Back Bucs Find a Way, Set the Tone in Opener

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Bucs Find a Way, Set the Tone in Opener

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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In game one of the SoCon's adjusted spring season, the Bucs looked the part of 2018 -- where they were a part of the national conversation.

It comes down to who makes plays when the game is on the line...That is the difference. We have to find a way to make plays.
~Randy Sanders

In 2018, East Tennessee State found a way to win close games. The Bucs were were a remarkable 6-0 in outings decided by three points or less, beating VMI, Furman, Chattanooga, The Citadel, Western Carolina and Mercer by a combined 16 points. It was a consistent display of poise and proficiency from ETSU, which finished the regular season 8-2 against FCS competition. Impressively, the end result for a program that was shut down not long before was a share of the Southern Conference title and a trip to the national playoffs.

In 2019, those same closes games largely went the other way. The Bucs dropped six contests by seven points or less and, though they still did close out dramatic wins over Austin Peay and Mercer, it was the deciding moments that ultimately dropped ETSU to 3-9. Week to week, the Bucs were clearly competitive; late game situations, however, were the difference. ETSU even lost two conference games in overtime. 

"It comes down to who makes plays when the game is on the line. Two seasons ago, we made plays when the game was on the line. Last year, we lost six games by one score. We have to find a way to win those games," head coach Randy Sanders explained before kickoff. "That is the difference. We have to find a way to make plays."

In game one of the SoCon's adjusted spring season, the Bucs looked the part of 2018 -- where they were a part of the national conversation.

With Samford driving late in the fourth quarter of yet another tight battle for ETSU, Donovan Manuel recording a game-winning interception with mere ticks on the clock remaining. It was a signature play in a season that is just now underway. The Bucs, down 14-7 at halftime, outscored the Bulldogs 17-7 in the third and fourth quarters. Minutes before the turnover, ETSU got a game-winning score on a highlight touchdown pass from Tyler Riddle to Juliun Lane-Price with 5:28 to play.

It was a showdown separated by merely five total yards. As was the case a few years ago, the Bucs were better when it mattered most.

Even though the 2019 season, coming right after one for the history books, was frustrating, there was still progressed made along the way. Even if the wins weren't consistently there, ETSU remained hard at work in building the foundation for a young program.

Some of those efforts came to fruition on Saturday. 

"Last year, I thought the team showed unbelievable character. I thought the team showed unbelievable integrity, just because they kept fighting week after week after week even though we kept getting our hearts broken late in the fourth quarter. We just kept showing up and working," Sanders added. "I'm looking forward to what this year holds."

Game one stands as a big win for ETSU, especially considering the Bucs will next face pre-season SoCon favorites Wofford and Furman. This is a program now off to a good start and a familiar one alike. The Bucs are hoping for more of the same.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports