Johnson City Press: Outright SoCon title, playoff bid in Bucs' sights
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Outright SoCon title, playoff bid in Bucs' sights

Joe Avento • Nov 16, 2018 at 5:19 PM

Everything is on the line Saturday for the East Tennessee State football team.

A huge crowd is expected at Greene Stadium when the Bucs play host to Samford in a game that will determine the Southern Conference champion. Kickoff is scheduled for 1 p.m.

ETSU already locked up at least a share of the league title two weeks ago, but a victory over Samford would give the Bucs the outright championship and the SoCon’s automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. A loss would leave them sharing the title and hoping for an at-large bid.

The 17th-ranked Bucs come in 8-2 overall, 6-1 in the SoCon.

Two other teams — Wofford and Furman — can still share the title with ETSU. Wofford is finished with conference play and has a 6-2 record. Furman, 5-2 and facing Mercer on Saturday, also has a chance of a share of the title.

Samford, the preseason pick to win the SoCon, fell out of contention last week when it blew a 21-0 first-quarter lead in a 42-27 loss to The Citadel. It dropped the Bulldogs to 5-5 overall, 4-3 in the conference.

The Bucs control their own destiny thanks to fortune smiling upon them almost as often as it could this season. It’s been well documented that four of their conference wins were by three points and the other two were by two.

No matter what happens on Saturday, the seniors being honored before the game will look back on their final year fondly. This is the group that lost to Division III teams Maryville College and Emory & Henry along the way as they were trying to get the program restarted.

“Those were some hard games to lose, but at the same time we were all 18, 19 years old and now we are 22, 23,” ETSU linebacker Dylan Weigel said. “So the tables have turned. We said we would get our payback. We always knew we could come back, compete at this level.”

Saturday’s game could come down to the matchup between the ETSU defense and Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges, who is chasing a pair of milestones.

Hodges already became the Southern Conference’s all-time leader in total offense last week. This week he’s trying to reach the 4,000-yard passing mark again — he needs 121 — and break Steve McNair’s all-time FCS mark of 14,496 passing yards. A 317-yard day would do the trick.

Hodges threw 69 passes last week against The Citadel, completing 43 of them for 404 yards. He has 32 touchdown passes this year.

“They’re going to come out slinging it around,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “It’s going to be the kind of game that pass rushers enjoy because we’re going to get plenty of opportunities to rush the passer. The secondary, linebackers, they’re all going to have to show up and play well. But we need that pass rush to affect the quarterback.”

ETSU leads the SoCon with 12 interceptions. Hodges has thrown a league-high 15, so the opportunities might be there.

Samford plays to such a quick tempo that it averages 80 plays per game on offense. That means the ETSU defense will have to be on its toes to try to stay with the Bulldogs.

“It’s going to be really important for us to make sure we get lined up after each play and be ready for the next play so we’re not scrambling around trying to get in our positions when they snap the ball,” linebacker Austin Gatewood said.

TACKLING MACHINE

Weigel is just the third ETSU player with more than 400 career tackles. The senior has 406 in his career, joining Mario Hankerson (452) and Shannon Depew (425) in the elite group.

IN A RUSH

ETSU red-shirt freshman tailback Quay Holmes, who has 750 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns this season, was named to the College Football Performance Awards National Performer of the Year Trophy watch list on Thursday. He’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry and has 12 rushing touchdowns.

Holmes is also the team’s leading receiver with 30 catches, two of which have been for scores.

McKNIGHT’S MARKS

Samford senior wide receiver Kelvin McKnight is the school’s all-time leading receiver. He has 30 receptions and 3,993 receiving yards in his career, both school records. His 32 touchdown catches are also the most in school history.

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