ETSU, App State  battle for first  place in SoCon

By Matt Hill
STAR STAFF
mhill@starhq.com

   JOHNSON CITY--It's been awhile since the East Tennessee State Buccaneer football team has played in a game of the magnitude Saturday night's contest with Appalachian State will have.
   When the Buccaneers (3-2, 2-0 in the SoCon) take on the Mountaineers (3-1, 1-0 in the SoCon), it will be a battle for first place in the league.
   It will also be another chance for the Buccaneers to win a big game in Memorial Center.
   The Bucs have had a knack for being giant-killers in the past, and this would be no different. Appalachian State comes in as the favorite to win the SoCon, and is ranked No. 4 in Division I-AA.
   Two years ago, ETSU beat a top ten team in Furman. Last season, the Bucs upended No. 1 ranked Georgia Southern.
   The Bucs reputation for upsets worries Appalachian State head coach Jerry Moore.
   "I've already mentioned it to them," Moore said. "We talked about it Monday. East Tennessee State plays hard, and is well-coached. It's always a tough game."
   Hamilton thinks that with his team enjoying winning seasons during the last three years, it's no surprise to him that the Bucs have been able to step it up a notch in the big games.
   "I feel our football program has consistently won the last few seasons," Hamilton said. "We've been able to play at a good level against outstanding teams. We've played well in those games, and have had some breaks go our way."
   Hamilton knows it's going to take a stellar effort for his team to pull off another big victory.
   "It's going to be one of the biggest challenges we've faced in the dome," Hamilton said. "They've got a lot of senior starters. Joe Burchette throws well, and the defense swarms to the ball. And we've got a lot of improvements to make before Saturday night.
   The Bucs seem to be on their way to making those.
   Last Saturday, ETSU routed Western Carolina 27-7 in Cullowhee. The Bucs dominated the Catamounts both on the offensive and defensive sides of the football.
   It was a certain change from a couple of weeks ago, when the Bucs lost to Gardner-Webb and were sitting with a 1-2 record.
   "I was very proud of the way our football team approached that ball game," Hamilton said. "I think they went into their stadium with the attitude that we expected to win. We believed we could win, and we felt like we should win."
   Things have definitely come full circle for the Bucs. The once-struggling running game racked up 224 net yards of rushing Saturday night, they have found them a quarterback in Jatavis Sanders, and the Buccaneer defense has just about healed up from some early-season injuries.
   As a matter of fact, the biggest problem right now might be the kicking game. Neither Scott Salmons, Braye Walters, Jon Godfrey or Wes Sands have yet found their niche.
   The Bucs may be struggling with field goals and even extra points, but Hamilton was encouraged by a field goal Sands made Saturday night that put ETSU up 17-7 to set the tone for the rest of the evening.
   "We've still got to become so much more consistent as far as making field goals," Hamilton said. "We missed a couple of chip shots in the ball game. I was real proud of Wes Sands for coming in and making a huge difference."
   The Bucs are hoping to get a complete game this week against a very talented Mountaineer squad.
   Jerry Beard and Shawn Jackson lead a Mountaineer running game that has the potential to be explosive, while Burchette has bounced back nicely from an early-season back injury.
   On defense, defensive end Josh Jeffries leads an experienced group.
   But despite all the talent, Appalachian State comes into the contest ranked near the bottom in a lot of Southern Conference statistics. Last week, the Mountaineers squeaked by The Citadel 37-28.
   The situation Appalachian State is in is similar to the one Georgia Southern happened to be in last season with all the close games before going down to the Bucs. But Hamilton expects a different Appalachian State performance Saturday night.
   "I think they're going to play the best game they've played all season long against us Saturday night," Hamilton said. "I don't think in my mind there is any question about it. I think the fact that now Burchette is back at quarterback has helped. They know Joe is the starter, and that he is ready to go. They had over 500 yards of offense last week.
   "I think we're getting ready to see the real Appalachian State football team in here Saturday night. I think you're going to see them play very well."
   It's been a week filled with controversy at East Tennessee State, and this game is sort of a battle for respect for the Bucs.
   A lot of things have been written about the Bucs in recent weeks, including whether the athletic department should keep football. Hamilton couldn't believe it when told about that, and is ready for his team to take some action on the field.
   "It's hard to figure somebody could write something saying that we should drop football when we've had three-straight winning seasons," Hamilton said. "We just want to go out and play Appalachian State. They're great kids, and I expect them to come out and play well Saturday night."
   As the Bucs get ready for this big test, one player that is licking his chops is strong safety Gerald Sensabaugh.
   "We're going to get them, too," Sensabaugh said. "We're going to win the SoCon this year."
   Kickoff is at 6.