Where do they go from here?
The answer to that question will determine the fate of this East Tennessee State football team.
After losing their first two Southern Conference games, the defending league champions are at a crossroads. Saturday night’s 27-14 loss to Furman was the latest setback and it left ETSU 0-2 in the SoCon and scrambling.
For their part, the players are saying the right things.
“I just feel like this is where our leadership is going to show up,” said ETSU linebacker Chandler Martin, who tied for the team lead with 12 tackles and is quickly becoming a team leader. “And this is where our leaders will show what our team is really made up of. We’re going to come together as a team ultimately and bounce back.”
The Bucs haven’t been able to get out of their own way in the last two games. Turnovers — some self-inflicted, some just plain bad luck — have hurt. Adding to the equation is the fact that an offense that was expected to be explosive has been pedestrian at best.
For the second game in a row, the Bucs came away with no points on at least one trip inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
“I thought we played extremely hard and I was really proud of our guys for fighting,” ETSU coach George Quarles said. “But we had four turnovers and another couple of empty trips down there. It’s just kind of been a little bit of a theme these last two weeks.”
Two of those turnovers came when Tyler Riddell was intercepted on passes that were tipped. His other interception came on fourth-and-19 from deep in ETSU territory as the Bucs were desperately trying to win.
Down 20-14, they had the ball with 2:08 remaining and on third down, Riddell seemed to get things going when he hit Will Huzzie for 22 yards. That was going to put the ball at the Bucs’ 43-yard line and with three timeouts left, they looked to be in business.
Then a flag came flying across the field and Huzzie had been called for pushing off. The offensive pass interference penalty pushed the ball back and the Bucs faced a third-and-19. After an incompletion, they turned it over on Riddell’s third interception.
“The OPR was a big call, obviously,” Quarles said. “They’d been letting them play most of the night and they call that one and that hurt. Instead of being out there at midfield with a minute and a half or so, it’s third-and-20 and there aren’t many good third-and-20 calls.”
The picks weren’t Riddell’s fault. Two were tipped and the third was a desperation heave when the situation called for that pass.
Riddell was running for his life for much of the night. He competed half of his 44 passes and several of his incompletions were throw-aways, sailing high into either team’s bench area to avoid being sacked.
The running game wasn’t much better. Jacob Saylors had some big gains early, but as the game wore on, the holes got smaller and the Furman defenders seemed faster.
As was the case in the first SoCon loss at The Citadel, the ETSU defense held up its end of the deal. The Bucs gave up yardage all night, but limited the Paladins to two field goals in the early going. They got the most important stop of the night late in the fourth quarter to get the ball back and give the team one last chance.
When that chance failed and the Paladins were all but assured of the win, Furman’s Dominic Roberto ended things with a 46-yard touchdown run against a deflated defensive unit.
After a non-conference game at Robert Morris, the SoCon wars continue and it doesn’t get any easier. Chattanooga, the preseason favorite to win the conference, comes to Greene Stadium, where the last nine games have been sold out. All the fans in the world won’t help unless the Bucs fix the things that are hurting them.
“I keep reminding them, we’re a couple of plays from being 3-0, believe it or not,” Quarles said. “We’re still a good football team but we’ve got to quit beating ourselves. We’re making too many mistakes. And when we do that, we’re not good enough to overcome those mistakes right now.
“We’ve just got to keep staying positive. There’s a lot of football still left to be played this year.”