The senior quarterback engineered two late scoring drives and the No. 25-ranked Bucs rallied from a 15-point deficit with a little over five minutes left in regulation to edge Western Carolina 45-43 in a three-overtime thriller Saturday evening at Greene Stadium.
ETSU won the new "Blue Ridge Border Battle" trophy for the rivalry, which stands just one game apart now, and kept pace with Wofford atop the Southern Conference standings. The Bucs improved to 7-2 overall, their first seven-win season since 1999, and 5-1 in the league.
Facing 4th-and-1 in the third overtime, ETSU coach Randy Sanders decided to go for the first down. Jacob Saylors broke free down the right side for a 16-yard touchdown and moments later, Herink scored on a quarterback keeper for a 2-point conversion.
The Catamounts (3-5, 1-5) matched the Bucs with a 4-yard touchdown pass from Tyrie Adams to Owen Cosenke. However, linebacker Austin Gatewood broke free to grab Adams and force an errant pass on the final play of the game as the Bucs held on.
"The one thing I talked to this team about from day one was overcoming adversity and going to the next play," Sanders said. "That's been a huge point of emphasis and it was good to see the guys continue to play the next play. I told them in the locker room if there was ever a good example of that, tonight was it. Just keep fighting because you don't know what's going to happen. Our guys have fight, they have heart and they have grit."
They trailed 13-12 at halftime and were down 30-15 before Herink scored on a 3-yard run with 5:02 left to bring the Bucs within one possession. Then, on the final drive in regulation, Herink led the Bucs on a 15-play, 88-yard scoring drive, hitting freshman tight end Nate Adkins in the left corner of the end zone with just 10 seconds to play.
"It's a play we've been practicing since day one," said Adkins, referring to his 1-yard score. "We ran it earlier and Matt Thompson was wide open. We ran it again and I was open in the back of the end zone. It was awesome. My dad was in the stands. My brother was in the stands and they get to see my first career touchdown."
Herink ran in the tying two-point conversion on the next play and the teams were headed to overtime.
The Bucs faced more adversity in the first overtime when Herink's pass bounced off the hands of Keith Coffee and was intercepted. The Catamounts' Will Horton missed a potential game-winning, 28-yard field goal and the Bucs felt it was a game of destiny at that point.
"I told Nate that he missed it for a reason," said Herink, who has led the Bucs to eight comeback wins in the fourth quarter and overtime. "I was like, 'Let's go win this thing.'"
Herink finished with 28 of 46 passing for 294 yards. He also had 14 rushes for 45 yards.
The teams combined for over 1,000 yards of offense.
ETSU gained 541 yards on 92 plays and Western finished with 502 yards on 75 plays. Saylors had 12 carries for a career-high 123 yards with touchdowns in the second and third overtimes. Quay Holmes had 79 rushing yards, including a 1-yard touchdown on the game's opening drive.
Overall, the Bucs finished with 45 carries for 247 rushing yards.
Kobe Kelley had eight catches for 84 yards and Brandon Richburg finished with four catches for 68 yards. JJ Jerman kicked field goals of 28, 27 and 30 yards.
For Western Carolina, Adams put up over 400 yards of offense for a second straight week. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 229 yards and four touchdowns. He also had 26 rushes for 168 yards and another touchdown.
His passes included a flea-flicker play, where Daquan Patten made a one-handed grab for a 29-yard touchdown, and two touchdown passes in overtime to Cosenke.
BLUE RIDGE BATTLE
The win pulled the Bucs to within one 24-23-1 in the all-time series, while Sanders talked about what ETSU has accomplished so far this season.
"ETSU has had two 10-win teams, six seven-win teams and 14 six-win teams," Sanders said. "We've been able to do something that has been done only eight other times in school history."