“It doesn’t matter who is the better team,” Sanders said this week. “What matters is who plays the best on that day, and that is our challenge to the team: ‘Go play better than them on Saturday.’ ”
The Bucs and Commodores face off Saturday at 3:30 p.m. The SEC Network is televising the schools’ first meeting on the football field.
This is ETSU’s second game against a Southeastern Conference team in as many years. The Bucs lost to Tennessee last season. They also play at Georgia next year.
“The biggest challenge up front is the size and speed that Vanderbilt plays with,” Sanders said. “Vanderbilt is big and fast, but I don’t know how much better as football players than we are. They are bigger and faster and that is why they are at Vanderbilt instead of playing here. A lot of times that does not take into account the heart and the fight or the concentration and intelligence that you have to play with.”
ETSU (3-8) broke a six-game losing streak last week with a 38-33 victory over Mercer, its only Southern Conference win.
The Bucs know Vanderbilt (2-8) is better than its record.
“Overall they are bigger on the offensive line than some of the teams we have played in the SoCon,” ETSU defensive end Nasir Player said. “They’re not any bigger than what Tennessee was last year. This is another week with another challenge and you can look at it as a chance to prove you should be playing at this level.”
It’s the season-ender for ETSU, which made the FCS playoffs last year. Vanderbilt has one more game to play, the following Saturday against Tennessee.
Coach Derek Mason says his Commodores won’t be taking its FCS foe lightly.
“When you look at this East Tennessee State football team, it’s a good football team,” Mason said. “They had a big win last week against Mercer. Their running back rushed for 255 (yards). He’s a tremendous talent. They’ve got a good offensive line. They found their rhythm. They got good defensive players — three NFL prospects on that side of the ball. And they hunt.
“We know we’re going to get their best game.”
HOLMES ON THE RUN
Quay Holmes broke the ETSU school record last week with 255 rushing yards against Mercer, a total that pushed him to 1,133 yards for the season. The sophomore running back, who has seven touchdowns, is averaging 5.8 yards per carry.
Holmes’ 2,061 career yards rank ninth in school history and he has No. 8 Derrick Hollins squarely in his sights. Brandon Walker holds the ETSU career record of 4,095 and Holmes — with two seasons of eligibility remaining — could challenge that.
Holmes was quick to credit his offensive line following his record-breaking game, his second big game in a row. He was coming off a 166-yard effort against Western Carolina.
Sanders has used two quarterbacks in recent games, starting Trey Mitchell and switching to Tyler Riddell. That is the plan for Saturday.
Mitchell has thrown for 11 touchdowns with six interceptions while completing 56.5% of his passes this season. Riddell has one touchdown and no interceptions in limited duty. He’s completed 57% of his throws.
ETSU will be without the services of two key members of the secondary. Cornerback Karon Delince and safety Tyree Robinson are out with injuries.
Vanderbilt has taken a step backward this season, but it won’t cost Mason his job. Athletic director Malcolm Turner said on Twitter that Mason will be back next season.
“I want to make it very clear that Derek Mason will be our head football coach moving forward,” Turner tweeted. “Coach Mason has my full support and I am committed to working with him to ensure our football program has the necessary resources and support to succeed.”
Vanderbilt’s wins came against Northern Illinois and Missouri.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn leads the team with 876 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. Quarterback Riley Neal has six TDs and five interceptions.