Chattanooga eager for shot at redemption vs. JSU
(STATS) - The last time Tom Arth left the sidelines of a competitive football game was on a cold December day in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, his John Carroll team having succumbed in a Division III playoff game to the same team of Titans that had beaten it three months earlier to open the season.
So even if Arth can't fully grasp what a win over Jacksonville State would mean in his first game as the head coach at Chattanooga, he might have a pretty good idea.
The 12th-ranked Mocs have opened the FCS portion of three of their last five seasons with losses to the No. 6 Gamecocks - ending one in similar dismay - so Saturday's Guardian Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Alabama, presents a great chance for Arth to make a memorable first impression.
It's the first time in program history a Chattanooga game will air on ESPN.
"This is the stage every kid grows up dreaming about, playing on ESPN in front of the nation," senior safety Lucas Webb said. "At the same time, once we hit that field, nothing is going to be different. We need to execute and play like we know how to."
Arth graduated from John Carroll in 2003, spent three seasons backing up Peyton Manning with the Colts and eventually made it back to the suburban Cleveland school as an assistant in 2010 before taking the head job in 2013. Four seasons later - the winningest stretch in school history for a program that produced Don Shula - he found himself with the opportunity to jump to the FCS level with the on-the-rise Mocs.
The Blue Streaks earned national attention last season after beating D-III dynasty Mount Union to end the Purple Raiders' streak of 24 consecutive Ohio Athletic Conference titles. They beat No. 1 Wisconsin-Whitewater in the quarters before falling to Wisconsin-Oshkosh, but now there are new heavyweights to worry about.
Jacksonville State fits that bill.
Chattanooga has won 26 of the 40 all-time meetings in this nonconference series of schools separated by two hours of I-59, but the Gamecocks have won four straight and eight of the last nine. That includes September victories in 2012, 2014 and 2015 by a field goal apiece, then a 41-35 comeback overtime win in the second round of the 2015 playoffs.
"It's been a good and healthy rivalry, and it has been a great game every time we have played," Jacksonville State coach John Grass said. "... I think you have two good football teams and I love playing those kinds of games because they're like playoff games. This will be like a second- or third-round playoff atmosphere, and that is a great way to open a season."
The Gamecocks didn't end the Mocs' 2016 season, but it was another Chattanooga heartbreaker. Despite holding the ball for 40 minutes at No. 1 Sam Houston State, the Mocs fell 41-36 in the second round when a win would have set up a date with eventual national champion James Madison.
But that opportunity is long gone. There's a new one in Montgomery with a new coach and, largely, a new core: Only 10 starters remain from last season's 9-4 team.
"I feel like I've been here for a really long time without playing a game yet, so it's an exciting weekend for us, the team and me personally," Arth said.
Exciting as it may be, it's a difficult proposition on an unforgiving schedule. Two weeks after the opener against a powerhouse FCS program, Chattanooga visits LSU. Then comes a SoCon slate that features back-to-back-to-back dates with the league's other three playoff teams come late October and early November.
Not that Arth would have it any other way.
"When your goals are to be among the best, and eventually be the best, you have to play the best," he said. "You better play the best as often as you can. There's only one way to see where you stack up against the top programs, and that's by playing them."
The Mocs won't have Alejandro Bennifield for this one or their next three games after the senior quarterback was suspended because of an NCAA academic issue.
A second-team All-SoCon selection last season, Bennifield threw for 26 touchdowns and ran for six others while tossing only seven interceptions.
That came with star running back Derrick Craine behind him and C.J. Board and Xavier Borishade as his primary targets, but all three are gone. Richardre Bagley and Presbyterian transfer Darrell Bridges will step in for Craine, while Alphonso Stewart and James Stovall will be targets out wide for sophomore Nick Tiano, who will replace Bennifield. Tiano transferred to Chattanooga after playing at Mississippi State last season.
Bennifield was the backup to Jacob Huesman when the Mocs last faced Jacksonville State two years ago, though the one pass he threw in that playoff thriller worked out pretty well. Lining up as a receiver, Bennifield took a pitch and found Huesman for a 39-yard TD that put Chattanooga ahead in the fourth quarter.
The Mocs remember how that ended, with Eli Jenkins breaking free for a 14-yard touchdown in overtime, but they'll no longer have to worry about JSU's dual-threat QB. Redshirt junior Bryant Horn takes the reins after spending his first few seasons shuffling between linebacker and quarterback, throwing a total of seven passes.
"He is cool, calm and collective and nothing seems to bother him," Grass said. "He is the same guy every day and I don't think any stage bothers him."
While Horn gets comfortable running the offense, a stingy Jacksonville State defense figures to carry the load. Linebacker Joel McCandless is one of eight returning starters on that unit, and he's ready to roll against the potentially explosive Mocs.
"Everyone loves a good fight and you know that when they show up, I need to pull my chinstrap a little tighter because they will be coming with it all the time," McCandless said. "When Chattanooga shows up, you know it will be a fight."