No. 11/13 ETSU and Wofford square off in key SoCon tilt

Randy Sanders talks to quarterback Tee Martin on the sidelines during action against Syracuse on Sept. 5, 1998
The last time ETSU triumphed over Wofford on the gridiron, current ETSU head coach Randy Sanders was in a helping Tee Martin and the Vols to the 1998 national title in the inaugural year of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS)/photo courtesy MICHAEL PATRICK/KNOXVILLE NEWS SENTINEL (NFS)

The Spread’s SoCon Game of the Week: Wofford (1-2, 0-1 SoCon) at No. 11/13 East Tenn. St. (4-0, 1-0 SoCon)

The Venue: William B. Greene Jr. Stadium (7,694)

The Date: Oct. 2, 2021

The Time: 3:30 p.m. EST

The Series: 29th/Wofford leads 15-13

Last Time They Met: Wofford 35, ETSU 17 (Oct. 5, 2019/Johnson City)

Wofford Head Coach: Josh Conklin (19-14, 4th yr)

ETSU Head Coach: Randy Sanders (19-15, 4th yr)

Time Machine Fun Link: https://www.goupstate.com/article/NC/19981115/News/605188576/SJ

Previewing the Matchup: A matchup most will train their eyes upon in the Southern Conference in week five is the one between East Tennessee State and Wofford. For the Bucs, they are looking to do something on the gridiron they haven’t done since 1969, which is start a season 5-0. Meanwhile, Josh Conklin’s Wofford Terriers have been in a funk to say the least. 

In fact, the Terriers five of their last six Southern Conference games, which includes having lost five-straight after opening last spring with a 31-14 win over Mercer last spring.  Wofford has not lost six-straight Southern Conference games since since 1997 and ‘98 when the Terriers dropped seven-straight league contests in contiguous seasons. Saturday’s clash will also mark the third-straight week the Terriers have faced a ranked foe. 

The Terriers were 2019 outright Southern Conference champions, and then COVID-19 brought an early end to the spring campaign, which saw the Terriers finish with just a 1-4 mark. Following the 1-4 mark in the spring, it also brought an end to what had been a nice run of three-straight SoCon titles and four-straight trips to the FCS postseason. Both ETSU and Wofford were two of the teams that tied for the 2018 Southern Conference regular-season crown, and both would represent the league in the FCS playoffs, with Furman being the odd team left out of the mix. 

But without much question, the fact that the Terriers have dominated the series as of late has been probably the most shocking aspect of the whole series. To get off to its best start since 1969, and its best start to a season in its Southern Conference history, the Bucs will need to find a way to snap what has become a nine-game winning streak for the Terriers, which dates all the way back to an ETSU 45-24 win over the Terriers in Johnson City. 

That ‘98 Bucs team was one that featured the likes of quarterback Todd Wells, running back Brandon Walker, and linebacker Mario Hankerson. In 1998, Wofford was competing in the league championship race in just its second season as a league member. 

The Terriers enter Saturday’s contest with a 15-13 lead in the all-time series between the two, which began back on Nov. 2, 1957, with the Terriers able to come away with a 19-13 win on the road in Johnson City. The Terriers were able to get a 35-17 win over the Bucs in Johnson City back in 2019.

Wofford enters the matchup coming off a 31-23 loss on the road at No. 21 and reigning Southern Conference champion VMI last Saturday, while the Bucs won one of the wildest Southern Conference games in recent memory, with a 55-48 victory overtime win at Samford. The win continued to bolster the Bucs’ legitimacy for a Southern Conference title this fall, and if the Bucs should complete the feat, it would mark the second title in a three-year span. Not too bad since resurrecting their football program. 

Wofford’s biggest issue has been finding its offensive identity. With the decision to try and be more balanced on the offensive side of the football, and with the transition from Wade Lang–a veteran of three decades as a part of the Wofford offensive staff before stepping down just this past May, it’s been a collective play-calling effort shared by both former running back Dane Romero, while Tyler Carlton, who is one of the up and coming young offensive minds in Division I football, was hired from Tulsa. The duo has collectively shared the play-calling responsibilities so far this season.

Leading Wofford’s offense Saturday will be quarterback Jimmy Weirick (21-of-38 passing, 242 yds, 1 INT/15 rush att, 74 yds, 2 TDs, 4.9 YPC), who went the entire way under center for the Terriers this past Saturday in the loss at VMI, and it was the first time this season that the Terriers have stuck exclusively with one signal-caller for the entire game. The offense looked much improved last week even in the loss to the Keydets on the road.

The fact remains that Wofford still has one of the premier running backs in the Southern Conference this season, and that running back is Irvin Mulligan (43 rush att, 289 yds, 3 TDs, 3 TDs, 6.7 YPC), who enters the contest ranking fourth overall in the Southern Conference in rushing yards. 

