JOHNSON CITY — East Tennessee State had one last opportunity to pick up a Southern Conference win on Saturday as the Buccaneers looked to send their 21 seniors out on a positive note, but it was sophomore running back Quay Holmes who stole the show.
Holmes had a career day as he carried the ball 26 times for 255 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Bucs to a 38-33 win over the Mercer Bears at Greene Stadium. Holmes’ 255 yards is a school record for a game and is the fifth most rushing yards for a player in the Football Championship Subdivision this year. Holmes had his longest career rush not once but twice and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season as he broke off a 64-yard run to the left side on ETSU’s first offensive possession. He bested that on the second offensive drive as he rumbled 74 yards to the Mercer eight.
“That was good to see,” ETSU head coach Randy Sanders said of Holmes’ 64-yard run on the Bucs’ first play from scrimmage. “We started off well running the ball and I thought we had a good plan and thought the offensive line and tight ends did a good job blocking. Quay did a good job of executing the run. It was definitely Quay’s day.”
The Bucs’ offense was in high gear against the Bears as they had a season-high 526 total yards with 410 coming on the ground. Freshman quarterback Tyler Riddell came off the bench and finished the game with 116 yards and a touchdown. Mercer running back Tyray Devezin also put up monster numbers as he rushed 29 times for 168 yards and scored four times. Quarterback Kaelan Riley was 21-of-30 for 224 yards and a touchdown but the ETSU defense intercepted him twice.
“I thought Tyler had some true freshman moments,” Sanders said of Riddell’s game in relief. “But he also played pretty well. It’s a whole lot easier to play quarterback when you run for 410 yards but he was 8-for-12 and for the most part, was accurate when he threw it. He’s a freshman and did some freshman things but he provided a spark as he was able to pull the ball down and do some things with his legs.”
ETSU improves to 3-8 overall and goes to 1-7 in conference play. Despite the disappointing record this year, Sanders said he has always encouraged his team that they are better than their record indicates. “I have talked to this team all along about how they are a good football team, keep playing. The character, the integrity, the pride, the heart of a winner and the heart of a champion and for the most part, they have fought and competed and battled and believed. It’s nice to go into the locker room and be rewarded for that.”
Mercer (4-7, 3-4) struck first when Devezin scored on an 11-yard run to put the Bears up 7-0. On the Bucs first play of their first offensive possession, Holmes’ 64-yard rumble set up a field goal for ETSU when Tyler Keltner booted through a kick from 21 yards to make it 10-3. Holmes’ second long run of 74 yards set the Bucs up in good position deep in Mercer territory again and Jacob Saylors finished off the drive with a two-yard run to make it 10-7 late in the first quarter.
Mercer retook the lead when Devezin found pay dirt once more, this time from the one, to give the Bears a 14-10 lead five seconds into the second quarter. That was it for the visitors from Georgia, however as ETSU scored the next 21 points of the opening half. Noah West got in on the fun when he broke off a 41-yard run all the way to Bears’ eight yard line and Holmes scored from the four to put the Bucs up 17-14.
The next ETSU score was set up by the defense as Donovan Manuel picked off Riley at the Mercer 48 yard line. The Bucs faced two fourth down plays and converted both when Holmes had a five-yard run on the first and then scored from the one yard-line on the second to push the home team’s lead to 24-14.
The Bucs celebrated Senior Day on Saturday and two seniors played a key role in a frenetic last 50 seconds of the first half. After Jason Maduafokwa sacked Riley for a seven-yard loss, Artevius Smith made an incredible play to pick off Riley’s pass in the end zone and he returned it 40 yards where it appeared to toss the ball to Karon Delince who ran another 34 yards down to the 26. The play initially was called back as an illegal forward pass but upon review, Mercer actually poked the ball loose and Delince was in the right place at the right time and got credit for the fumble recovery. Riddell picked up his first career passing touchdown when he threw towards the end zone and Keith Coffee made an incredible catch for the 27-yard score with nine seconds to go. Keltner was good on his fourth PAT of the game as the Bucs led 31-14 at the half, the most points ETSU had scored in a half since the reinstatement of football.
For as good as ETSU was on offense in the first two quarters, they were that bad in the third quarter as they turned the ball over three times on two fumbles and an interception. The first miscue was a fumble out of the wildcat formation at their own 27 yard-line and Mercer made the Bucs pay as Devezin was in the end zone on the second play for a 13-yard score. Caleb Dowd’s point-after was no good and the Bears trailed 31-20. The Bucs inserted starter Trey Mitchell again in the third quarter but he was promptly picked off by Sidney Otiwu at the ETSU 25. The Bucs dodged a bullet as the Bear’s freshman kicker Dowd missed a chip-shot 38-yard field goal.
The second fumble out of the wildcat formation resulted in another Mercer score as a high snap was recovered at the Bears 12. They put together a scoring drive when Riley threw a dart to Chris Ellington on the first play of the fourth quarter. Because of the missed extra point on the previous score, the Bears opted to go for two, but Nasir Player was having none of it as he dumped Riley on the pass attempt to preserve the ETSU lead at 31-26.
ETSU went right to work in the fourth quarter when Saylors picked up 15 yards on a run and then caught a 28-yard pass from Riddell to get to the Mercer 21. Two penalties of 25 yards on the same play backed the Bucs back up to near midfield but Riddell scrambled for an eight-yard run on a third down play to keep the drive alive and Holmes capped it with his third touchdown of the day. Keltner’s point-after was good to push the Bucs out to a 38-26 advantage.
Devezin continued to impress as his fourth touchdown of the day, this one from seven yards out, cut the ETSU deficit to 38-33 with four and a half to go in the contest. The Bucs got the ball back and gave the Bears a sturdy diet of Holmes as he picked up 59 yards on seven carries to grind out the necessary first downs to run out the clock on the 38-33 victory.
ETSU rounds out their season next Saturday when they travel to Nashville to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.