Those surprising Bucs from East Tennessee State pulled out another close one Saturday, and this time it led to a conference championship.
Quay Holmes scored three touchdowns and Artevius Smith had two interceptions as ETSU beat Mercer 21-18 in a Southern Conference football game at Five Star Stadium.
ETSU improved to 6-1 in the league and clinched at least a share of its first-ever SoCon championship thanks to Wofford’s loss to Samford.
“It’s one of those things that you dream about,” said ETSU quarterback Austin Herink, who was 19 of 25 for 161 yards and a touchdown. “We’ve put in the work. It’s great for these guys who were here when we started this and were getting our butts kicked.”
The 23rd-ranked Bucs are 8-2 overall and their six conference wins have been by a combined 16 points.
“It would be nice to win a game by double digits, but I just want to win,” said ETSU coach Randy Sanders, whose team is about to enter its bye week. “We’ve been able to find a way. This team keeps believing.”
The Bucs play Samford at home in two weeks, trying to win the SoCon title outright. A win over the Bulldogs would give ETSU the league’s automatic bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
“Everything we’ve done to this point makes the next one a big one,” Sanders said.
Holmes, who rushed for 114 yards on 22 carries, had touchdown runs of 1 and 5 yards and caught Herink’s TD pass, a 6-yarder in the first quarter.
Holmes and Jacob Saylors, who had 69 yards on nine carries, helped the Bucs keep the ball for the final 5:20 of the game.
PLAY OF THE DAY
Linebacker Blake Bockrath made a big play for the ETSU defense in the fourth quarter. With the Bucs clinging to a 21-15 lead, Mercer was on the move.
Facing a third-and-goal from the 4-yard line, Bockrath broke free and slammed running back Tyray Devezin for a 3-yard loss. That forced the Bears to kick a field goal instead of getting the go-ahead touchdown and ETSU still led, 21-18 with 9:36 left in the game.
It turned out to be a huge play as Mercer never threatened to score again.
“We played what we were supposed to play there,” Bockrath said. “We all did our responsibilities and they didn’t do their assignment. I came free and I capitalized on what they gave me.”
Smith had lost his starting strong safety job to Titus Tucker, but returned to action when Tucker was ejected after a targeting call in the first quarter.
They were the first two career interceptions for Smith, a senior who has played wide receiver, running back and kick returner during his career.
“I was really happy for Art,” Sanders said. “He was playing well early on. It wasn’t as if he lost his job because he wasn’t playing well. The other guy was just playing well.
Art gets called on and goes in and makes the plays. It shows when your number is called, you have to go make plays.”
Both interceptions led to touchdowns by Holmes.
“It says we got guys that can play at any time we need them,” Smith said. “I just stepped up to the challenge. That’s all it was. Just stay ready, stay prayed up. It was all in God’s plan.”
The Bucs overcame two third-quarter fumbles that appeared ready to cost them dearly.
The Bears cut ETSU’s 14-10 halftime lead in half with a safety when Herink was stripped by Travonte’ Easley. The ball bounced into the end zone and was recovered by ETSU tackle Greg McCloud.
Mercer took the ensuing free kick and drove for a 41-yard field goal by Cole Fisher and a 15-14 advantage.
Saylors then fumbled through the end zone at the end of a 45-yard gain. As Saylors broke up the middle and turned on the jets, he was pulled down by BJ Bohler and the ball came out on the way down.
Smith’s second interception followed and Holmes’ third touchdown put the Bucs back in the lead at 21-15.
This late in the season, the bumps and bruises take their toll, and both teams were missing key players.
Mercer was using No. 3 quarterback Harrison Frost after Kaelan Riley suffered an ankle injury in last week’s loss to Wofford. Riley, the SoCon freshman of the year last season, had lost his job to Robert Riddle. Riddle suffered a broken collarbone in the season opener.
The Bears were also playing without running back Tee Mitchell, who was out with a shoulder injury. Mitchell is closing in on Mercer’s career record for all-purpose yards.
For the Bucs, star defensive end Nasir Player was not in the lineup after leaving last week’s triple-overtime win against Western Carolina early.
The Bucs almost pulled off a big play late in the second quarter — a real big play.
Tremond Ferrell, a 290-pound defensive tackle, appeared to score a touchdown when he caught a pass in the corner of the end zone.
Ferrell had come in on offense, reported as an eligible receiver and nobody covered him as he snuck away from the line of scrimmage.
He ran a perfect route and caught the pass, but by the time Herink got him the ball, he was ruled to have a toe on the sideline. The call was upheld after a replay review.
One play later, Holmes scored on a 1-yard run to give the Bucs a 14-10 halftime lead.
Ferrell wound up with seven tackles.
Braxton Richburg led the Bucs with 10 receptions for 82 yards, including a big third-down catch over the middle that let the Bucs run out the clock.
Jared Folks and Dylan Weigel led ETSU with 10 tackles apiece.
Devezin opened the scoring for Mercer with a 1-yard run, the Bears’ only touchdown of the day. He rushed for 113 yards on 29 carries. Fisher kicked three field goals and Frost completed 15 of 31 passes for 186 yards.
The Bears fell to 4-5 overall, 3-3 in the SoCon.