Overall, Wofford isn’t the dominant ground attack we have all known throughout its history as a Southern Conference member. In fact, entering Saturday’s contest ranking all the way at No. 23 in rushing offense (195.3 YPG).

That’s even lower than the Bucs, who enter Saturday’s contest ranking 11th nationally in rushing offense (245.5 YPG), as the Bucs are currently being led by the top rusher in all of FCS football, in Quay Holmes (84 rush att, 536 yds, 6 TDs, 6.4 YPC).  Keep in mind the Terriers have finished in the Top 10 in rushing in the FCS stats in each of the last 10 seasons. 

When the Terriers have gone to the air this season, though they haven’t produced a touchdown through the air, and have managed to throw a combined four INTs, the best options in the passing game have been RJ Khayo (8 rec, 125 yds, 0 TDs, 15.6 YPR) as well as Jim Welsh (8 rec, 60 yds, 7.5 YPR). 

When one reflects back on Wofford’s 24 years as a Southern Conference member, it’s always easy to reflect back on some of the great offensive lines that have come through Spartanburg during that same time frame, featuring standouts like Dan Williams and Eric Deutsch, and most recently, guys like Josh Burger and Blake Jerasaty, who have since transferred out of the program, however, the unit that has taken the field for the Terriers in both the spring and fall has seemingly lacked continuity at times, as well as having a name commodity like so many Terrier teams have during their more than two decades as a league member.  

The lone name that is most recognizable to everyone is senior right tackle Zak Kurz, who anchors the unit and will likely compete for the the coveted Jacobs Blocking Award, which is given to the top offensive lineman in the SoCon  at the conclusion of the season. 

Wofford’s offensive front has helped the Terriers average 4.9 yards-per-play on the ground this season, and Wofford currently ranks fifth overall in sacks surrendered per game this season, yielding a total of four sacks in three games so far in 2021, surrendering 1.33 quarterback takedowns per game this season. 

ETSU counters with a known stout defense, and an offense we didn’t know much about until last Saturday. It could definitely be said that in the Bucs’ 55-48 overtime win over Samford that it was the coming of age of a young, budding star at quarterback in the SoCon, in Tyler Riddell (56-of-91 passing, 767 yds, 7 TDs, 1 INT).

While Austin Herink might have gotten away with being able to wear a cape on the field during his time as a Buc, no one was going to make the mistake of having visions of Greg Ryan, Randy Meredith or Todd Wells either—all three former great ETSU signal-callers.

However, with Riddell, there’s a distinct possibility that the Sunshine State native will end his career in the Bucs Blue and Gold as one of the program’s all-time greats. 

Last Saturday’s win on the road at Seibert Stadium easily brought the best out of Riddell, who finished the game going 21-of-35 passing for 291 yards, with three TDs and no INTs in what was an outstanding performance.

Riddell is also surrounded by plenty of weapons at the skill positions, with the most notable of those being a backfield tandem that would stack up against any in all of FCS football, with the aforementioned Holmes, as well as Jacob Saylors (37 rush att, 243 rush yds, 4 TDs, 6.6 YPC/6 rec, 94 yds, 9.4 YPR/34.8 KOR avg). Saylors has just six returns in four games, however, averages 34.8 YPR, having amassed 209 kick return yards. He’s like the SoCon’s own mini version of Gale Sayers so far in the young 2021 fall season.

Both of Saylors’ returns came in the fourth quarter and led directly to critical touchdowns for the Bucs.  He ended the day with four kickoff returns for 157 yards, which included returns of 50 and 71 yards. It was Holmes’ 13-yard rushing score in the extra session that proved to be the game-winning TD, which put the finishing touches on a day that saw him post 168 yards and a pair of scores on 24 carries. 

Along with quarterback, another area the Bucs have made noticeable strides in during the spring and certainly the early portion of the fall season is adding some big-play ability at wide receiver.

ETSU has of course had a tradition in the past of having some of the SoCon’s best pass-catchers. B.J. Adigun, Jeff Johnson, Cecil Moore, Lamar Cooper and Anthony Stringfield are some that come to mind from ETSU’s first stint as a proud football program and member of the SoCon, however, since re-starting football in 2016, the Bucs haven’t had that one or two guys that could consistently stretch an opposing secondary.

However, now in Sanders’ fourth season at the helm of the Bucs program, he has at least three that can be counted upon to stretch an opposition’s defense deep, with Will Huzzie (20 rec, 307 yds, 2 TDs, 15.4 YPR), Isaiah Wilson (7 rec, 165 yds, 2 TDs, 23.6 YPR), Georgia Southern transfer Malik Murray (11 rec, 160 yds, 2 TDs, 14.5 YPR) all possessing the speed to be deep threats in the passing game.

