ETSU football team responds to criticism

JOHNSON CITY -- The pregame meal served in the press box at Memorial Center Saturday night was pizza.
   The postgame meal was crow.
   Local media members were definitely scratching their heads following East Tennessee State's 19-16 upset victory over top-ranked Georgia Southern.
   The shocking win came after a week of heavy criticism by the local media. Almost every area daily newspaper lashed out at ETSU head coach Paul Hamilton after his team's dismal 2-4 start.
   A lot of the criticism was about continuing to start quarterback Matt Wilhjelm instead of Jatavis Sanders. Wilhjelm had struggled through six games, and didn't have great numbers Saturday night. But he did a lot to quiet the media by throwing two touchdown passes to Cecil Moore.
   Wilhjelm, a former Science Hill standout, didn't let the criticism bother him.
   "To be honest, I haven't paid a bit of attention to it," Wilhjelm said. "I appreciate the attention 100 percent that the media gives ETSU, and welcome every bit of it. To be honest, it's on paper. It's what's in the heart of the guys on the team that really counts."
   Going into the game, the media probably had every right to bash the Bucs. The passing game was struggling, the running game was nonexistent, the play of the offensive line was pretty bad, and the defense had yet to live up to its bold preseason statement of being the best in school history.
   All that changed Saturday night.
   While the Bucs were outgained in the statistics, they made more big plays on offense and defense. The offense stepped up in the third quarter to score three touchdowns, while the defense forced four Georgia Southern turnovers.
   Still, Hamilton thought the criticism going into the contest was uncalled for.
   "We had some things said about our team this week that really disturbed
   me," Hamilton said. "It really hurt me inside, and it was something that our team didn't deserve."
   With all the criticism going on, it was probably going to take a win over the No. 1 team in Division 1-AA to quiet everybody. Evidently, the criticism given by me and other ETSU beat writers worked.
   This whole ordeal has seemed to bring what looked liked a divided team together, and they accomplished a miraculous win.
   "I was really proud of our football team staying together this week through all the adversity," Hamilton said. "I'm just so proud of the way the coaches and team have hung together, and were able to maintain a belief in each other. That's a credit to the staff and the players to go out and compete and win a game of this magnitude."
   While some teams would be irate over the criticism given to the ETSU program, Hamilton contends that the Bucs just tried to take care of the business at hand.
   "We didn't meet about it or nothing," Hamilton said. "We're a family, and we're going to stay together through thick and thin. That's what this program is built about. As long as I'm blessed to be the head coach here we will always be built around God first and family second."
   To put in perspective this victory, Georgia Southern had one of the best football players at any level in Adrian Peterson. He may have gained 159 yards on the ground, but the Bucs kept him out of the end zone. That rarely happens.
   In addition, the offense managed three touchdowns on a defense that had shut teams down to seven points or less four times this season.
   Hamilton realizes what this team accomplished Saturday night.
   "When ETSU beats Georgia Southern, we're beating the best in America," Hamilton said. "I think we took a step in the right direction tonight."
   According to Moore, the Bucs were not only lacking respect from the media, but also the Georgia Southern players. The former Morristown East standout was not very pleased with Georgia Southern's actions before the game.
   "In all the years that I've played football, I've never seen anything like that," Moore said. "I'm down there trying to field balls, and they're sitting there tossing balls everywhere and dunking. That's just disrespect."
   The Bucs have probably won the respect of the Southern Conference with the victory. While there will be no league championship or playoff berth, ETSU is now in position for its third straight winning season with the weaker part of the schedule coming up.
   Hamilton deserves a lot of credit for the victory, and for his actions after the game. He took a lot of heat this week, and while what the local media said upset him, he was still a class act in the postgame press conference.
   Wilhjelm also deserves a round of applause for the way he handled himself. He didn't show any anger toward me or the other ETSU beat writers. He responded to the questions with a lot of class.
   Congratulations Bucs. You've earned this one.