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Front Page - Friday, September 22, 2017

Jenkins Perspective: UTC QB Tiano survives disaster, remains optimistic




Quarterback Nick Tiamo, shown here during the 45-10 loss at LSU on Sept. 9, and the Mocs are struggling after being shut down by UT-Martin. - Dale Rutemeyer UTC Athletics

Nick Tiano, who declared he was “chasing his dream” when he transferred to UT-Chattanooga last winter, instead found his worst nightmare chasing him in his home debut this past week.

As he stood behind center in his third start as an emergency fill-in for suspended starter Alejandro Bennifield, he could not have liked what he saw Saturday night every time he looked downfield.

Visiting UT-Martin, putting one of the most embarrassing losses on the UTC Mocs in recent memory, frustrated Tiano and his offense all night in a deceptively nominal 21-7 score. The defeat was utter, and the willing-but-unable Tiano was left feeling like he’d brought a knife to a gunfight.

The Skyhawk defense had the perfect alignment to choke off anything the Mocs, now 0-3, wanted to do: a rare and chancy 3-0-8 defense that allowed blitzes to come from anywhere. But they were seldom needed, as the visitors’ three-man rush wreaked enough havoc all its own.

While holding UTC’s two veteran running backs to negative yards, the Skyhawks also sacked the strong, but immobile Tiano five times and forcing him to flee for minimal gains a half-dozen other times.

But the Mocs’ conservative game plan, laid out by head coach Tom Arth and offensive coordinator Justin Rascati, opted not to challenge the Skyhawks’ reinforced secondary, even though the Mocs arguably had the superior athletes running pass routes.

The only time the Mocs threw deep, junior Bingo Morton made a tremendous athletic play to catch the ball and stay in bounds on a 59-yard touchdown.

That play accounted for a large chunk of Tiano’s 144 passing yards on the night. The running game was almost non-existent. Tiano was the leading rusher with nine yards on 14 carries (including the five sacks, according to college record keeping). Incumbent running back Richardre Bagley was credited with minus two yards on four carries and senior transfer Darrell Bridges had a minus one on five attempts before leaving the game with a third quarter injury.

Arth knew there was plenty of blame to go around, but was reluctant to dump any of it on Tiano – who was named the starter by default two days before the season opener when Bennifield was sidelined by an academic glich.

After three starts, all losses, Tiano had five interceptions to offset only two touchdown passes. But the total lack of a running attack rightfully loomed as the much larger problem.

“When they’re dropping eight into coverage and rushing only three, you’ve got to be able to run the football,” Arth stated flatly. “Tonight, we had 23 rushes for what? Six yards. That’s a lot you’re putting on a quarterback. It’s going to be rough no matter who you put back there.

“Nick Tiano has played very well at times,” Arth said Saturday. “There are things we can all do better, but he has handled himself incredibly well.”

That poise was evident following the game Saturday, when he stood tall to address the loss.

“Of course, you’d like the chance to make a big play, but you have to stay with the game plan,” Tiano explained. Morton said his TD resulted from receiving “a great ball” from Tiano on the pin point pattern.

The hectic three weeks of the season have gone by in a rush for Tiano, who has had little time to reflect on all of the circumstances that have put him in this position. Instead, he just looks to keep moving forward.

“The opportunity to play in my hometown is why I’m here, and we’re working to get it right,” the Baylor School product acknowledged. “We have an opportunity to get things rolling with a conference win this week, and we’re hoping to get things rolling.”

That opportunity is in Southern Conference weak sister VMI, which has been shut out twice and has a home lose to a Division II school, Catawba, in its own three losses to start the 2017 season.

‘Worst case scenario’

Tiano could not wait to get to Chattanooga, once he’d made the decision to leave Mississippi State after two seasons (redshirting in one). In fact, his first interview as a Moc came last December while he was actually driving from Starkville to Chattanooga en route to registering for classes.

Tiano was the third scholarship quarterback to leave the Bulldogs at the end of the season, not even waiting for their bowl appearance.