Giving the Bucs even one more option in the passing game is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the SoCon, in Nate Adkins (10 rec, 94 yds, 9.4 YPR). Safe to say that Wilson’s yards-per-catch total might give you an idea that he is a big-play, homerun hitter type playmaker in the Bucs passing attack.

The Bucs offensive line was the primary reason they were able to win their first-ever Southern Conference title back in 2018. Now, it finally appears the Bucs have the experience, maturity and talent up front to put ETSU in position in to win a Southern Conference regular-season title some three years later.

The primary anchors along the offensive line for the Bucs heading into Saturday afternoon’s challenge againt the Terriers, with left tackle Tre’Mond Shorts and right guard Tavon Matthews both the two most experienced offensive linemen, and have helped the unit lead the SoCon in sacks against, having allowed just two sacks through four games this season. The two are also pivotal in having helped the Bucs rank 11th nationally in rush offense. 

ETSU’s defense has been one that has seemingly had playmakers at its core ever since resurrecting the program in 2016, with Dylan Weigel and Nasir Player being the ones that immediately comes to mind.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has allowed the Bucs to keep some ot its veterans around from that team that lifted its first Southern Conference title trophy a couple of years ago. One of those is the oldest in college football history, in eighth-year linebacker Jared Folks (20 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks).

Donovan Manuel (32 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack), a preseason all-conference selection, is another star in a talented ETSU linebacking corps.

The defensive line the Bucs will field on Saturday is arguably the top unit in the Southern Conference, led by the league’s leader in sacks, in Jalen Porter (11 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks).  All four of Porter’s sacks this season have been of the solo variety.

The best player on the ETSU defense resides in the secondary, with  playmakers like free safety Tyree Robinson (9 tackles, 2 INTs, 120 ret yds, 4 PBUs) and Mike Price (25 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 4 PBUs) at strong safety, while both Alijah Huzzie (33 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 5 PBUs) and Karon Delince (23 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBUs) are a pair of all-conference caliber corners.

Wofford has a solid contingent back on the defensive side of the football for the 2021 fall campaign, as nine starters returned from the spring season. The Terriers are always noted for their strength along the defensive line, and the 3-4 alignment employed by Wofford, which began to have so much success in the early 2000s under Nate Woody, has carried on that tradition of success year-in and year-out for much of the the past couple of decades, as Wofford has routinely among the top defensive units in the SoCon. 

Woody, who’s now the defensive coordinator at Army, has a defensive similar to that of ETSU’s and naturally, the two have become pretty close friends over the years. Woody served as a defensive assistant and defensive coordinator at Wofford before moving on to Appalachian State, Georgia Tech and now is at Army. 

Not too much has changed on the defensive side of the football for the Terriers since, as Rob Greene now presides over the Terrier defense. Coming into Saturday’s clash with the Bucs, Wofford ranks fifth in the SoCon in total defense (388.0 YPG) through the first three games of the season. 

Wofford has hemorrhaged most against the run this season, ranking seventh in the SoCon in stopping opposing ground attacks, surrendering 196.3 YPG. In fact, in last Saturday’s loss to VMI, Keydet running back Kory Bridey rushed for a career-high 172 yards in the 31-23 VMI win. 

Leading the Terriers along the defensive front is Michael Mason (17 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 2 FFs), and he will be the main pass-rushing down lineman the Bucs offensive line  will have to account for. 

In the middle of the Terrier defensive unit, the best spine of the Terrier defense is highlighted by two of the three seniors that highlight the corps, as inside linebackers Brandon Brown (13 tackles) and Joe Beckett (26 tackles) highlight the unit, while outside linebacker John Beckley (18 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 QBH, 1 FR, 1 FF) highlights the outside linebacker spot. 

Rounding out the Terrier defense is a talented secondary, but one that has recorded just one INT in the first three games of the season, with Amir Annoor (3 tackles, 1 PBU, 1 INT) having recorded the only INT this season for the Terriers. His brother Tahir Annoor (2 tackles, 1 PBU) and fellow cornerback is an all-conference candidate, as is strong safety Miles Richardson.

In the special teams department, both Wofford and ETSU have excellent place-kickers, with both ETSU’s Tyler Keltner (7-of-8 on FGs/long of 49 yds) and Wofford’s Walker Gliarmis (3-of-4 on FGs/long of 48 yds).The slight edge would go to Keltner in that  department.

Fun Facts: 

–ETSU’s defense has recorded five INTs and has 213 INT return yards (42.6 YPR), and has no INT returns for scores this season. That’s one of the more bizarre football stats I have ever seen! Add that to the fact that both Tyree Robinson and Karon Dalince have two of the longest yardage plays (scoring or non-scoring) plays in the history of Bucs football (first or second stint as a program) and neither of them resulted in TDs. Robinson had a 98-yard INT return vs. Samford, and Dalince had a 95-yard INT return vs. Vanderbilt in ETSU’s season-opening win.

