The Bucs were going to have to play 10 games before getting a week off. It seemed like a silly idea for a team to get two weeks to prepare for its final game — unless that team was going to the playoffs.
A 21-18 victory over Mercer on Saturday gave the Bucs at least a share of the Southern Conference championship for the first time ever. It’s the school’s first conference crown since the 1969 team won the Ohio Valley Conference.
Suddenly the thought of ETSU making the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, a far-fetched idea a couple of months ago, is a distinct possibility, and that late-season bye is looking pretty good.
“I still think it’s a bad place for an open date, but as I tell the players, you can only control what you can control,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “Nobody asked me when we wanted the open date. We could have sat around and worried about it, but as it turns out, it’s probably falling in a great place for us because it gives us a chance to catch our breath.”
Sanders became the first coach in ETSU history to win eight games in his first season, and he has a chance to add to that total when the Bucs play host to Samford on Nov. 17 at 1 p.m. in what will be one of the biggest games in the program’s history.
The Bucs will likely be playing for the outright SoCon championship. They could conceivably clinch the title during their bye week should Western Carolina beat Wofford and The Citadel beat Samford this week.
“Based on last year, this might have been hard to believe,” said running back Quay Holmes, who has 14 of ETSU’s 27 offensive touchdowns. “But this year we believe. We have a lot of heart. Coach Sanders has instilled a winning mentality with us. Right now it’s not too hard to believe.”
With a three-point lead against Mercer, the Bucs did what championship teams do, running out the clock and keeping the ball for the final 5:20.
“Personally, I’ve always wanted us to be able to do that, when we have the ball with a little time left, to be able to finish the game out without giving the ball back,” Holmes said. “We went out and we did it. I’m proud of our team.”
The margin of victory was familiar for the Bucs. Four of their six SoCon wins have been by three points. The other two have been by two.
MILESTONE FOR WEIGEL
Linebacker Dylan Weigel had 10 tackles for the Bucs, giving him 406 in his career. He’s the third player in program history to reach 400.
“This is exciting,” Weigel said. “We’ve worked hard and we find ways to win. It’s a war every game. We come out and make sure we’re ready to play every day.”
Nasir Player didn’t make the trip to Mercer because of an injury, but Sanders said the team’s star defensive end is expected to be ready to go in time for the Samford game.