The Bucs invade Neyland Stadium on Saturday to take on Tennessee in the first meeting between the schools. It’s been the most anticipated game on ETSU’s schedule since the matchup was announced.
For first-year coach Randy Sanders, it’s a return to the place he coached for 17 years as an assistant for the Vols. He’d like nothing better than knocking off his alma mater.
“I told the players earlier, as much fun as it is to win at home, there’s nothing like winning on the road,” Sanders said. “I love going into some place where they don’t like you and beating them. The feeling of going on the road and winning, there’s nothing like that in the world.”
The game will be the first at Neyland Stadium for Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee’s new head coach. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m and the festivities are being televised by the SEC Network.
For the Bucs, it will be a chance to get their program, in just its fourth year back after a 12-year hiatus, some national recognition.
Even though Tennessee has been a program in a state of flux in recent years, it’s still a Southeastern Conference team with loads of athleticism and talent. The Vols would be prohibitive favorites if Las Vegas had a line on the game.
“We want to go out there, compete and execute at a high level,” ETSU linebacker Dylan Weigel said. “It’s going to be crazy and a different game day atmosphere than what we’re used to.
“We have a lot of guys that have played a lot of college football here for the past four years, so I think just being able to get out there and go compete at a high level is what we need to do.”
The Vols are coming off a 40-14 loss to West Virginia and lost their starting center Brandon Kennedy to a torn ACL in practice during the week. That gives the Bucs a little hope. Their defensive line is one of the team’s strong points and they’re hoping to be able to get to quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
“We watched some film and were able to see what they’re doing,” ETSU defensive end Nasir Player said. “We really have a lot of confidence in ourselves. We feel like if we do everything right then nobody can really mess with us. We feel like if everyone is up for our game and doing everything they’re supposed to do, then we don’t have anything to worry about. We’re excited to get out there and just make it happen.”
ETSU running back Quay Holmes made a good first impression with 118 yards on 17 carries in his collegiate debut. Tennessee running back Tim Jordan also had a breakout game. After gaining 52 yards last season, Jordan got 118 against West Virginia.
Logan Marchi, ETSU’s new starting quarterback, didn’t get any help from his receivers early in his first game, but finished strong. He threw for three touchdowns in his ETSU debut, a 28-7 win over Mars Hill. Marchi made enough good throws to have Bucs fans wondering what’s next.
Marchi has the arm to get the ball into tight spaces and his receivers say he’s not afraid to throw it anywhere. That might come in handy Saturday.
“It’s going to be hard to get open against them because they’re pretty good in the secondary and they are good on defense,” Sanders said. “When we have a chance to hit a receiver that’s open, we have to hit him. When the ball comes to him, he has to catch it. Obviously, we have to do a great job blocking up front. All those things are going to have to play together, the offense, defense, special teams. It’s all going to have to play together to give us our opportunity, and that’s all we want, is an opportunity.”
ETSU has 45 players from Tennessee on its roster, including 11 from Knoxville. The Vols have 47 players from Tennessee.
“We have a lot of guys from Tennessee on our roster so it will be exciting,” said Weigel, an Ohio native and one of the leading tacklers in ETSU history. “I’ve never been to Neyland Stadium, but it’s exciting to go down there. Being here the last four years, you hear about Tennessee, so it’ll definitely be fun to go down there and finally be able to put on the jersey and go out and play.”
As unlikely as it seems, what would a win do for ETSU?
“It would mean a lot for everyone,” Weigel said. “The coaching staff, the fans, and this university have put so much into this program, so to be able to go down there and win would be a great feeling.”