ETSU defeated Wofford was way back in 1998 with a 45-24 win at the Memorial Center in Johnson City. In that same season at the FBS level, Tennessee and Tee Martin knocked off a Marcus Outzen-led Florida State team, 23-16, in the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl in Phoenix, AZ. Notably, current ETSU head coach Randy Sanders was the Vols quarterbacks coach that season.

Who Wins? 

So many interesting sidebars heading into Saturday’s contest. The reason I chose this as my ‘game of the week’ and not the Samford at Mercer game is because this is a game that is representative of the league’s old money meeting its new money on the college football gridiron.

It’s the SoCon 2021 version of the Great Gatsby–the 1925 novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The old money is obviously the boys from old main that don the old gold and black, while the SoCon’s new, emerging shiny new power is the team that plays its home football games on Jack Vest Drive.

It’s been said that ETSU’s campus is one of the most haunted in all of the country, and certainly, though maybe not the same type of ‘haunt’, the Bucs’ meetings with the Terriers since 1997 have been in a word–horrifying.

As the calendar flips to the spookiest month of the fall, the Bucs home to exorcise the ghost of the Wofford series more recent past, and help them continue on the Terriers’ tumultuous present path. 

A win by ETSU would snap a nine-game losing streak in the series for the Bucs, and finally enable the Bucs to get over the hump and beat the one team they haven’t been able to defeat since the football program was resurrected back in 2016. Also,  ETSU head coach Randy Sanders, who is 12-11 in Southern Conference games in now his fourth year as the lead man of the Bucs football program, has had 20 of 23 games decided by a TD or less.

Only losses to Wofford in 2018 (L, 17-30) and ‘19 (L, 17-35), and a loss to Samford in ‘18 (L, 27-38) have been decided by more than a TD. So you can see why this game is and should be important for many reasons for Bucs football. 

Wofford’s old money and prestige is where Sanders wants his new money Bucs to be. And if it’s up to Sanders, it will be a treasure chest full of either ice cream or tater tots. 

A loss by Wofford on the other hand would pretty much see them continue its misery that started last spring. Safe to say that since the 2019 home playoff loss to Kennesaw State, which saw Conklin more aggressively trying to change the balance of his offense, has seen problems snowball, and now the Terriers are walking a plank towards a sixth-straight SoCon loss in SoCon play, which hasn’t happened, which I mentioned above, since the Terriers first two campaigns as an official league member in 1997 and ‘98.

That seven-game streak of forgettable futility in the Hub City started with a 26-21 loss at Gibbs Stadium to Appalachian State in 1997, and the Terriers would close the season by posting a rare loss in what was once called the “Iced Tea Bowl” to The Citadel (L, 3-7) at the stadium formerly known as “The Boneyard” during that era.

Back home in Spartanburg a week later, the Terriers would drop a 31-28 decision to the Todd Wells-led Bucs at Gibbs Stadium. A 28-7 setback on the road to a Justin Hill-led Furman squad would see the Terriers finish their first competitve season in the SoCon with a 2-6 league mark. 

That losing streak against league foes would carry over into the Terriers second season as a league member, as Wofford started the 1998 campaign with an 0-3 league mark following setbacks at home vs. The Citadel (L, 14-20),  on the road at Georgia Southern (L, 10-45), and back at Gibbs Stadium to Chattanooga (L, 3-31). 

It could be argued that one of the major turning points for Wofford as a football program to propel them to such dominance from 2002-19, which featured seven SoCon titles and 10 FCS playoff appearances, was a 40-20 win over Furman on Nov. 14, 1998 in what was a driving rainstorm at Gibbs Stadium, and it was also Wofford’s first SoCon win over a program not named VMI or Western Carolina.

It was Wofford’s first win over Furman on the gridiron in 18 years, and in many ways, it could be asserted that it was a symbolic passing of the torch in the league’s power structure on the football gridiron. 

History has a chance to repeat itself in a strange way Saturday with ETSU being the torch-bearer should it be able to get past the Terriers at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium. And in a stranger twist of fate, things will come full circle next Saturday when Wofford hosts Furman in the oldest rivalry in the Palmetto State and one of the oldest in the deep south, as the rivalry got its start way back in 1889.

I think ETSU is for real. I think they win by two handfuls of Sanders’ favorite tater tots. It will be a contrast in the way ETSU fans have been accustomed to winning league games under Sanders. Breathe easy Bucs fans.

FINAL SCORE PREDICTION: Mountain air breathing  land-locked Bucs 31, a yipping dog that suddenly has lost its bite 14

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