Behind the scenes access with a team that stared down defeat to Alabama – AL.com

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The players filed into the room, scrambling to grab the remaining chairs available. Some gave up immediately, resigned to their fate. A few spread out on the floor and others stood. Jeff Durden, Chattanooga’s offensive coordinator, paced near the front with a PowerPoint presentation on the screen behind him. Gray stubble lined the contours of his face.  

“We’re not playing Alabama,” Durden told his captive audience. “If you look at it like that, it will scare the shit out of you. We’re playing 11 players who play for them.”

It was the early afternoon last Tuesday. Exactly 101 hours separated the Mocs from a defeat they knew was coming and eventually happened Saturday as Chattanooga fell, 31-3, at Bryant-Denny Stadium. In exchange for a $500,000 guarantee, they had the privilege of being whipped by the top team in college football and perhaps of recent vintage. The Crimson Tide is undefeated, has been ranked No. 1 this entire season and hasn’t suffered a defeat in 23 consecutive games. 

Early last week, a proud program ranked No. 11 in the Football Championship Subdivision awaited its doom. Roughly 200 miles up I-59 in Chattanooga — a beautiful city nestled between mountains and river — the 8-2 Mocs prepared for some twisted version of gridiron horror. They saw Alabama as the beast waiting to gobble them up. 

“This team they’ve got now is better than the team we played in ’13 and they beat us 49-0,” Chattanooga coach Russ Huesman said. “This is probably the best team I’ve ever seen on film. There is not a weakness.”

Huesman delivered that comment from his office in the school’s 34-year-old basketball arena. There is no football facility on this campus, and the practice fields abut the banks of the Tennessee River, where citizens stroll past on a jogging trail. To access them, players have to cross city streets and on occasion dodge traffic so they literally won’t be trucked.

During drills, Huesman was planning to pump loud music to prepare his team for the din of noise they’d encounter inside the Crimson Tide’s coliseum. Then, the Mocs’ only speaker blew out. So, on Tuesday, only the coaches’ barks and the blares of a scoreboard horn could be heard. This is life at a program that functions with the bare essentials. 

The city of Chattanooga has approximately 80,000 more residents than Tuscaloosa and a sprawling core much bigger than T-Town’s nexus. But the university in Chattanooga and the football team attached to it are much smaller than what exists at the Capstone. Exactly, 11,533 students attended the commuter school, whose most famous alumni are the tempestuous ex-NFL star Terrell Owens and the actor who played the affable character of Mr. Belding on “Saved by the Bell,” the cheesy, strangely addictive ’90s teen sitcom. 

And while the Mocs have a sizable footprint in the city, their total attendance for six games this season is 56,966, which would equal 55 percent of the crowd that showed up to witness the Crimson Tide’s victory over Texas A&M last month. 

Huesman, who played at Chattanooga and returned seven years ago to revitalize his alma mater’s once-downtrodden football team, realizes his program is not on the same plane as Alabama. That reality was reinforced as he and his band of assistants did another round of class checks to make sure the players were where they were supposed to be. 

“I am sure Nick Saban and his staff aren’t doing that,” he sighed.

They also aren’t scarfing down Little Caesars pizza with a bunch of reporters at a media luncheon as Huesman was Tuesday.

The scene illustrated how different Huseman’s world is than than the one in which Saban operates.

Another reminder of that came when a journalist asked Huesman if he knew much about the Tide’s Catapult USA system that measures players’ workload and is used as a tool to help coaches structure practices accordingly. A wry grin spread across his face.

“We do have the Catapult system,” he said. “It is our strength coach watching with his eyes. That’s about all we’ve got. It’s me and my strength coach saying, ‘Boy, we look tired. Let’s lighten up a little bit.’ So we do have a big-time Catapult system.”

Huesman laughed. He makes do with limited resources while working within the constraints of a shoestring budget. The $500,000 the Mocs receive in return for succumbing to the Tide lessens the pain that comes with an evening of hardship.

“The guarantee is huge,” he said. “We need it. It is what it is.”

Accepting the hand he’s been dealt, Huesman and his staff resolved to minimize the damage the Mocs would incur in a game they had no chance of winning.

****

Durden leaned back in a chair as a Marvin Gaye tune played softly in the background. His brain was in overdrive as he processed the challenge in front of him. Durden’s natural instinct is to figure out the best way to win. That’s what he’s charged to do in this job. Six years ago, he was the offensive coordinator for FCS power James Madison when the Dukes shocked No. 13 Virginia Tech. He has seen the impossible happen and yet he was certain lightning wouldn’t strike again. 

“Everybody that is in my position has struggled against them,” he said. “Do I have concern for our kids and how they’re going to respond to the adversity that we’re fixin’ to face? Yes. Can I prepare our quarterback this week to come in and get us out of a game without sending a message to our football team that we’re giving up?”

Durden didn’t answer the last question, choosing to let it hang in the air. It was his greatest dilemma and it clearly bothered him. Durden pilots an offense that before Saturday averaged 426.5 yards and 36.1 points per game. He loves breaking the code of a defense and then exploiting the weakness while giving his players the best opportunity to succeed. Even on Tuesday, as he reviewed tape of Alabama, Durden struggled to suppress his ambitions.

Chattanooga quarterback Alejandro Bennifield (15) throws under pressure during the first half of Alabama’s football game with Chattanooga, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2016, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Vasha Hunt/vhunt@al.com 

“We can create double teams and we can fool them and trick them a little bit,” he said.

Then he flipped to a play from Alabama’s 49-10 victory over Tennessee last month. On the screen, the Tide is lined up in a Bear front with Ryan Anderson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Da’Ron Payne, Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams spread across the Volunteers’ formation.

Seconds later, he moves on to a scene from the Texas A&M game where safety Ronnie Harrison races in to bust up a run-pass option. Durden started to fret, in part because he’s under the assumption Chattanooga will earn a playoff berth despite its surprising loss to Wofford on Nov. 12. 

“It’s scary,” Durden said, looking at the footage of Alabama. “They’re coming in so fast. They just strangle you. It’s my job to make sure we’re healthy going into that ball game and I’m not going to try to move the ball against Alabama at the expense of losing my quarterback.”

****

Preserving Alejandro Bennifield was of paramount importance to Durden. His entire strategy was based on keeping Bennifield unscathed and protected from Alabama’s ferocious pass rush that has collected 40 sacks — the highest total in the top level of college football.

“They are real big,” Chattanooga left guard Corey Levin said. “They are real strong. They are really good with their hands. They have great technique. They are well-coached. They’re all-around great players. And there is a lot of them.”

Levin and the rest of the Mocs’ offensive linemen were confronted with that evidence in a position meeting Tuesday. They watched Anderson rock Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald. They then saw Allen whip Texas A&M guard Colton Prater before launching himself over running back Trayveon Williams to sack Trevor Knight and finish off one of the most memorable plays of the season.

“Oooh,” the group murmured in unison. Offensive line coach Adam Ross then turned to left tackle Malcolm White.

“There are different ways to get on TV, Malcolm,” Ross told him.

White nodded with a stoic expression.

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