Crucial spot for Buccaneers, Catamounts

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY--When the preseason talk started about Southern Conference football, East Tennessee State and Western Carolina were the two teams that were considered as the major threats to jump into the top echelon of the league.
   One of those teams will take a big step toward that goal Saturday night at 6 in Cullowhee, N.C. when the Buccaneers travel to play the Catamounts.
   "This is a big game," Western Carolina head coach Kent Briggs said. "We feel like they're going to be contenders in the Southern Conference."
   And going into the game, Western Carolina has lived up to the billing, while the Bucs really haven't.
   The Catamounts come in 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the SoCon. Western's only loss is to Auburn, so the Catamounts are probably right where they should be.
   The Bucs meanwhile are 2-2 overall and 1-0 in the conference. They got back on the right track last Saturday night with a 35-21 win over VMI, but the Bucs still have a long ways to go.
   The Bucs jumped out to a 28-0 lead, and then held on.
   "I thought we really played well in the first half as an entire team," ETSU head coach Paul Hamilton said. "I thought we dominated the game for 30 minutes. We did not play in the second half quite the way he had certainly early in the first half."
   Going into this week, Hamilton knows that the opponent is a lot tougher than VMI.
   "I look at Western Carolina this week, and I think they are a team that is very capable of winning our league this year," Hamilton said. "For them to go down and beat The Citadel in Charleston, certainly with all the enthusiasm the Citadel had coming off its win over Delaware was big. That's another team in Western Carolina that certainly has a great shot to win the thing."
   After being shutout at SEC powerhouse Auburn, the Catamounts' offense has averaged 42 points the last two weeks. Simply put, Western will challenge the stout ETSU defense.
   Tailback Fred Boateng and flanker Michael Banks are returning All-SoCon picks. Last year, Boateng rushed for almost 200 yards in Western's 20-6 victory over the Bucs.
   "He's hurt a lot of people," Hamilton said about Boateng. "He's a quality back. I think he's one of the best backs in 1-AA football. He's got outstanding size. He's a powerful runner. He's hard to knock off his feet, but he's a guy that can also run away from everybody on the field. He's been a very effective player against us. You look at the premier players in the Southern Conference, and I think he's one of them."
   Free safety Justin Fryer and linebacker Nick McNeil lead the Western defense.
   As for the Buccaneers, they are once and for all settled at the quarterback spot. After weeks of shuffling around, Jatavis Sanders is the Bucs' man.
   Sanders went 20-of-31 for 213 yards and threw just one interception in ETSU's win last week. Sanders also scored the game-clinching touchdown with his 21-yard scamper in the fourth quarter.
   "The biggest thing I see with Jatavis right now is I feel like he's reached a point where he feels very secure and confident about what we're asking him to do offensively," Hamilton said. "I think he knows our system well now."
   The Bucs are hoping to continue the strong running game that has developed, particularly with Gaven Varner. He rushed for 128 yards on 15 carries in the VMI game, and also scored three touchdowns in the contest.
   "I was very pleased with Gaven Varner," Hamilton said. "I thought he played very physical at the running back position. I think he is a plus to our football team."
   Varner left the game Saturday night with a hamstring injury, and Hamilton's hoping he can go in Cullowhee.
   "I just hope we can get him back this week," Hamilton said. "He makes us a different team."
   Defensively, the Bucs hope to be a little healthier this week. Linebacker Mike Cornegay is back, while the Bucs hope to have All-American defensive back Tony Tiller in the lineup again Saturday night.
   Also day-to-day is linebacker Scott Brumett, who was injured during the Gardner-Webb game.
   The Bucs have had some people step up on defense, and one of those guys happens to be Montreal Harkley. He had two interceptions, and made a key goal-line stand in the fourth quarter Saturday night.
   Hamilton knows his team will have to be as healthy as possible to win. He also knows the Bucs will have to play a complete game, something that has yet to happen this season.
   "I think for us to have a chance we've got to play 60 minutes," Hamilton said.