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Bucs enduring football version of ‘Groundhog Day’

Joe Avento • Nov 10, 2019 at 8:42 PM

JOHNSON CITY — Watch an East Tennessee State football game these days and you’d swear you’ve seen it all before.

Each Saturday morning, coach Randy Sanders and his team wake up hoping to win. By the time they go to bed that night, it still hasn’t happened.

In Southern Conference games, the result has been the same every week. Again and again and again. The game is always close, but in the end the Bucs find a way to lose.

They’re living the football version of the movie “Groundhog Day.”

Sanders’ team hasn’t won since Sept. 21, when it beat Austin Peay in a nonconference game, yet somehow he’s staying positive, at least publicly.

“If our team will keep fighting and keep competing, there’s certainly brighter days ahead, that’s for sure,” he said after his team’s sixth consecutive loss, a 23-20 overtime setback to Western Carolina on Saturday.

Those brighter days can start immediately, especially when you look at what the Bucs (2-8, 0-7) have gone through this season. A year after a charmed season led to a share of the conference championship, ETSU is going to finish in last place.

“I’m talking about tomorrow. I’m talking about Monday,” Sanders said. “The sun’s still going to come up. We have to work. We have to keep improving and we have to keep going.

“I told this team they’re a special group because just to keep going through everything they have been through and keep fighting like they have makes them special.”

Six of the Bucs’ SoCon losses this year have been by a touchdown or less. After all six of their conference wins last season were by three points or fewer, the law of averages is coming back to haunt them.

“We’re right there,” Sanders said. “If we keep playing with the same kind of effort, if we keep the same fighting spirit, there’s going to be brighter days ahead. There’s no question.”

One reason ETSU has stayed close in games has been the performance of running back Quay Holmes. The sophomore rushed for 166 yards, his career best, against the Catamounts. He carried the ball 36 times and still looked fresh at the end.

“Quay is a stallion,” Sanders said. “He just shows up every week. He’s a great team guy. You talk about guys I’m trying to build this program around and try to build my culture into what I want to get done, that’s him. He shows up to work, does his job.”

Holmes entered the season as a preseason all-conference selection but lost his starting job to Jacob Saylors, who missed Saturday’s game with an injury.

“All Quay did was just keep working, be happy for his teammate,” Sanders said. “He never got selfish, never complained. Just kept going. That’s the kind of guy you want.”

Holmes’ second consecutive 100-yard effort raised his season total to 878 yards, fourth best in the SoCon.

Sanders unleashed freshman quarterback Tyler Riddell for his first extended playing time and the results were mixed.

Riddell moved the team well on his first drive only to have a touchdown nullified by a penalty and a field-goal attempt botched. He finished 8-of-14 for 59 yards, getting 44 of those yards on his first pass.

Riddell picked up a few first downs on runs as well.

“I thought Tyler did a nice job,” Sanders said. “Was it perfect? No. Did he make some freshman mistakes? Yes.

“Tyler got in there and gave us a little spark. I kind of liked the way the team responded to him. That’s part of the reason I went with him so much in the second half.”

With two games remaining — at home against Mercer and a road game at Vanderbilt — the Bucs are running out of time to get back on the winning track.

“I didn’t expect to be sitting here with two wins, I can promise you that,” Sanders said.

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