Chattanooga's defense allowed 31 points, 451 yards of total offense — 289 rushing — and 23 first downs in the team’s 31-21 loss UT Martin last Thursday. The number that stood out most from UTC’s season opener, though, was 36. That’s how many tackles the Mocs missed in their demoralizing defeat to the Skyhawks.
“I about fell out of my chair saying it again,” head coach Russ Huesman said at Tuesday afternoon's media luncheon.
“Missed tackles are what kills you,” he added. “If you’re missing a bunch of tackles or you’ve got opportunities at sacks and you’re missing them, the yardage just piles up, and that’s what happened to us.”
Sure, the slew of injuries to the back-end of Chattanooga’s defense likely contributed to that eye-popping stat. The squad’s conditioning level probably played a role, too.
But most of all, it was a lack of fundamentals and desire.
“36 missed tackles, unacceptable,” senior cornerback Chaz Moore said. “Of course tackling is hard, but it’s football. We’ve been doing it all our lives. It should be second nature to us. We shouldn’t miss that many tackles; no matter what game. Even if we’re tired, we have to wrap up. If we don’t wrap up — y’all saw — we will lose.”
Instead of wrapping up and driving their feet — a skill that’s hammered into the head of every middle school football player in America — players were going for the knockout shot, running into a pile, throwing a shoulder or an elbow at the ball carrier. All too often, though, that Ronnie Lott approach to tackling results in failure, and that was certainly the case last Thursday.
Perhaps Dylan Favre’s 13-yard touchdown run with 2:21 remaining in the third quarter — a play Huesman described as “ridiculous" — is the perfect example.
“It’s third-and-12 and we’ve got a guy standing right there sizing him up,” Huesman said. “He misses the tackle. Some guys are running to the ball and some guys just want to fly in there and throw a shoulder, and he bounces right off that. Then he drags us into the end zone and it’s a touchdown.”
Quite ridiculous indeed.
So how does the coaching staff go about ensuring the Mocs don’t have a repeat performance Saturday inside the Georgia Dome?
Well, to steal a theme from Chattanooga’s offense, it starts with getting more players involved, which will perhaps alleviate some of that noticeable second-half fatigue the Mocs experienced on Thursday. Linebackers Muhasibi Wakeel and A.J. Hampton, who played sparingly against the Skyhawks, will both have more prominent roles Saturday against Georgia State.
“We’re going to practice more players and play more players,” Huesman said. “[Players] don’t want to come out the game; they’re competitors ... Nobody wants to come out of a game, but as coaches we’ve got to be smart and say ‘No, you’re coming out of the game, we’re putting a fresh body in there and you’re going to get fresh.’
“I think part of the second-half meltdown, you could just see [was fatigue]. When you’re sliding off tackles, and you’re running into a pile, throwing your shoulder in there and not wrapping up, a lot of it has to do with being tired. I’m not saying we’re out of shape because we’re in shape, but it was humid and games are different. We’ve just got to be smarter as coaches.”
It's unclear how much of a difference that will make on Saturday, but one thing is for sure, the Mocs will be tested by Georgia State. The Panthers threw the ball 51 times in last week’s 31-21 loss to Samford, but expect a more physical feel to their game plan this time out.
“If I was them and I watched us against UT Martin, I’d hand the ball off 89 times and never throw a pass,” Huesman said. “They’ve got to be licking their chops right now, saying they can’t tackle, they can’t fit gaps, they don’t run to the football. Lets get ourselves 300 yards rushing — if they couldn’t bring Martin’s guys down, they’re not bringing our guys down.”
• Junior defensive end Toyvian Brand and junior wide receiver Terrell Robinson will both play this week against Georgia State.
• Senior safety D.J. Key will practice on Tuesday afternoon, and Huesman said he has a “gut feeling” that the preseason All-Southern Conference first-teamer will be ready to go Saturday.
• Redshirt freshman cornerback Will Johnson, who suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp, has elected not to undergo surgery until after the season. He will participate in non-contact drills Tuesday, but is questionable for Saturday’s game.
• The coaches hope junior safety Zach McCarter will be healthy enough to participate in non-contact drills Wednesday. He’s questionable for Saturday, and Huesman said senior Dean Haynes is still a couple of weeks away.
Michael Murphy covers UTC athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelNooga.
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