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Bucs win OT thriller over Bears

By TREY WILLIAMS, TriCitiesSports.com • Sep 23, 2017 at 11:23 PM

JOHNSON CITY — East Tennessee State’s rebooted third-year football program essentially had to reinvent the wheel, and it’s rolling in the right direction.

Junior running back Jajuan Stinson caught a 25-yard touchdown pass on a wheel route on ETSU’s first play of overtime to defeat Mercer 26-23 in a Southern Conference game Saturday at William B. Greene Jr. Stadium. The Buccaneers (1-1, 2-2) rallied from a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit against the Bears (0-2, 1-3), who put up quite a bit of resistance in a 24-10 loss last week at Auburn.

Stinson curled out of the backfield and dashed past a linebacker to get open in the end zone. He was so open that he had enough time to think about not dropping the easy catch, which is why he cradled the Austin Herink pass to his chest.

“I trust my hands,” Stinson said, “but when it came down to that, I needed to make a sure catch.”

Last year at Mercer, ETSU led 13-7 in the fourth quarter before losing 21-13. The Bears also beat the Bucs 52-0 in 2015, ETSU’s first season since the program was discontinued following the 2003 season.

“It’s been kind of in my head all week that they kind of escaped from us last year,” Stinson said. “So we needed to get a little bit of revenge.”

ETSU took an early 10-0 lead Saturday. Herink scored from 3 yards out with 9:25 left in the first quarter after linebacker Dylan Weigel returned a fumble 50 yards to the Mercer 21. JJ Jerman’s 25-yard field goal put ETSU up 10-0 with 10:40 left in the first half.

Mercer responded with 20 straight points, and Tee Mitchell’s 2-yard TD gave the Bears a 20-10 lead with 1:11 left in the third quarter.

ETSU answered when Jerman made a career-long 49-yard field goal with 11:22 left. And the Bucs drove 80 yards in eight plays to tie the score on a 1-yard run by Dobyns-Bennett alumnus Blake Rodgers with 4:41 remaining in the fourth quarter.

“There’s nothing like winning,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said, “and it shows our players we can come back. … I think it showed a lot of determination and grit for us to come back and tie the game up.

“What a great, great win. I can’t say enough about it.”

Mercer’s Cole Fisher, who missed a PAT kick that proved fatal, started the OT scoring with a 29-yard field goal.

The Bucs went for the throat immediately thereafter. It’s easy to talk yourself into being conservative when you only need a field goal to extend the game, but Torbush and defensive coordinator Billy Taylor were both pleased with the offensive coordinator’s gutsy first-down call.

“What a great call coach (Mike) O’Cain made in overtime,” Torbush said.

Herink was 25-of-32 passing for 259 yards and a touchdown.

“It’s been a tough process building this program,” Herink said, “but stuff like today makes that all worth it.”

Mercer coach Bobby Lamb appeared less than impressed with a ruling that resulted in talented linebacker LeMarkus Bailey’s ejection in the third quarter. Herink was sliding near the Mercer sideline when he collided with Bailey.

Not that the call cost Mercer the game.

“We had several chances in the fourth quarter to put it away and win the game,” Lamb said. “But we gave ETSU the opportunity to win on its own turf. It is a crazy game when you commit only two penalties in front of a crowd of 90,000 (people at Auburn last week) and then commit 10 today in front of 8,000.

“This loss falls on me as the head coach. We didn’t get it done and we'll work on it heading into next week.”

ETSU’s Kobe Kelley had a team-high five receptions for 40 yards, including a 20-yard reception to the Mercer 1 that set up Rodgers’ late score.

Mercer outgained the Bucs 393-362 in total offense. CJ Leggett rushed 15 times for 96 yards and a TD.

Kaelan Riley was 15-of-21 passing for 257 yards and a touchdown.

Kaman Cooper led the Bucs with eight tackles. River Boruff added seven.

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