Historical Notes: When the season began just a little over a month ago, it’s probably not the game that folks around the Southern Conference would have tabbed to have had so much meaning in a relatively early-season clash between the two, yet here we are in week six in a game between a pair of ranked foes that will play a significant role in shaping the early Southern Conference championship race.
Traditionally, this has been a rivalry, which has been dominated by Chattanooga much in the same fashion the Mocs have owned Samford on the gridiron. Saturday’s clash to open the month of October will mark the 49th all-time meeting between the two programs in a series that began 1973, which was actually three years before the Catamounts would officially join the Southern Conference in 1976. I will mark the first-ever ranked clash between these two foes.
Memories from my childhood of Lonnie Galloway throwing up deep balls to Craig Aiken and Kerry Hayes into the shady corner of Chamberlain field end zone, as the sun struggled to give its last light of the dwindling day through a huge tree, which seemingly dumped leaves on the Scrappy Moore field surface each fall. I will say this is a series that has seen very few close games over the 49 meetings.
The first 10 meetings saw a double-digit winner in all of them until the 1984 campaign, which would see the Mocs commence a five-game winning streak in the series with a 10-6 victory in the Scenic City. The 1987 and ‘88 meetings, which were noted because of Chattanooga’s physical, hard-hitting defense that issued a physical toll each time it tackled an opposing player during those two campaigns, and neither of those Mocs wins would see either team escape the teens scoring-wise, with the Mocs claiming a 13-11 in 1987 and a 19-14 win in ‘88.
Chattanooga would participate in its first season as a Southern Conference a year after Western Carolina did, despite joining the league the same season as Western Carolina did. The Catamounts would end up winning the first-ever meeting between the two programs, with the WCU picking up what was a 14-0 win over the Mocs before the hometown faithful in 1973. The win by the Purple and Gold would mark one of only four shutouts for either side in series history.
The most recent one came in a game that, for Catamount fans, they would just as soon forget. The year was 2014, and instead of the matchup being a game that would go down in the annals of as a great moment in Catamount gridiron history, it would instead go down as one of the worst letdowns in recent memory for the program.
The 2014 season had seen, for the first time under head coach Mark Speir, who was in his third season of leadership in Cullowhee and trying to take a program that had reached the lowest of lows in his first season as the head coach, see something of a football renaissance and for the first time since the early 1990s, the Catamounts were very much alive in the Southern Conference championship race when the Mocs came to Cullowhee on a cold, early November afternoon as snow threatened with flurries throughout the contest.
On that day, donning special helmets recognize the heritage of the indigenous peoples of the Cherokee Nation, which occupy much of the community of the nearby small towns surrounding Cullowhee, such as Maggie Valley, N.C. While it was a great show of solidarity by the University and its relationship to the diversity of the integrated surrounding community,, the game itself was an embarrassment for the program. Western Carolina suffered its largest defeat in series history, and one of its worst in Division I FCS history, as the 12th-ranked Mocs delivered a 51-0 beatdown of the Catamounts in Cullowhee on a day when it looked as though the Catamounts might be ready to turn a page back towards a measure of gridiron glory in the Southern Conference.
In that 2014 clash, both Chattanooga (4-0) and Western Carolina (4-0) came into the monumental league tilt at EJ Whitmire Stadium sporting perfect league ledgers. The Catamount faithful was even starting to entertain thoughts of ending a 31-year FCS playoff drought, and maybe even end the Catamount curse of having never won a Southern Conference regular-season title on the gridiron.
The Catamounts were emphatically dealt with, and as chilly as the mountain air was with light snowflakes on All Saints Day, it offered no comfort for the hometown team. The 12th-ranked Mocs rolled up 512 yards of total offense, which included a season-high 386 on the ground, which was led by Keon Williams, who rushed for 194 of those yards to go along with a pair of rushing scores.
On the flip side, the normally explosive Catamount attack was rendered almost completely inept against a Mocs defense that featured some its best players in recent memory, led by a defensive line, anchored by SoCon all-time sacks leader Davis Tull, that would rival any in the proud history of Mocs football. Tull and the Mocs levied hit after slobber-knocking hit in a physical game, with one team seemingly manhandling the other. At the end of the physical warpath waged by Chattanooga’s vaunted defense, it had managed to limit Western to its worst day on that side of the football against an FCS foe all season, as the Catamounts managed just 42 snaps of the pigskin, which was 32 less than Chattanooga.
Catamount dual-threat quarterback Troy Mitchell shot blanks all day, and after averaging 259.9 of total offense per game on his own coming into the game, Mitchell finished the day with a meager 77 and was sacked three times. Oddly enough on a day of oddities for Catamount football, Western Carolina would surrender only one second half touchdown in the blowout defeat.
It would be a Mocs team that would go on to prove its overall league dominance by finishing out the regular-season with a 10-4 overall record and 7-0 mark in league action, becoming just the third Mocs football team in school history to finish a league season unbeaten, achieving unbeaten conference seasons in 1929 under the direction of Harold Drew, while the Mocs also went unbeaten in league play in their first season under the direction of legendary head coach Scrappy Moore, who led the Mocs to an 8-0 mark in the Dixie Conference in his debut season at the helm in 1931.
The Mocs have won 12 of the past 15 meetings between the two programs, which helps highlight their overall dominance in the series. Saturday’s clash will mark the first-ever meeting between the two as ranked opposition.
