The Bucs (3-7) will take on the Commodores (2-8) Saturday 3:30 p.m. at Vanderbilt Stadium in a game broadcast on the SEC Network Alternate. For the Bucs, do they go with freshman Trey Mitchell, who has started most of the season, or Tyler Riddell who completed 8-of-12 passes for 116 yards and a touchdown against in a 38-33 win over Mercer?
“I thought Tyler did some good things for us obviously,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said at Monday’s weekly press conference. “There were a few plays where he looked like a freshman. Trey certainly didn’t have his best game, but he has done a lot of good things for us. Regardless of which one starts, both will probably play. We will get into the game and see which one is doing well.”
Barring something unexpected, there is little question about running back with Quay Holmes coming off a school-record performance of 255 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Bears. Holmes, who has 1,133 rushing yards for the season, was named Southern Conference offensive player of the week and College Sports Madness FCS national player of the week.
ETSU had hit a trifecta in last Saturday’s win. It snapped a six-game losing streak for the Bucs, gave them a first Southern Conference win of the season and ended the home schedule with a victory.
The win was much needed and one that Sanders, his staff and the players all appreciated.
“I’ve been through a lot of wins and losses in my life and try to keep them all in perspective,” Sanders said. “Even some of the guys who are juniors and seniors, they’re still young. To see the relief and the joy on the players faces, that makes all worthwhile.
“Half of coaching is being a psychologist. When you’re going through one of those streaks, three-quarters of your job is psychologist. You keep putting them in the right positions to make plays and the bottom line is the players still have to make plays. You tell the players to keep trusting the process and it was nice to see it (the win) happen.”
Vanderbilt jumped out to a 14-3 lead after one quarter against Kentucky before the Wildcats reeled off 35 consecutive points in the 38-14 loss. Sixth-year coach Derek Mason led the Commodores to bowl appearances in 2016 and 2018, but they’ve faltered this season, outscored 111-0 in the second half of their last five defeats.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn leads the Commodores offense with 178 rushes for 876 yards and seven touchdowns. Starting quarterback Riley Neal has completed 119 of 205 passes for 1,267 yards and two touchdowns, while former Sevier County High School star Deuce Wallace has hit 40 of 94 passes for 277 yards.
The leading receivers are Kalija Lipscomb with 37 catches for 393 yards and Vaughn with 26 catches for 257 yards. More than stats, Sanders said a SEC opponent means a step up in athleticism. Highlights for Vanderbilt this season include putting 38 points up against top-ranked LSU and a 21-14 win over then No. 22-ranked Missouri.
“The biggest advantages they have in these kind of games are size and speed,” Sanders said. “You look at Vanderbilt, I don’t know how much better football players they are than we are, but they’re bigger and faster. That’s the reason they’re at Vanderbilt and the reason the guys we have are here instead of Vanderbilt or Tennessee.
“That doesn’t take into account, the heart, the fight, concentration and intelligence you play with. It doesn’t matter who’s the best team. It’s who plays the best Saturday.”
RUSHING AND DEFENDING
Sanders pointed out that Jacob Saylors also ran well with eight carries for 80 yards as the Bucs gained 410 yards on the ground and piled up 526 yards of total offense against Mercer. According to senior center Ben Blackmon, it’s something that the offensive line took pride in.
“We took pride in it because we knew we had a big role in that,” Blackmon said. “It was a lot of fun, making blocks, opening holes for those guys and watching them run through them. We executed better in practice and it showed on Saturday.”
The defense took pride in coming through when needed. Artevius Smith had a 39-yard interception return, while Colton Lakes led the team with nine tackles, followed by Jeremy Lewis with eight. Smith leads the team with 80 tackles on the season.
“We knew had to come through and get the win,” Smith said. “That win just resets everything and puts you back on the positive track.”
Nasir Player, the SoCon preseason defensive player of the year, leads ETSU with 9 1/2 tackles for loss and four sacks. The Mercer win provided him with another great memory playing for the Bucs. He repeated Sanders, who often uses the old saying first made famous by former Arkansas coach Frank Broyles.
“Coach Sanders always says that what you do in November is what they remember,” Player said. “I look at it and forever my last game in William B. Greene Stadium will be a ‘W.’”