Struggling Bucs take on Keydets

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY -- East Tennessee State came into the season ranked No. 8 in Division 1-AA football by one major publication. Getting ready to play the fourth game of the year, the Bucs may come into Saturday night's contest with the team picked last in the Southern Conference as a slight underdog.
   ETSU (1-2) will start the SoCon season against a much-improved VMI squad Saturday at 6 p.m. in Memorial Center that comes into the game 2-1 so far on the season.
   "I think we're playing, in my opinion, the best VMI football team that we've played since I've been the coach here," ETSU head coach Paul Hamilton said.
   That's not the reason VMI may be the favorite.
   The Bucs could be considered an underdog in this one due to a stagnant offense, a banged up defense, terrible special teams play, and the fact they're coming off one of the most disappointing defeats in school history.
   In a 13-10 loss to Division I-AA newcomer Gardner-Webb last Saturday night, the Bucs were outgained in total offense 353 to 229.
   "That loss Saturday night was certainly the most difficult that I've personally had to deal with at East Tennessee," Hamilton said. "It was a major disappointment to me and I know to our coaches and our football team for us to go down there and not be successful and win that game."
   The offense continues to struggle in putting points on the board. The Bucs didn't score a touchdown until the fourth quarter Saturday night.
   "Hopefully this Saturday we can become consistent with all 11 players on the field executing," Hamilton said. "It's hard to execute without all 11 doing it. It's just tough to do."
   The Bucs had their opportunities against the Bulldogs, but struggled in the red zone. Those struggles included a touchdown by Gaven Varner that was called back because of a penalty, and missed field goals.
   "We get down there and have opportunities to score twice down inside the 15 and the 10-yard line, and end up with only a field goal in one of those situations," Hamilton said. "We had a touchdown called back again for the second week in a row. We missed what amounted to three field goals in the ball game that could have been a difference maker for us."
   The quarterback controversy at ETSU has been prevalent writing material in four area newspapers this season. It may continue to be.
   If he has recovered from a bruised throwing arm, Jatavis Sanders will become the third starting quarterback this season for the Buccaneers.
   Sanders went 10-of-12 Saturday night for 114 yards before hurting his arm right before the game's one hour lightning delay.
   Hamilton thought because of the way Sanders played against the Bulldogs gives him the leg up on Dashannon Gamble and Jason Davis at this point.
   "I really felt like if he continued to play that way we had a chance to win the game Saturday night," Hamilton said about Sanders. "Unfortunately, he got hurt and wasn't able to lift his arm up and play the back half of the football game.
   "I think the thing that stands out most about Jatavis is it's obvious right now that he has been around college football, and been on the field and played more. And with the youth of our offense right now, I think we need that maturity that he brings."
   The defense finished the Gardner-Webb game without five starters Saturday night, so the unusual weak performance was probably acceptable.
   "We're decimated on defense right now," Hamilton said.
   The defense really didn't look all that bad after a slow start. ETSU did shut the Bulldogs out in the second half.
   "Defensively we came out and did not play early in the game like we've been playing defense," Hamilton said. "Gardner-Webb's quarterback hit 13-straight passes against us, and was 18-of-22 at halftime. We came out and shut them down the last four series of the ball game. But I was not pleased and I know our defensive coaches were not pleased with the way the defense started the football game."
   Linebacker Scott Brumett joined starting linebackers Marco Bryant and Mike Cornegay on the injured list Saturday night. Brumett took a helmet to the back right before the half, and had to be taken to the hospital.
   Brumett will be out for the contest, but defensive back Tony Tiller is scheduled to return Saturday night.
   As for ETSU's opponent this week, the Keydets won their first two games, but lost 62-31 last week to a strong William & Mary team.
   VMI offensive coordinator Jeff Druden doesn't think his team can be considered the favorite after what happened against William & Mary.
   "We just lost 62-31, I don't know how we can feel good about ourselves," Druden said during Tuesday's SoCon Teleconference.
   Despite the convincing loss, Hamilton believes that VMI has a good team and a good quarterback.
   Hamilton speaks very highly of VMI signal caller Joey Gibson and the Keydet offense.
   "Certainly it starts with Joey Gibson," Hamilton said. "I think Joey is one of the best players in our conference. You watch them offensively and they're very multiple. They run option and double slots like we've done here some. Then all of a sudden they're in four wideouts. They throw it a lot, but they run option football with it out of option formations.
   "The reason they're able to do that is because of Joey Gibson. He gives them a lot of multiplicity in their offense, because he can drop back and throw, he can throw from the gun, he can sprint out, then he can read the option and run the option game also. That guy really scares me. And they're moving the ball on offense. They concern you with their offense."
   Despite the 62 points given up against William & Mary, Hamilton is concerned about the VMI defense.
   "The first couple of games they played good defense," Hamilton said. "They've got several guys defensively that have played for several years."
   Hamilton knows his team hasn't lived up to those lofty expectations, but now he says it's time to forget about that and get on with the conference season.
   "We have to forget about expectations and focus on becoming a better football team," Hamilton said. "I don't think our football team has lost a sense of attitude."
   ETSU NOTES:
   This will be the last time VMI comes to Memorial Center as a Southern
   Conference school. The Keydets will join the Big South next season.