Incumbent Nick Fitzgerald, who was the only scholarship quarterback on the roster for the Bulldogs’ bowl game, was at the helm this weekend when Mississippi State pulled off one of the biggest upsets the SEC had seen in years, a 37-7 demolition of LSU.

Saturday, Tiano conceded that the current scenario at UTC wasn’t what he expected – some might even call it a “worst case” scenario. Consider: your two best offensive linemen opted unexpectedly to pass up their final year of eligibility under a new head coach and coordinator, then you lose your quarterback 48 hours before your first game. Saturday, in game three, the Mocs offense still had the look of a team trying to figure it all out somehow, some way.

At one point, a frustrated Tiano threw four consecutive incomplete passes over the UT-Martin bench.

“We did not do a decent job anywhere,” Arth said. “Our performance on the field, or as a coaching staff, was not up to our standards. We have to go back and look at the film, we’ve got to make corrections and we have to get better. It’s a simple as that.”

What’s next?

The ramifications of not getting better, and soon, loom large for the cash-strapped program.

If first impressions do indeed make a difference, wild horses won’t be able to drag many of the announced crowd of just over 10,000 back to watch UTC football any time soon. While there were encouraging moments in each of their first two road losses, nothing could have prepared them for the lackluster showing at Finley Stadium this past Saturday.

At halftime, the scoreboard showed zero points and the stat sheet showed the same number of first downs for the crippled offense. It took more than 40 minutes of the game clock to pass before a single first down was registered – on a penalty.

The initial first down that the Mocs actually earned came nearly 44 minutes into the game.

The defense, meanwhile, had woes of its own. While Tiano was barely looking past his own shadow for dump-off completions, UT-Martin quarterback Troy Cook, a preseason All-OVC selection and Florida State expatriate, was having a field day. He completed 13 of his first 14 passes good for three touchdowns.

There is a historical counterpart to the game. In 2007, the Mocs were a 29-17 loser to NAIA team Carson-Newman in a similarly decisive manner in that season’s home opener. That loss foretold of a forthcoming 2-9 season – the next-to-last for then-coach Rodney Allison – which was followed by an even more horrific 1-11 season 2008 that meant the overdue end to the Allison era.

But this is 2017, and the stakes are considerably higher for the Mocs and for   Moc Nation.

Talk is getting louder and more frequent about a move out of the Southern Conference and upward into the BCS level.

In fact, the second most important job for new athletic director Mark Wharton, right behind getting blood from a stone (i.e., fund raising) is to test the waters and kick the tires about the viability of moving up and out of the moribund Southern Conference.

But many more performances before the home crowd like Saturday’s, the job may turn into simply keeping the boosters and donors the Mocs already have.

What about Rascati?

Arth, the stand-up guy that he is, will willingly take the arrows of blame and begin the painful process of sorting things out behind closed doors. One can only wonder if one of those doors belongs to offensive coordinator Justin Rascati.

Rascati was hired away from Tennessee Tech where, the media guide graciously states, that he “helped Tech to an OVC winning record.” That statement attempts to obscure the fact that Tech was 5-6 overall in his one season in Cookeville. But on Saturday, the most ironic aspect of Rascati’s resume is that he spent two seasons (14-15) as the passing game coordinator at UT-Martin!

One wonders if longtime Skyhawk head coach Jason Simpson considers his current passing game coordinator, Derek Carr, an upgrade.

Time for Copeland?

It’s impossible to say if Bennifield would have fared much better behind the Mocs’ porous offensive line. But many began looking elsewhere for an answer – specifically, wither Cole Copeland?

To those who did not follow prep football the last year or two, the 6-4, 200 Copeland re-wrote a rather prolific record book at Bradley Central, one of the state’s largest schools. He passed for over 6,000 yards, rushed for another 2,000 and accounted for a total of 70 touchdowns in his prep career.

Freshman Copeland, who is officially the second-string quarterback while Bennifield is out, also warmed up with Tiano at the half but never got to even fasten his chin strap during the game.

“We love Cole Copeland,” Arth was quick to reply to the inevitable question following the game. “Cole is a great player, but at this point, we hope we don’t have to remove his redshirt.”