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ETSU stuns No. 18 Samford

Jeff Birchfield • Nov 19, 2016 at 8:20 PM

The East Tennessee State University football team ended the season just as it started it.

A game-winning kick by J.J. Jerman lifted the Bucs to a win over a heavily-favored opponent.

Jerman booted a 28-yard field goal as time expired to give the Bucs to a 15-14 win over No. 18-ranked Samford on Saturday at Kermit Tipton Stadium.

It was the second game-winner of the season for Jerman, who hit a 24-yarder in ETSU’s victory over Kennesaw State in the first game of the season. 

“Every time you have one of these situations, you’re so nervous,” said Jerman, who earlier in the game made kicks of 38 and 39 yards. “But you just have to do what you’ve been practicing for years and years and hope for the best. I had 100 percent faith in my holder, snapper and line, so you have to get rid of that doubt.”

The Bucs ended the season 5-6 overall, 2-6 in the Southern Conference and on a two-game winning streak. Samford, which saw its FCS playoff hopes dashed, fell to 7-4 and 5-3. It was ETSU’s first win over a ranked opponent since defeating top-ranked Georgia Southern in 2001.

ETSU coach Carl Torbush called it a collective effort in all three phases of the game. The offense controlled the time of possession nearly 23 minutes more than the Bulldogs and the Bucs’ defense limited a team which had been averaging around 600 yards per game to 265 yards of total offense.

It ended with the big special teams play, which Torbush had no doubts about putting the team’s fortunes on Jerman and rest of the kicking team.

“J.J. has done a great job,” Torbush said. “That’s a lot of pressure when you’re getting ready to kick and they call a timeout on top of it to give you time to think about it. I feel very comfortable with him anytime we go inside the 40 that he’s going to make it. But it’s also Nick Sexton, who’s a great holder that has done a great job, and Adam Mullins, who is a really good snapper. Nobody knows his name or number, but if he made bad snaps, they would know exactly who he is. And our protection, coach (Erik) Losey has done a terrific job with the line. The whole team, though, did a great job, milking that score to make it look like it does.”

Quarterback Austin Herink finished 18 of 26 passes for 238 yards. He threw one touchdown, a 24-yard strike to Dalton Ponchillia over the middle on the last play of the third quarter, but also had two interceptions. His first one at the start of the third quarter led to a 14-yard touchdown run for the Bulldogs’ K’rondis Larry and a 14-3 Samford lead.

Herink quickly shrugged it off and in the end, started the game-winning drive with 3:36 left on the clock.

“You never want to throw an interception, but that flushed every nerve I had in my body out,” Herink said. “I was like who cares? I can’t even explain it. It was like it slipped out of my hand, but then it was like the most weird thing that happened to me. I was like, ‘It’s out of the way, now let’s go play.’”

And play the Bucs did, controlling the clock and running 21 more offensive plays than the Bulldogs to rack up 329 yards of total offense.

Hernik’s passing led to four catches each for Dalton Ponchillia, Drake Powell and Vincent Lowe. Herink also had the most rushing attempts (19) as the Bucs successfully kept Samford’s high-scoring offense off the field.

The 14 points were a season low for Samford. The Bulldogs had even scored 41 points against Mississippi State, those other Bulldogs from the SEC.

Dylan Weigel led the ETSU defense with nine tackles (six solo) and the Bucs limited Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges to just 122 passing yards. River Boruff and Paul Hunter each had five tackles.

It capped off a season with the unexpected win at Kennesaw, beating Western Carolina in front of a record crowd at Bristol Motor Speedway, a Homecoming win over Cumberland and the upset over the ranked Bulldogs.

“It has been a phenomenal second year for this program and we’re building something special here,” Weigel said. “Every day, we’re getting better. Each year, we’re getting better. To do what we did this year, it says something about this program, the players and coaches we have here.”

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