Western Carolina would swoon after that loss to the Mocs in the highly-anticipated clash in Cullowhee, dropping a 34-20 game at Samford a week later. Despite the 7-5 finish, the Catamounts finished runner-up in the league race, with the Mocs being the lone postseason representative in the FCS playoffs.
For just the fourth time since joining the SoCon in 1976, the Catamounts ended up finishing as league title runner-up with a 5-2 league record and marked the highest finish in the SoCon standings since 1986. Over the past nine years, the Catamounts have not finished runner-up at the conclusion of a league campaign since doing so in 2014.
The game sets up as two of the league’s most explosive offensive units going head-to-head in a Saturday matchup that will see the winner take a major step towards a potential Southern Conference title.
The Catamounts will be in search of back-to-back wins in the series for the first time since winning three-straight in the series from 2000-02.
Both WCU and Chattanooga are two of the remaining three unbeatens in SoCon action this season. The stakes literally couldn’t be any higher for the much-anticipated SoCon showdown. Chattanooga will be celebrating its homecoming Saturday at Finley Stadium.
Last season, the two engaged in a classic game that was revealing of two programs headed for great success in the immediate future under two of the league’s top head coaches. Chattanooga had probably wished that immediate success had seen them punch their first ticket to the FCS postseason since 2016, however, it would only offer an off-season to think of what might have been, as the Mocs dropped a 32-29 game in Cullowhee.
That win for Western Carolina was seemingly a turning point for Kerwin Bell’s Catamounts, and when victory bells literally rang to close out the 2022 season, there was a quiet confidence on each sideline that crept just under the surface so that few noticed although some sensed the 2023 season could have the makings of a big season for both UTC and Western Carolina if things broke the right way.
The disappointment was worn on the face of Rusty Wright at media day in late August, but he said he liked the way his team reacted to that defeat to WCU as opposed to how it had in the 2021 finale—a loss to The Citadel in Finley—which once against likely cost the Mocs a chance to be playing Thanksgiving Weekend football after being the 2021 prohibitive SoCon favorite coming into the season. He liked the fact that for his team, that loss hurt with real pain for the Mocs, which is something that coaches itself during the off-season, and Wright knew that. He also knew he’d have a high character team returning that many might underestimate given the disappointments of the previous two seasons.
So far in 2023 both UTC and WCU are off to great starts, with some big questions having already been answered in the opening month, after those questions loomed for many throughout the duration of the long off-season. Mocs quarterback Chase Artopoeus and Catamount field general Cole Gonzales have emphatically silenced that off-season uncertainty.
The aforementioned two, along with Furman's Tyler Huff, who has wowed with his running ability, have largely been the storylines under center through the first month of the season in SoCon football. Few had that storyline on their bingo card ahead of Michael Hiers, who entered the season as Walter Payton Award candidate and is one of the top signal-callers in NCAA Division I college football (FBS or FCS).
Gonzales' successful track really got its start in the latter portions of the 2022 season, as he took over the starting spot for Carlos Davis mid-season following a slight shoulder injury at Furman, and from that point forward, it pretty much became Gonzales’ team.
Gonzales had shared time with Harvard’s Charlie Deen coming into the season, however, Deen went down with an injury, and Gonzales has once again become the main gunslinger in WCU’s offense that has been like a group of outlaws in the old west, pillaging opponents much the same way Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch did when it traveled from town-to-town, leaving an emphatic trail of carnage along the way.
In the 32-29 win to close the 2022 season, Gonzales delivered arguably his gutsiest performance of his young career in the Purple and Gold, and he did so against a vaunted, physical Mocs defensive outfit, buoyed by one of the top defensive lines in FCS.
When the rubber pellets finally settled into the EJ Whitmire Stadium artificially-infused playing surface, Gonzales had connected on 24-of-38 throws for 224 yards, with a pair of scores and an INT, while getting sacked three times. The win over the Mocs saw the Catamounts end the season with three-straight wins over Wofford, ETSU and Chattanooga to close out the 2022 campaign with a 6-5 campaign.
Bell’s Catamounts have parlayed that into a start to the 2023 season that has seemingly gotten everyone’s attention and has put the rest of the SoCon on notice. The Catamounts have now won seven-straight against FCS foes heading into Saturday’s contest.
Artopoues, who ranks second the SoCon in passing (1,307 pass yards) and ranks 15th in the FCS in total offensive output per game (287 YPG), has led the Mocs to 108 points in its first three SoCon games, was relatively unknown talent to those outside his teammates and coaches after hardly seeing the field in his three seasons at UCLA.
Saturday’s showdown is a chance for a showcase nationally. It’s an elite matchup in FCS football, with a pair of prolific offenses and two defenses that love for you to feel the pain of their presence on each play. It should be a fun one on Saturday afternoon in the Scenic City. More on this and other SoCon matchups later in the week.
Series Notables — Chattanooga 30, Western Carolina 18
- At UTC: UTC leads 17-6
- At WCU: UTC leads 13-12
- Rusty Wright vs. WCU: 2-1
- Kerwin Bell vs. UTC: 1-1
- Last UTC win: 45-17 in 2021
- Last WCU win: 32-29 in 2022
- Longest UTC streak: 8 (2009-16)
- Longest WCU streak: 4 (1991-94)
- Last 10 meetings: UTC leads 8-2
- Current streak: WCU has won one
- Largest UTC win: 51-0 in 2014
- Largest WCU win: 53-15 in 1994; 45-7 in 2017