JOHNSON CITY – It didn’t take long to feel that this could be a magical season for the East Tennessee State football team.
When you start out with a win over an opponent from the Southeastern Conference, even if it’s “only” Vanderbilt, great things are expected. And week after week – despite the Chattanooga game – the Bucs produced. With record crowds filling Greene Stadium four times, the ETSU went 6-0 at home and finished the regular season 10-1.
The school’s first-ever Southern Conference Championship gave the Bucs the league’s automatic bid for the FCS playoffs, where they will host Kennesaw State. in the second round Saturday.
Here are some of the great moments that brought them there.
10. RIDDELL HAS GROWN
Tyler Riddell was known more as a game manager than a game changer and ETSU was going to need more of his quarterback if he was to fight for the SoCon title.
Riddell took a leap forward on a day the Bucs needed him most. He had 291 yards and three touchdowns in a 55-48 overtime win over Samford in the season opener.
Equally important, he has shown that the team can count on him to produce. Riddell finished the regular season as the SoCon leader in passing efficiency after making 16 touchdown passes and being intercepted three times.
9. FOURTH STOP
On a day when the ETSU defense gave up a record number of yards and the offense scored 55 points, defensive play made the difference.
Donovan Manuel’s tackle on the fourth down, stopping Samford running back Jay Stanton before the line on the first down, was the last play in the wild victory over Samford.
Samford gained 728 yards and all-conference quarterback Liam Welch clocked a SoCon record of 582 of them. Welch also set the SoCon record with 655 total yards.
Even so, it boiled down to one hit after the Bucs scored in overtime and Manuel’s 13th tackle turned out to be the most important of them all.
8. HUZZIE’S CHOICE
Things looked grim for the Bucs as they tried to beat Mercer in the final game of the regular season. The Bears were in the lead and driving, like they had been doing all day.
Alijah Huzzie then stepped past a pass, intercepted and returned it for 51 yards. Six games later, ETSU scored what turned out to be the last points of a 38-35 victory that won their first-ever SoCon Championship outright.
Huzzie’s pick was one of two fourth-quarter turnovers that the ETSU defense created after falling 18-0 in the third quarter.
7. A PUNCH RACE
ETSU was hanging on to a 27-20 lead over VMI in a home comeback game featuring two nationally ranked teams.
The Keydets had to get the ball back to have a chance to equalize or win.
ETSU had other ideas.
Facing a second and nine with 1:25 to go, Quay Holmes broke through the VMI defense for 37 yards. The Bucs then ran out of time.
“Quay is an exceptional player,” said ETSU coach Randy Sanders. “I have always said that the greatest abilities of any football player are reliability and responsibility. He shows up every day. I don’t think he missed a day of practice or missed a game. Much of his success is due to his tenacity and how well the line blocked. “
6. FILE OF SAYLORS
Holmes grabbed attention because he set many school records, but Jacob Saylors proved he wasn’t just Plan B. Saylors was a full-fledged All-SoCon pick and pushed Holmes out of the book. records in a category.
Saylors ran for 266 yards in the ETSU’s 56-35 win over West Carolina. He broke Holmes’ school record of 255, set against Mercer in 2019.
On his first touch of the day, Saylors walked 35 yards around the left end for a touchdown. It was a sign of things to come. He finished with three touchdowns and did all of his damage in 19 runs.
“I’m happy to see him have the success he’s had,” Sanders said. “I’m happy to see him break records and accomplish what he has because he works so hard, and he fully deserves it. It’s good to see people being rewarded like this.
Holmes added 212 yards and three touchdowns in 30 carries as the Bucs scored 56 points completing just six assists.
5. STRIKE AT WOFFORD
The ETSU finally beat Wofford and it took a huge game from Holmes to do so.
Holmes carried a screen pass from Riddell and ran off. Seventy-seven yards later, the ETSU running back was in the end zone and the Bucs were leading 27-21.
That ended up being the final score as the ETSU beat the Terriers for the first time since 1998. Wofford had won the last nine school meetings.
Holmes’ touchdown came early in the fourth quarter and the Bucs started this run on their own 2-yard line.
“We had 98 yards to go,” said Holmes. “We have a lot of ground to cover. Our mentality is to end everything with a touchdown. Whether we’re on 1 or backed up on our own 1, the mindset never changes.
4. WINNING PASS
After being sacked six times, Riddell threw a short touchdown pass to Malik Murray with nine seconds left, giving the Bucs a 17-13 victory over Furman and keeping their title hopes alive.
“I think Tyler has grown a lot,” Sanders said. “Eleven sacks in two games is pretty tough for a quarterback. We need to correct this. But Tyler stayed in there and kept playing. If the score is 0-0, go ahead, win the next game. You won’t stop winning the next game until the time is up.
The final score was the only time ETSU led all day.
3. THE HOLMES FILES
Holmes should be listed as an author in the ETSU Book of Records as he has spent much of this season rewriting it.
The Bucs star running back became the school’s all-time leading forward and single-season record holder in one game. And it wasn’t just any game, it was the one ETSU needed to win the SoCon Championship.
Holmes entered the regular season final with 86 yards to break Brandon Walker’s career record and 26 to beat George Searcy’s mark in a single season.
By the time the smoke cleared, Holmes had both records. He rushed for 132 yards as the ETSU beat Mercer 38-35 for the SoCon title.
“You could look around and see all the excitement,” Holmes said. “We got equality in 2018. We were lucky enough to control our own destiny. It’s a real blessing to win this game and to have these records. I have to give glory to God. Doing this at home is a real blessing.
Holmes has 1,431 yards for the season and 4,142 for his career. In addition, earlier in the season he became the ETSU’s all-time leading scorer. He was chosen as the offensive player of the year by SoCon.
2. SCOOP AND SCORE
As the Bucs led Vanderbilt 13-3 in Game 1 of the season, many observers wondered when the Commodores’ return would begin.
It never did.
Stephen Scott provided the exclamation mark for ETSU’s second victory over a Power Five school. The second-year linebacker recovered a fumble and sent it back for 22 yards for the final points of the Bucs’ 20-3 win.
Scott, a substitute for injured Jared Folks, also made 10 tackles. “You just have to grab the ball and score. That’s all I was thinking at the time, ”Scott said.
1. TIME OUT
It never works, does it?
As Mercer lined up for an equalizer on the final day of the regular season, the Southern Conference Championship was on the line.
ETSU was hanging on to a 38-35 lead and Sanders called for a time out just before the snap. The kick went up, hit the right upright and slipped over the crossbar.
It would have forced overtime.
Instead, the Bears were forced to kick again and this time it was on the left. Suddenly the Bucs were champions and the play sparked a boisterous celebration.
“I was honestly debating whether to call a time-out,” Sanders said on the radio after the game. “Someone said ‘I think we have 12 (players on the pitch).’ I said ‘You better count them quickly.’ And they started and of course, 12. Luckily we had the timeout right before they broke. This is the main reason I called the timeout. It wasn’t for icing. the kicker.
Whatever the reason, the timeout worked better than Sanders could have imagined.