Austin Peay (2-1), an old rival of ETSU in the Ohio Valley Conference, is coming off a 48-34 win over another Southern Conference school, Mercer, in its last game. ETSU (1-2) had a 31-24 overtime loss to VMI in a game halted two hours and 25 minutes for weather delays.
The old philosophy of football being won in the trenches will likely come to fruition. The Bucs, who feature a rushing attack of nearly 200 yards per game, will be challenged by the Governors’ stingy defense, giving up just 42.7 yards on the ground.
“We’ve played the run really well,” Austin Peay coach Mark Hudspeth said. “We’ve been solid in our run sets and our kids have played really hard and fast. We will have to continue to do that.
“East Tennessee State is going to the most physical team we’ve played. They’re big up front and they have physical backs. They do a really good job with their personnel groupings. They’re going to make it a challenge to stop them.”
It’s a challenge which ETSU’s offensive line of center Ben Blackmon, guards Tavon Matthews and Eddie Gajardo, and tackles Cameron Parker and Tre’mond Shorts have taken to heart.
The Governors’ defensive line features the agile Matthew Gayle, who played at Knox Fulton, at the end. His high school teammate, Kentel Williams, stars on the other side of the ball. Williams is an FCS preseason All-American who has 259 rushing yards on 49 carries, an average of 5.3 yards per rush.
ETSU counters with its own preseason All-American in Quay Holmes, who has similar numbers with 227 rushing yards on 45 carries.
A big concern for the Bucs’ defense will be stopping the Governors’ dual-threat quarterback JaVaughn Craig. He has thrown for 437 yards and also ranks second on the team with 106 rushing yards.
“Well, the quarterback is obviously athletic. They do a nice job with their scheme,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “You watch them right now, they're playing hard. They're physical on both sides of the ball and they play tough. The quarterback is very dependent on those other 10 guys. So, they have 10 other guys that are playing pretty well around him.”
The Governors coach has high praise for his quarterback, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior out of Chattanooga.
“He does a great job of taking care of the ball and he throws the deep ball well,” Hudspeth said about Craig. “He can really hurt you with his legs and he does a good job extending plays. His composure showed throughout the game this past Saturday.”
Trey Mitchell, a redshirt freshman, has started the last two games for the Bucs. He has connected on 43 of 72 passes for 540 yards and five touchdowns this season. Chance Thrasher, the starting quarterback who was injured in the Bucs’ season-opening loss at Appalachian State, tweeted on Monday that he was ready to get back on the field and compete with the family.
Sanders responded, “It’s good to see he’s excited about it. We will see what happens. Everybody wants to win. Everybody wants to play. It’s being prepared.”
They better be prepared with Austin Peay nickelback Kordell Jackson returning two interceptions for touchdowns against Mercer.
For the ETSU defense, it’s expected to also be a battle in the trenches.
Nasir Player, the Southern Conference preseason defensive player of the year, was banged up in the VMI game. Player said he is ready to go against an Austin Peay offense that is fundamentally sound and averaging 35 points per game.
“They have a big offensive line,” he said. “They have a pretty good running back and the quarterback is good, so there's going to be a nice challenge. They don't really do anything weird or anything crazy on film from what I've seen so far. They just line up and try to beat you. We just can't get beat on Saturday.”
The Bucs will be dressing in all gold on Saturday, wearing gold tops and bottoms with a navy blue helmet. Fans are strongly encouraged to participate in the gold out.