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Sanders: Bucs show their character as losses continue to mount

Joe Avento • Nov 3, 2019 at 6:48 PM

JOHNSON CITY — A five-game losing streak that has left East Tennessee State winless in the Southern Conference football standings hasn’t changed coach Randy Sanders’ opinion of his team.

After the latest loss, a 31-27 home defeat at the hands of The Citadel, Sanders lauded the Bucs’ effort, even if the outcome wasn’t what he wanted.

“I love this group because they compete,” Sanders said Saturday. “They battle. They scrap. They don’t give in. They don’t give up. And it takes a lot of trust. It takes a lot of belief. It takes a lot of character to keep doing it week after week when you’re not getting the results that we want.

“We’re right there. A play or two here or there. … You never know which play it’s going to be. The first play’s just as important as the last play.”

The last play, though, will be the one remembered from Saturday’s game. Trey Mitchell completed a fourth-down pass to Nate Adkins, who caught the ball on the 1-yard line and was immediately tackled, ending the Bucs’ chances.

“We have to be a little bit better on first down, second down, third down,” said Sanders, who was second-guessing himself a little about passing on every down with the ball at the 6.

“The fourth down play, Nate, we actually put him in that spot on Thursday to run that particular route. Just because we had some injuries, had some limitations at receiver, we felt like that was the best matchup.

“Obviously, you’ve got to push it into the end zone in that situation. He might have done it four times, five times, in practice before today. I’m not going to fault him by any means. I appreciate how hard that young man plays.”

It was a disappointing end to a game that featured some of the best individual performances of the year for ETSU.

Mitchell passed for three touchdowns, and Will Huzzie solidified his role as the go-to receiver with seven receptions for 143 yards and a 59-yard touchdown. Quay Holmes rushed for 120 yards on 20 carries and broke off a 49-yard kickoff return.

Jacob Saylors ran for 85 yards and might have given ETSU two 100-yard rushers before a long run was called back by a holding penalty.

The Citadel came in leading the nation in time of possession, and the Bucs, who were playing without several key players, held the ball for 2 1/2 minutes more. ETSU outgained the Bulldogs 428-383 yards and rushed for 224 yards.

“If you had told me we would have run more plays than they did and been within five yards rushing of them and won the time of possession, I would have told you we would have won the football game,” Sanders said.

Unfortunately for Sanders, the only statistic that counts in the end is the final score, and for the sixth consecutive SoCon game this season, the Bucs were on the short end.

A game at Western Carolina is up next and the Catamounts are coming off their first SoCon win, a 43-35 result over VMI.

“We expect to be able to battle teams and be right there step for step with them,” Holmes said. “With the talent that we have and the coaching that we have, we expect to be able to match anybody. We’re getting closer and closer. It’s a game of inches. We lost this game by a yard. Just keep fighting.”