ETSU outlasts feisty Keydets

By Allen LaMountain
ASST. SPORTS EDITOR
awlamountain@starhq.com

   After working hard to take a 28-0 lead into the break at halftime, the East Tennessee State Buccaneers almost forgot that there were still 30 minutes of football left to play in the second half.
   VMI scored 21 unanswered points, but a goal-line stand and a fourth-quarter touchdown run by quarterback Jatavis Sanders allowed ETSU to come away with a 35-21 SoCon win over the Keydets on Saturday evening at Memorial Center.
   The win comes on the heels of an embarrassing loss to Gardner-Webb, and saw the Bucs (2-3, 1-0 SoCon) shake off some of their offensive doldrums as tailback Gaven Varner rushed for 128 yards and three touchdowns.
   "It felt good to see some daylight," said Varner. "Once I get into the open field I can make things happen. I think we are coming together as a team, everyone's been saying that the offense is weak and the defense strong, but we are just young and still learning."
   It took a nice defensive play by safety Montreal Harkley to get the Bucs rolling, however, as Harkley picked off Keydets QB Joey Gibson and ETSU proceeded to march 58 yards in nine plays to open a 7-0 lead. Varner finished off the drive with a three-yard run and Jon Godfrey booted the PAT.
   "We came out ready to play in the first half," said Harkley, who had two pass interceptions and a great solo tackle in the open field on a fourth-and-goal play that stymied VMI. "They came back on us a little in the second half, but it was fun out there."
   On their next possession the Bucs went 75 yards in five plays to take a 14-0 lead with Nick Spearman capping off the drive with a five-yard run. In the drive Sanders showed good throwing touch as he lofted a nice sideline pass to Andrew Nuckolls for 31 yards.
   In the second quarter the ETSU special teams came up with a big play as Scott Carter blocked the Keydets punt, deep in Bucs territory and set ETSU up on the VMI 5-yard line.
   "We gave them an awfully short field a couple times in the first half," said VMI head coach Cal McCombs. "We had a punt blocked we dug ourselves too big a hole to climb out of."
   Varner cashed in on the special teams' big play with a two-yard plunge to make it a 21-0 ETSU lead and before the half was completed Varner was in the VMI end zone again, capping a six-play, 51-yard drive that gave ETSU a 28-0 halftime lead.
   "Gaven Varner showed what kind of a football player he can be," said Bucs head coach Paul Hamilton. "He runs like a Mack truck, and when he really learns this offense he's going to be a very good running back. He probably would have gone for 200 yards had he not hurt his hamstring in the second half."
   Varner opened the second half with a 24-yard run, but limped off the field and did not return. "I pulled my hamstring a little and since we had such a big lead, we didn't want to take a chance on it becoming worse," said Varner.
   That big lead didn't last however as quarterback Joey Gibson led a Keydet comeback that nearly got VMI back into the contest. Gibson finished off a three-play, 77-yard drive with a two yard run to cut the Bucs lead to 28-7 and minutes later scored again after a fumble by Adonis Johnson gave VMI possession at the Keydets 23-yard line.
   Gibson's second touchdown run made it a 28-14 game as the third period ended, but VMI wasn't through just yet as the Keydets got the ball back from the Bucs on a punt and drove down the field once again.
   This drive came up short as Harkley made a great tackle to snuff the VMI drive at the four-yard line, but five plays later Sanders was picked off and Gibson took over once again.
   "I was lined up as a linebacker in that situation," said Harkley. "When the ball was snapped I just shot the gap and made the tackle. I knew they were going to run it down there."
   When they next took possession after the Sanders pick, the Keydets punched it in on a 15-yard pass from Gibson to halfback John Bell and the score stood 28-21 with 8:05 remaining.
   Sanders then got some vindication, leading the Bucs on a 10-play drive that clinched the ballgame, with Sanders himself covering the final 21 yards on a quarterback draw that caught the VMI defenders flat-footed.
   "It was a called play," said Sanders. "It was supposed to look like a sweep right, and the whole left side was open for me. Tonight Gaven opened things up for the offense with his running and opened things up in the passing game."
   Sanders finished with 20-of-31 passing for 213 yards as the Bucs showed some offensive spark after being stalled much of the season thus far.
   "The difference in the offense tonight was that we had some continuity," Hamilton said. "We need to be more of that type of football team, but we have to do a better job of taking care of the football. We had some turnovers tonight and we have to get that corrected."