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Ayers: Bucs light years ahead of last year

Joe Avento • Updated Sep 22, 2016 at 5:48 PM

It’s been 29 years since Mike Ayers left East Tennessee State University to become Wofford College’s football coach. With almost three decades passing, he has no sentimental thoughts heading into Saturday’s game between the two teams.

He just wants to win against the surprisingly undefeated Bucs.

"They're already way more competitive than I would like them to be," Ayers said this week during a telephone interview. "They've come light years from where they were last year."

Wofford will play host to the Bucs on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in a Southern Conference contest. The game, at Gibbs Stadium in Spartanburg, South Carolina, will be televised on ESPN3.

Ayers was ETSU's head coach from 1985-87. He's now in his 29th season at Wofford and has become the school's all-time winningest coach.

Despite spending some of his formative coaching years in Johnson City, Ayers doesn't have time for any sentiment as he gets ready to face his previous employer. His record against ETSU is 5-2.

"The game, quite frankly, is no different than any other team that we would play," Ayers said. "I've been gone almost three decades from there."

The Bucs, picked to finish last in the SoCon, have begun their second season back in football with a pair of victories, beating Kennesaw State and Western Carolina despite being heavy underdogs in both games.

"I think Coach (Carl) Torbush and their staff are doing a great job getting their guys coached up," Ayers said. "They definitely beat two quality teams."

ETSU trailed in both games before rallying to win. They beat Kennesaw State 20-17 in double-overtime and overcame an 18-point deficit against Western Carolina for a 34-31 victory.

"They've shown they're resilient and they've shown the scoreboard doesn't matter to them," Ayers said. "They just keep playing. I think the kids are doing what they've been coached to do.

"They are playing hard. It's going to be a tough challenge for us."

The Bucs shut down Kennesaw State's option, holding the Owls to 2.9 yards per rush in the season opener. Wofford's attack is a little different, but the option elements are similar.

Ayers definitely noticed how ETSU stopped Kennesaw's option while watching video of that game.

"They're sound and they have a really good concept on how to stop the triple option," he said of the Bucs. "They are very opportunistic with their blitzes and they'll shift their front a lot, which creates problems. If you don't have the right play called, you'll be in a negative situation."

Ayers is a two-time national coach of the year and recently picked up his 200th victory as a head coach. Only three active FCS coaches have won more games.

Included in that total are six victories in the Wofford-ETSU series. His ETSU team beat Wofford 10-6 in 1987 in addition to the five wins over the Bucs since he arrived in Spartanburg.

The Terriers have won the past five games in a series that ETSU still leads 13-11.

The two teams haven't met since a 28-14 Wofford victory in 2003. That win gave the Terriers the SoCon championship.

"We're limited on what we know about them and how good they are as a team," Ayers said. "You have an indicator on the film, but that doesn't tell you the heart of their kids or the mindset or determination. It doesn't tell you if they are competitors or if they will fight all the way through.

"The lens tells you a lot, but you've got to play against them and be out there on the field against them to know really how good they are."

Wofford (2-1) is coming off a 59-0 victory over Johnson C. Smith, an NCAA Division II team. The Terriers only had 17 points at halftime before finally putting their undermanned opponent away.

"We came out and slopped around," Ayers said. "It wasn't a very happy feeling going into the locker room at halftime. We came out the second half and played like we're supposed to play."

Ayers, whose team gave Ole Miss a good game in a 38-13 defeat, said the jury is still out on his team.

"We're still a work in progress, still a team that's discovering how good we can be," he said.

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