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WATCH NOW: ETSU FOOTBALL: ‘Another opportunity’; East Tennessee looks forward to FCS quarterfinals against tradition-rich Bison

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Kennesaw State vs ETSU

ETSU running back Quay Holmes is surrounded by three Kennesaw State defenders during the Buccaneers’ 32-31 FCS playoff win over the Owls last Saturday at Greene Stadium. Holmes, one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award - given to the top offensive player in FCS football - had 182 yards and three touchdowns for the Buccaneers. ETSU travels to eight-time FCS national champion North Dakota State for the FCS quarterfinals on Saturday in Fargo, N.D.

Nate Atkins will never argue with more football.

East Tennessee State will play its 13th game of this season and 19th of the 2021 calendar year on Saturday at North Dakota State in the FCS quarterfinals.

“We played six games in the spring and we have played 12 now, and we get to a play a 13th,” said Atkins, who caught the game-winning two-point conversion that completed ETSU’s remarkable 32-31 FCS playoff victory last Saturday over Kennesaw State. “We are at almost 20 games in a year and as a football player that is what you want.

“You want to play games, it is just another opportunity for us to go out and play.”

What awaits is the very definition of a dynasty.

All the Bison did from 2011-19 was win eight FCS national championships over a span of nine seasons. ETSU is 2-2 all-time in FCS playoff games, North Dakota State is 37-3 since its championship run began.

Perhaps that is why ETSU (11-1) has been picked as anywhere from a 21-to-25 point underdog against the Bison (11-1). Kickoff is slated for noon and will be televised at noon.

Don’t expect that disrespect to discourage the Buccaneers.

“If you don’t respect us, that is okay,” said ETSU offensive lineman Tre’mond Shorts said, during a press conference early this week. “The teams that line up against us on Saturday know what we can do. After the game the respect is earned throughout every play. If you have never played us and you don’t respect us, that doesn’t bother us at all.”

ETSU head coach Randy Sanders acknowledges the challenge ahead for the Buccaneers, who squeaked past Kennesaw State, while the Matt Entz-coached Bison defeated Southern Illinois 38-7 to advance to the FCS quarterfinals for a 12th straight season.

“Obviously they are a good football team. You don’t get to the third round of the playoffs without being a good football team,” Sanders said. “When you watch North Dakota State, they play hard and they play fast and physical. They are really good at running the football and they are solid on defense.

“There is a lot of maturity on their roster – including nine senior defensive starters. They have more seniors starting on defense than we have on our football team. I think that our team is going to show up.”

ETSU scored 15 points in a 53-second span to escape the Owls, recovering an onside kick and converting a two-point conversion with 35 seconds left to play, showing the kind of perseverance that has helped the Bucs made five fourth quarter comebacks this season.

“I don’t know if it is tough or nasty but it is the culture that we have tried to instill,” Sanders said. “We try to do things the right way, we try to play with class, but we are going to play hard, we are going to play physical, we are going to play fast and we are going to play smart.

“If you do those things and you do it with good players you always have a chance in a game.”

ETSU will travel more than 1,000 miles to face the North Dakota State at the famed Fargodome, which is usually filled with 19,000 avid Bison fans. Sanders planned to turn up the noise at the on-campus Mini-Dome this week in preparation for that experience.

“Obviously we will have some crowd noises going at practice this week. We will probably see how loud our speaker can get on the jumbotron to simulate some of that noise,” Sanders said. “The crowd noise is going to be different. It is not very often that you have trouble communicating. For the most part I can yell to receivers and quarterbacks. But I don’t expect that to be the case on Saturday.

“Everyone you talk to just talks about the hostile environment and how loud the dome can get. Also in my experience, when you play in the dome, it can be 70 degrees at kickoff but by the 3rd or 4th quarter with all of the people yelling it can get near 80 degrees.”

Shorts isn’t all that concerned.

“Communication is a big part of what we do as an offensive line,” Shorts said. “There may be a little tweak here and there on getting the signals down because of the noise level. Most of the time we are on the same page anyway, so I don’t believe it will be a big difference.”

While ETSU has been led by the potent running back duo of Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors, and the much-improved Tyler Riddell at quarterback, the Bison are led by a familiar name at quarterback in former Virginia Tech signal-called Quincy Patterson, who shares duties with Cam Miller. He is second to Miller in passing yards and second to TeMerik Williams on the ground for an offense that averages 35.5 points a game.

ETSU, which limits the opposition to 22.3 points a contest, is led the talented linebacker duo of Donovan Manuel and Jared Folks, who are 1-2 on the Bucs in tackles.

“First off, God has blessed us with talent. [Defensive coordinator] Coach [Billy] Taylor works us every day and we have to play like we are never satisfied,” Folks said. “It is just nonstop work with Donovan. We keep each other accountable and we are the first person to say something to the other. He is one of the best linebackers that I have ever seen and played with.”

North Dakota State, which also won eight NCAA Division II crowns from 1965-1990, has sent quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Trey Lance to the NFL in recent seasons. The Bucs have talent too, led by Holmes – one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award – who had 182 yards and three touchdowns last week against Kennesaw State.

Few, if any of the Bucs, have ever played this long into the season at the college level.

“He was not ready to go home, he wanted to keep playing,” said Sanders, recalling Holmes’ effort against the Owls. “There hadn’t been many that had ever played in a college football game in December, much less won one. We have got a few guys that transferred in, but he wanted to keep playing in December, and if you keep playing in December, usually that is a pretty good thing.”

There is little doubt the Bucs face a tall task ahead, but Folks is excited for the opportunity.

“It means a lot for this program, this area and this city,” Folks said. “We are getting the opportunity to play at the same time that they are playing. So, it is really a testament to what we are building here. They have a good history, but I feel we are starting our own.”

bwoodson@bristolnews.com | Twitter: BHCWoodson | (276) 645-2543

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