The Bucs (3-7) will take on the Commodores (2-8) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (SEC-Alternate).
Will ETSU go with freshman Trey Mitchell, who has started most of the season, or Tyler Riddell, who completed 8 of 12 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in last weekend’s 38-33 win over Mercer?
“I thought Tyler did some good things for us obviously,” coach Randy Sanders said at Monday’s weekly press conference. “There were a few plays where he looked like a freshman. Trey certainly didn’t have his best game, but he has done a lot of good things for us. Regardless of which one starts, both will probably play. We will get into the game and see which one is doing well.”
Barring the unexpected, there is little question at running back. Quay Holmes is coming off a school-record performance of 255 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Bears. Holmes, who has 1,133 rushing yards for the season, was named Southern Conference offensive player of the week and College Sports Madness FCS national player of the week.
ETSU had hit a trifecta with Saturday’s win. It snapped a six-game losing streak, gave the Bucs their first Southern Conference win and ended their home schedule with a victory.
“I’ve been through a lot of wins and losses in my life and try to keep them all in perspective,” Sanders said. “Even some of the guys who are juniors and seniors, they’re still young. To see the relief and the joy on the players faces, that makes it all worthwhile.
“Half of coaching is being a psychologist. When you’re going through one of those streaks, three-quarters of your job is psychologist. You keep putting them in the right positions to make plays and the bottom line is the players still have to make plays. You tell the players to keep trusting the process and it was nice to see it (the win) happen.”
Sixth-year coach Derek Mason led Vanderbilt to bowl appearances in 2016 and 2018, but the team has faltered this season.
The Commodores have been outscored 111-0 in the second half of their last five defeats.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn leads the offense with 876 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Starting quarterback Riley Neal has completed 119 of 205 passes for 1,267 yards and two touchdowns, and former Sevier County star Deuce Wallace has hit 40 of 94 passes for 277 yards.
The leading receivers are Kalija Lipscomb (37 catches, 393 yards) and Vaughn (26 catches, 257 yards).
More than stats, however, Sanders said a Southeastern Conference opponent means a step up in athleticism. The Commodores put up 38 points against top-ranked LSU and took a 21-14 win over then-No. 22 Missouri.
“The biggest advantages they have in these kind of games are size and speed,” Sanders said. “You look at Vanderbilt, I don’t know how much better football players they are than we are, but they’re bigger and faster. That’s the reason they’re at Vanderbilt and the reason the guys we have are here instead of Vanderbilt or Tennessee.
“That doesn’t take into account, the heart, the fight, concentration and intelligence you play with. It doesn’t matter who’s the best team. It’s who plays the best Saturday.”
RUSHING AND DEFENDING
Sanders noted that Jacob Saylors also ran well against Mercer. Saylors’ eight carries for 80 yards helped boost the Bucs to 410 yards on the ground and 526 yards of total offense.
“We took pride in it because we knew we had a big role in that,” senior center Ben Blackmon said, referring to the offensive line. “It was a lot of fun, making blocks, opening holes for those guys and watching them run through them. We executed better in practice and it showed on Saturday.”
The defense took pride in coming through when needed. Artevius Smith had a 39-yard interception return, Colton Lakes led the team with nine tackles and Jeremy Lewis had eight tackles. Smith is tops on the team with 80 tackles this season.
“We knew we had to come through and get the win,” Smith said. “That win just resets everything and puts you back on the positive track.”
Nasir Player, the SoCon preseason defensive player of the year, leads ETSU with 9½ tackles for loss and four sacks, and the Mercer win provided him with another great memory.
“Coach Sanders always says that what you do in November is what they remember,” Player said. “I look at it and forever my last game in William B. Greene Stadium will be a ‘W.’ ”