The Bucs (2-8) lost their sixth straight game Saturday, a 23-20 overtime defeat at Western Carolina. Six of the teams’ eight losses, including the last four defeats, have been by seven points or less.
“Our team plays hard. The effort is there, the intensity is there, but sometimes it’s our attention to detail, doing it every single play,” Sanders said. “If one guy is off with his attention to detail, the next play it’s this guy and the next it’s another guy, you have a lot of guys playing well, but it doesn’t take a lot to mess you up.
“It’s a lot of little things. If you don’t care of the little things, they become big things. That’s what separates the good teams from average teams.”
The Bucs will try to take care of the details against Mercer on Saturday 1 p.m. at Greene Stadium. The game is part of Heroes Day celebration with military veterans and first responders admitted free of charge.
ETSU struggled particularly in the passing game against Western Carolina, throwing for less than 100 yards for the first time this season and the first time since throwing for 69 yards against Tennessee in a 2018 loss.
Starter Trey Mitchell completed 4 of 8 passes for 30 yards and Tyler Riddell hit 8 of 14 passes for 59 yards. However, most of those came on a single play, a 44-yard completion to Anthony Spagnoletti.
Sanders, a former quarterback, said a big difference in the ETSU offense from a year ago is the fact senior Austin Herink was leading the team in 2018. Now with freshmen under center, he doesn’t feel the team is playing with the same confidence.
He pointed out the Bucs didn’t help themselves in certain situations against Western Carolina, although he said much credit has to go to the Catamounts defense.
“They changed a lot of their third-down packages,” Sanders said. “We studied all of their games going in and would see a percentage of man-to-man and a percentage of 3-deep zone. The first third-and-3 we had, we ended up having to punt on the first possession.
“We made some adjustments, but there were some situations we didn’t get open. There were some situations where the quarterbacks didn’t hit them and there were some protection problems. We start the second half, the receiver falls down on third down trying to make a cut. The next one, we throw it over the receivers head. At some point, you have to make plays.”
From a statistical standpoint, the Bucs are still averaging 178.4 passing yards per game to 162.1 for opponents. They have a 12-11 advantage in passing touchdowns. For Sanders, it’s all about a one game at a time mentality, although he admitted it’s not always easy for players going through such a tough stretch.
“Every game is a challenge, especially the way the last six games have gone,” Sanders said. “To keep persevering, to keep fighting back, it’s not easy to keep putting your pads on and competing as hard as our guys are. I’m really proud of how hard they are competing.”
Running back Quay Holmes earned praise for his efforts, which included 36 rushes for 166 yards, in the loss. The redshirt sophomore has 878 rushing yards for the season.
Nasir Player, the Southern Conference defensive preseason player of the year, explained there is still plenty for the Bucs to play for. Not only is it the final home game of the season, but it will be his final chance to take the Greene Stadium field in an ETSU uniform.
“There shouldn’t be any issues getting motivated,” Player said. “No matter the outcome, the next game presents an opportunity. If you love the game, you see it as another opportunity.”
Senior center Ben Blackmon added, “We see how close we are to winning. It’s not like we’re getting blown out every week. We’re 1-2-3 plays away. We have to keep grinding and fighting through it.”