Sanders addresses ETSU shortcomings before looking ahead to Governors

Jeff Birchfield • Sep 17, 2019 at 12:00 PM

It was easy for East Tennessee State football coach Randy Sanders to see where his Bucs came up short in a 31-24 loss to VMI on Saturday night.

Three areas, starting with special teams, hurt the Bucs. ETSU gave VMI good field position throughout the night as the kickers struggled to keep the ball inbounds and a punt went for just eight yards.

“There are few plays in football where you have such a big field position swing as the kicking game. We didn’t play very well,” Sanders said. “There’s no question VMI beat us in the kicking game and we’ve got to get better. We have to be more focused.”

That was the message which Sanders relayed directly to his kickers. Three of the Bucs kickoffs went out of bounds giving the Keydets the advantage in field position. Seven of VMI’s 13 possessions started at the 34-yard line or better.

“I told the kickers yesterday the field is 55 yards wide and you have to keep it between those sidelines,” Sanders said. “I don’t care who it is. Landon Kunak has done a good job in the past, but you have to keep it between that 55-yard area and if you don’t someone else is going to try it. I don’t care if it’s (center) Ben Blackmon or (defensive lineman) Nasir Player, someone is going to kick it between the white lines.”

Another area was the third-down conversions. Although ETSU outgained VMI 460-409 in total offense, the Bucs converted just one third down to eight for the Keydets. It allowed VMI to come back every time the Bucs would gain an advantage.

“Every time we scored, they were able to go down and answer,” Sanders said. “You have to give VMI credit. They never let us feel the momentum. It’s our job to create and sustain that momentum, but we did a poor job of that.”

Another area was penalties. ETSU was flagged for nine penalties for 105 yards compared to VMI whistled for three for 35 yards. Some came at inopportune times, including a pair which negated nice runs by former Science Hill star Malik McGue in the wildcat formation.

Sanders, who was frustrated by some of the calls, was blown for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the fourth quarter. It forced the Bucs to kick off from the 20-yard line, again leading to good field position for the Keydets.

“Penalties are always big and it’s the second game in a row we had over 100 (penalty) yards,” Sanders said. “I had a part of that and I take my (blame). I walked out there pretty much with the intention of getting one at that point. I didn’t like it was going and the way the last call was handled.

“I don’t think we’re an undisciplined team. We’ve gotten some calls and I’ve sent a pretty good list to the head of officials on why this has or hasn’t been called to help us prepare our team better.”

Looking ahead to Austin Peay, it’s a matchup strength versus strength. Most notable is the Governors’ ability to shut down the run, holding Mercer to 43 rushing yards in a 48-34 win Saturday over the Bears. The stingy defense allowed 53 rushing yards to North Carolina Central and 32 to Central Arkansas.

The Bucs come into the game averaging 195.3 rushing yards per game including 207 yards and a 7.1 per carry average against VMI. Sanders pointed out the VMI total was helped by a 61-yard touchdown run by Jacob Saylors in the fourth quarter.

“It’s going to be a challenge. You look at what VMI did to us, they did a nice job of changing up the coverages,” Sanders said. “About 80-90 percent of the game, they said, ‘We’re not going to let Quay Holmes or Jacob Saylors beat us running the ball.’ We’re going to have to do a better job of throwing the ball and keeping the defense honest. If we don’t, it’s going to be a long night offensively.”

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