Randy Sanders’ Bucs enter Southern Conference play this week, and nothing the SoCon can throw at them will be as tough as facing a Southeastern Conference team in front of a hostile crowd at Neyland Stadium, a 59-3 loss to Tennessee.
“They are bigger, faster and stronger than most of the teams we are going to play this year,” Sanders, ETSU’s first-year head coach, said.
“We set our four primary goals before the season started. This game could have helped us achieve one of them, but it wasn’t going to prevent us from achieving any of the four. Getting an opportunity to play in this type of environment with the crowd, against a team as big and fast and talented as they are, will help.”
A crowd of 96,494 was twice the number of fans who visited Greene Stadium last season, and many of the Bucs handled the atmosphere well.
“I think 98 percent of them responded the right way,” Sanders said. “I think there may have been one or two who may have been a little intimidated by the crowd, but for the most part our guys got excited about the crowd and played with a lot of energy and passion.”
The Bucs played toe to toe with the Vols in the early going. It took one big pass play to set up an opening field goal and then Tennessee blocked a punt for a touchdown.
It was 10-0, and even though the defense was playing well for the most part, ETSU fans kind of knew the inevitable was about to happen, considering that the Vols’ defense was too much for the Bucs from the get-go.
While the ETSU defense held its own early with Nasir Player and Blake Bockrath causing some disruptions in the backfield, the offense sputtered from the start. Tennessee’s defensive backs were too fast for the Bucs’ receivers to get open. The Vols’ pass rush, while only recording one sack, pressured Logan Marchi for much of the afternoon and there was very little room to run.
“I like what I saw from the defense more than what I saw from the offense,” Sanders said. “We knew from the offensive standpoint that we had a tall task. Just with where we are and some of our limitations, we knew this was going to be a huge challenge.”
Now it’s on to the Southern Conference. ETSU (1-1) travels to Lexington, Va., on Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. game against VMI (0-2).
“The Southern Conference has some great teams in it,” said ETSU linebacker Dylan Weigel. “We’ll definitely have to be ready to go. Starting off with Tennessee as our second game against an SEC team was a great experience for us. It was a great time to come down to Knoxville to play them, but our guys are excited to get into the Southern Conference next week and really get to work.”