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Defense coming up big for Chattanooga

Jeff Birchfield • Sep 26, 2018 at 11:49 PM

JOHNSON CITY — With an aggressive defense running to the ball, Chattanooga has raced out to a 4-0 start for just the sixth time in the football program’s history.

Through four games, the Mocs have forced seven fumbles and recovered four. They are well ahead of the pace of a year ago when they had 10 forced fumbles and five recoveries for the entire season. They’ve already recorded nine sacks, only two fewer than the 11 they posted in all 11 games last season.

The Mocs will bring their aggressive attitude to Johnson City on Saturday. They will try to keep their perfect record intact, along with a 2-0 Southern Conference record, when they face East Tennessee State (3-1, 2-0) in a matchup set for 7:30 p.m. at Greene Stadium.

Derek Mahaffey talked about the attitude of the defensive line, which stayed on the field for 89 plays in Chattanooga’s 27-20 win over No. 17 Samford last Saturday.

“We’re built for it and work so hard every day for this,” Mahaffey said. “We told coach we weren’t coming out. We were staying in the game because we feel we’re the best defensive line unit in the nation.”

Behind them is junior linebacker Marshall Cooper, whose all-around effort led to him being named the Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Week.

Cooper had eight tackles, six of them solo stops against the Bulldogs. He also had a forced fumble on a goal-line stand in the first half. He later celebrated with his first career interception and a 41-yard return in the fourth quarter.

As a team, the Mocs forced three fumbles and came up with three interceptions against the Bulldogs.

“Turnovers are takeaways,” Chattanooga coach Tom Arth said after the Samford game. “It is important for our guys to create those opportunities. You have to play with great technique and great fundamentals. When you do those two things, you put yourself in a position to create turnovers.”

The Mocs, who are holding opponents to 18.7 points per game, closely resemble ETSU in many ways defensively.

Both teams often line up in the 3-4 defense, leaving Cooper, who leads the team with 42 tackles, and his fellow linebackers to wreak havoc. It’s similar to the Bucs’ three-man front of Tremond Ferrell, Nasir Player and Jason Maduafokwa, whose aggressive play have freed up Dylan Weigel and Jared Folks to make a combined 59 tackles.

Both fronts have been able to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. It led to Weigel making a game-winning safety for the Bucs against Furman, and allowed the Mocs to drop eight into coverage against Samford. Being a former quarterback, ETSU coach Randy Sanders has taken particular note when scouting Chattanooga.

“Other than Tennessee, they’re probably the biggest defensive line we’ve played, and they are good in the secondary,” Sanders said. “They have some transfers on their team from other universities. They have a lot of guys that have been in some big games.”

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