT Martin was 18th in the FCS in scoring offense (33.6 ppg), 10th in passing (299.5 ypg) and 24th in total offense (427.3 ypg). Meanwhile, the Mocs ranked 18th in scoring defense (20.4 ppg), 12th in passing defense (166.0 ypg) and 10th in total defense (301.9 ypg). ... The Mocs are 3-0 all-time against UT Martin with victories in 1991, 1992 and 1993, and 59-45-1 (.567) in season openers. ... UTC has five players on various preseason All-American teams, including senior linebacker Wes Dothard, senior safety D.J. Key, senior cornerback Kadeem Wise, junior defensive end Davis Tull and junior tight end Faysal Shafaat. ... There will be a post-game fireworks display, along with a number of giveaway prizes at the gate. Fans should look for blue and gold pom-poms, 3,000 Tried & True Blue T-shirts, 2,500 seat cushions and schedule magnets as they enter Finley Stadium. The UTC Student Section will be packed with 1,500 thundersticks and 1,000 water bottles, courtesy of Zaxbys.
“I’m not nervous at all. I don’t think a lot of the guys are nervous. If anything we think it’s our time. It’s time for us to go out there and prove what we can do; that we can make the playoffs and compete for the Southern Conference championship.” — Chattanooga senior cornerback Kadeem Wise.
The Mocs will win if ...
They take the field ready to play, and don’t have too many mental mistakes. The talent and experience meters are both titled in UTC’s favorite heading into this one, but as is often the case with season openers, there’s probably going to be some early-season nerves on the home sidelines — especially with the monstrous expectations surrounding the Mocs. Home field advantage should help with this.
The Mocs will lose if ...
They’ve let all that preseason praise go to their head. In reality, Chattanooga is just two games over .500 since Huesman took over the program in 2009. The Mocs certainly seem worthy of the numerous offseason accolades, but they’ve yet to prove it. Thursday night against the Skyhawks will be their first opportunity to do so.
Chattanooga 24, UT Martin 22
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.
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