Landlocked Pirates render endangered species playoff extinct in wild finish

Quay Holmes came up huge in ETSU’s second-round FCS playoff win over Kennesaw State/photo courtesy of ETSU athletics

It’s truly been a great a weekend so far for the Southern Conference, and Furman’s miracle at Timmons turned out to be an appetizer for what was to come for the league on Saturday, as No. 7 seed East Tennessee State hosted Kennesaw State in FCS second round playoff action at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium.

The Bucs hadn’t  played at home in the FCS Playoffs since 1996, and they made the most of that opportunity.  The Owls had a seemingly safe lead, however, out of their sanctuary led to many unknowns on a cool early December afternoon, with the sun setting behind the mountains.  Still, Owls are supposed to be nocturnal, right? No one told Bucky these things. 

Coming into Saturday’s contest, ETSU had been in seven games decided by a touchdown or less this season, winning six of those games, with the only setback in that span being a 21-16 setback at Chattanooga in the “Rail Rivalry.” 

On Saturday afternoon in Johnson City, the Bucs were involved in an eighth game that came down to the wire, and in the short history of the stadium, there has been some truly remarkable comeback wins. 

There was the 2018 win over Furman in what was now fourth-year head coach Randy Sanders’ first season. The Bucs posted what was a remarkable 29-27 win over the Paladins, engineered by Austin Herink, who came off the bench to lead ETSU to its biggest come-from-behind win in school history. The Bucs would go on to tie both Furman and Wofford for the SoCon title. 

As the only representative in the FCS playoffs, the game against a Kennesaw State program is one the SoCon needed to re-establish some respect. After all, the league hadn’t won an FCS playoff game since 2018, when Wofford knocked off Elon only to lose to those same Owls.

For much of the week, KSU fans touted their tradition,  their success as a start-up program, and beat their proverbial chests over how dominant they had been in the Big South. None of that was false, but maybe what should have been left unsaid is that a team that won 10 of its 11 game, including one over a power five foe, shouldn’t have been a top eight seed. After the Bucs, had done everything in front of them except beat a really good Chattanooga team on the road. 

It looked in fact like the Owls, who also posted wins over Wofford in 2018 and in the opening round in 2019, were going to turn the key again against a different SoCon foe, leading the contest 31-17 with 5:02 remaining following a Nathan Robertson 45-yard field goal.

The landlocked pirates needed to do everything right from that point forward. They did, conjuring some of that mountain magic that has now become almost thematic of the Sanders era as head coach.

In fact, in 27 of the 41 games that Sanders has coached in his time at ETSU, they have been decided by one score or less coming into Saturday’s playoff clash. On Saturday, they played in their 28th, improving to 19-9 in those games and remained perfect, 8-0 in the friendly confines this season. 

So when Robertson’s field goal split the uprights, it probably seemed business as usual for the Owls, and why wouldn’t it be, they had won 10-straight after a season-opening, 45-17, loss to Georgia Tech.

But ETSU never folded, and never got rattled after blowing a 17-7 third quarter lead, as the Owls scored 24 unanswered points following a Quay Holmes 31-yard scoring run with 11:45 remaining in the third quarter. 

The Owls seeming turned the game around first, by getting a 22-yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Murphy-to-Kyle Glover over the middle to make it a 17-14 deficit with 8:19 remaining in the third quarter.

Late in the third quarter, The Owls took their first lead of the afternoon when Murphy concluded a 13-play, 55-yard drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge from Murphy to make it a 21-17 game with just a little over a minute left in the third quarter. When Murphy scored again on a 9-yard run, and then Robertson connected on a 45-yard field goal with just over five minutes left, the Owls assumed what was seemingly a safe, 31-17, lead.

Cue the drama and Tyler Riddell. He needed 13 plays to complete the first portion of ETSU’s miraculous comeback, and it covered 78 yards, culminating with a 12-yard scoring strike from Riddell to wideout Will Huzzie to make it a 31-24 game with 1:28 left. 

Part two was no doubt the hardest part of this miracle—recover the on-sides kick. It had happened earlier in the season against Chattanooga, but the landlocked pirates couldn’t get what would have been the go-ahead score on that day, and that resulted in their lone loss of their season to date. 

Keltner delivered perfection, and the ball would be recovered by backup tight end Tim Stayskal, giving ETSU life again. Riddell and the offense took over with 1:26 remaining at the Kennesaw State 48. The Bucs got completions of 24 and 15 yards from Riddell-to-Nate Adkins to get the football all the way to the Owls 9-yard line just inside a minute.

After a third completion to Jacob Saylors KSU 4, Riddell’s next completion would be to Holmes for a 4-yard score with 35 seconds remaining. 

Instead of bringing out Keltner for the potential game-tying PAT, ETSU head coach Randy Sanders and the Bucs opted to go for the win. Riddell received excellent protection from the offensive line, which gave him enough time for Adkins to break open over the middle and Riddell delivered the perfect ball to his senior tight end to put the landlocked Pirates ahead 32-31.

The Bucs defense came up with the final stop to produce an improbable verdict, sending the Bucs fanbase into a frenzy as time wound down. 

Holmes accounted for 182 all-purpose yards, finishing with 87 yards on the ground and 95 yards on the ground with three combined touchdowns. 

Riddell delivered time and time again in the clutch on Saturday, as he connected on 22-of-35 passes for 238 yards, with three touchdowns and an INT. Murphy countered by connecting on 6-of-14 passes for 125 yards and a pair of scores, while rushing 28 times for 164 yards and two more scores. 

The Owls finished the day with a substantial advantage in total offense, out-gaining the Bucs 457-308, including a 287-70 edge in rushing yards.

With the win, ETSU improved to 11-1, setting a new program record for wins in a season in the process. The Owls see their season end with an 11-2 overall record. 

The landlocked pirates will go on another playoff treasure hunt next  weekend, when the Bucs take their land-motorized ship over glacial land into the open range of North Dakota, as ETSU will park its ship outside the FargoDome to take on North Dakota State with kickoff time and date still to be announced.

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