Jajuan Stinson caught a 25-yard touchdown pass from Austin Herink on East Tennessee State’s first play of overtime, giving the Bucs a 26-23 victory over Mercer in a Southern Conference game Saturday at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium.
“There’s nothing like winning and it shows our players we can come back,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said after an enthusiastic celebration. “This will help us grow up more.”
It was the second year in a row that ETSU (2-2 overall, 1-1 in the SoCon) has posted an overtime victory. The program is 4-2 all-time in overtime games.After Cole Fisher opened overtime with a 29-yard field goal to put Mercer up 23-20, the Bucs wasted little time in striking.
Herink took the snap from the 25-yard line and dropped back. He spotted Stinson, who was one-on-one with a linebacker, breaking free at the goal line and lofted a pass.
All Stinson had to do was cradle the ball, and he caught it very carefully against his body.
“I trust my hands, but when it came down to that, I needed to make a sure catch,” he said. “That’s a play we always run in overtime. Get a matchup with a linebacker and basically, it’s an easy touchdown for me.”
It set off a wild celebration in the end zone. The remaining fans of a announced crowd of 8,022 went home happy.
“Someone came up to me and said ‘Hey, watch this play, it’s gonna be six,’ ” ETSU linebacker Austin Gatewood said. “I was watching on the Jumbotron and I see Jajuan is wide open and from there I left my helmet and took off for the end zone.”It was a celebration that hardly seemed possible early in the fourth quarter.
ETSU was up 10-0 before Mercer scored 20 points in row. It appeared the Bucs would lose for the second consecutive week despite having a 10-point lead each time.
But JJ Jerman connected on a career-long 49-yard field goal with 11:22 left and Blake Rodgers scored on a 1-yard run to forge a 20-20 tie.
“They came back from 10 down early in the game and I thought in my head, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’ ” Stinson said.
ETSU won the coin toss in overtime and elected to play defense first.
“The great thing about going second in overtime is if you hold the other team to three points, you know that all you have to do is not get a sack and you should be able to kick a field goal,” Torbush said. “And if you do what you’re supposed to do, you can get that touchdown and that’s exactly what we did.”
Herink scored ETSU’s first touchdown on a 3-yard run.
Mercer’s scores were a 39-yard touchdown pass from Kaelan Riley, a 2-yard run from CJ Legget and a 2-yard run from Tee Mitchell.
Herink passed for a career-high 284 yards, completing 26 of his 33 passes. He also ran for 34 yards, including a 14-yard scamper that set up his touchdown.
“It’s been a tough process building this program, but stuff like today makes that all worth it,” Herink said after the fifth comeback victory of his career.
Mercer out-gained ETSU in total offense, 406-387. The Bucs held the ball for almost 12 minutes more than the Bears. Riley completed 15 of 22 passes for 257 yards and two touchdowns. Leggett ran for 109 yards on 19 carries.
“You have to give Carl and his staff and his team credit for coming back,” said Mercer coach Bobby Lamb, whose team fell to 1-3 overall, 0-2 in the SoCon. “We just couldn’t make the plays in the fourth quarter. That’s kind of been a bugaboo for us. Hopefully we’ll get over that someday.”
For the second consecutive week, the Bucs jumped out to an early lead thanks to a turnover.
This time it was linebacker Dylan Weigel who picked up a fumble and returned it 50 yards to put ETSU in scoring position.
Moments later, Herink scored from 3 yards out for a 7-0 lead.
“It felt good,” Weigel said. “We practice fumble recovery drills, scooping and scoring, so it felt good to set the tone for the game early.”
Weigel’s big play came with a cost, though. The Bucs’ leading tackler left the game with a sore back and spent much of the day on the sideline being worked on by trainers.
With limited playing time, he finished with a career-low two tackles a week after getting 19 against The Citadel and being chosen as the SoCon’s defensive player of the week.
“We had guys step up in my place the whole game,” Weigel said. “The trainers finally got me loose and I was able to come back in toward the end of the game.”
Mercer’s star linebacker LeMarkus Bailey was ejected for targeting when he hit Herink near the sideline in the third quarter.
Herink was sliding out of bounds, short of a first down, when Bailey came in to make a play. After they made contact, three penalty flags were thrown on the field.
“He’s our best player on defense,” Lamb said. “We don’t have any excuses, but it was right on my sideline. It should have been a 15-yard penalty because he hit him with his forearm and shoulder, but I didn’t think he hit him with his head. They’re going to review it, but that doesn’t do me any good.”
Each team had its perfect streak in the Red Zone broken by missed field goals.
With the Bucs down 13-10, Jerman missed a potential tying 23-yard field goal attempt in the third quarter.
Fisher missed a 35-yard kick in the fourth quarter.
Just for kicks
ETSU punter Marion Watson averaged 41.4 yards per punt and none of them were returned. He blasted a 54-yarder and had two inside the 20.
Landon Kunak kicked off five times and forced three touchbacks.
Defense doesn’t rest
Kaman Cooper led the ETSU defense with eight tackles. River Boruff had seven. JD Griffith had ETSU’s only sack.
Moving on up
Herink’s 318 total yards moved him into sixth place on ETSU’s total offense list. He has 4,107.
The Bucs return to action Saturday with a SoCon game at Furman. Kickoff in Greenville, South Carolina, is 1 p.m.
Mercer plays host to Virginia Military Institute.