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McFeely blog: A primer on East Tennessee State, a new opponent for Bison

Playoff quarterfinal is first meeting between NDSU and Buccaneers, but the Bison signed a home-and-home contract with ETSU to play a pair of regular-season games in 2024 and 2026.

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William B. Greene Jr. Stadium, where East Tennessee State plays its home football games. ETSU Athletics photo

FARGO — A new opponent. Something different. A little freshness to the same old, same old.

Isn't that what North Dakota State football fans have been seeking the last couple of years? Many say they have because the relentless winning and repeat opponents have allowed a certain staleness to enter the Bison's annual attempt at marching to Frisco, Texas, home of the Football Championship Subdivision title game.

Ask and you shall receive. Now the question is how many fans will actually show up in the Fargodome on Saturday morning when a brand-spanking-new opponent, East Tennessee State, visits NDSU for an FCS quarterfinal playoff game. If last week's 38-7 victory over Southern Illinois was any indication (12,557 attendance in 18,700-seat dome) the Fargodome will not be rocking like the good old days of 2011-2018.
Interesting nugget: While this will be the first meeting between NDSU and ETSU, the Bison signed a home-and-home contract with the Buccaneers to play a pair of regular-season games. NDSU will travel to Johnson City, Tenn., in 2024 and the Bucs will return to Fargo in 2026.

More related coverage:

  • McFeely: Dormant for 11 years, East Tennessee State football program coming to Fargo was built back from scratch
  • Bison rewind: A look back at NDSU's unprecedented consecutive trips to the FCS quarterfinals
  • Dynamic RB Holmes says East Tennessee State 'ready' for FCS quarterfinal challenge against Bison
  • The boos got Patterson down, but Bison QB back in business with new role
  • Ten Years Gone: DJ's run over the Dukes
  • McFeely blog: A primer on East Tennessee State, a new opponent for Bison
  • Jake Kava bet on himself with Bison football, and he's being rewarded for it
  • McFeely: Nearly 60 Missouri Valley Football Conference players in transfer portal

A quick primer on ETSU:

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Location

Johnson City, Tenn., (population 71,046 according to the 2020 census), in the northeastern tip of the state bordered by Virginia and North Carolina. Johnson City is about 150 miles from Charlotte, N.C., and 105 miles from Knoxville, Tenn. It is 285 miles from Nashville.

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Johnson City, Tenn., with the Great Smoky Mountains in the background. Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Enrollment

About 14,500.

Conference

Southern Conference (ETSU, Mercer, Chattanooga, Furman, Virginia Military Institute, Western Carolina, Samford, The Citadel, Wofford).

Head coach

Randy Sanders. 26-16 in four seasons at ETSU, including a school record 11-1 this year. Southern Conference coach of the year in 2018, 2021. Led Bucs to FCS playoffs in 2018, when they lost 34-27 to Jacksonville State in first round. Sanders was a quarterback in college at Tennessee (1984-88). He was an assistant coach at Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida State before becoming head coach at ETSU in 2018.

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Program history

ETSU's first year playing football was 1920, when it was known as East Tennessee State Normal School. The school had occasional success before a standout year in 1969 when the Bucs went 10-0-1 and beat Louisiana Tech in the Grantland Rice Bowl. It was mostly mediocrity and worse between then and 1996, when ETSU qualified for the FCS playoffs and won a game to advance to the quarterfinals where it lost 44-14 at Montana.

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East Tennessee State football fans greet their team before a game in Johnson City, Tennessee. Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

The school dropped football following the 2003 season and didn't re-start it until 2015. Carl Torbush coached the first three seasons before retiring and current coach Randy Sanders was hired in 2018. The Bucs won the Southern Conference that season and advanced the playoffs as an unseeded team.

2021 is ETSU's third appearance in the FCS playoffs. The Bucs are 2-2 in playoff games.

Top players

Redshirt junior running back Quay Holmes (6-1, 220) is one of three finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player in FCS. He's the second-leading rusher in FCS (behind Pierre Strong Jr. of South Dakota State) with 1,518 yards and 17 TDs. He averages 126.5 yard per game.

Junior running back Jacob Saylors (5-11, 195) has 985 yards rushing and 10 TDs. He averages 82.1 yards per game.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Tyler Riddell (5-11, 170) completes 63.7% of his passes (195-306) and has thrown for 2,372 yards and 19 TDS.

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East Tennessee State running back Quay Holmes gets a lift from offensive line Tre'mond Shorts. Dakota Hamilton/ETSU photo

Riddell's top targets are redshirt sophomore receiver Will Huzzie (6-3, 195), who has 56 catches for 789 yards and five TDs. Junior tight end Nate Adkins (6-3, 240) and redshirt senior receiver Malik Murray (6-0, 170) each have 32 catches. Adkins made a couple of key catches as ETSU rallied from 14 points behind in the final 90 seconds to beat Kennesaw State 32-31 in the second round.

ETSU's top defensive players in the Bucs' 3-4 alignment include redshirt sophomore defensive end Donovan Manuel (6-1, 230) and senior linebacker Jared Folks (6-2, 220). Manuel has a team-leading 116 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks. Folks has 89 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception.

Redshirt sophomore Jalen Porter (6-2, 250) has a team-high six sacks.

Historic player

Folks, from Harrisburg, Pa., is the first player in NCAA history to have eight years of eligibility. He began his college career at Temple in 2014. He played in 2016 for Temple and transferred to ETSU in 2018. His career has been hampered by injuries, but he's been a key player for the Bucs. Folks is 26 years old.

The 'Mini-Dome'

ETSU's football team once played in what was called the Memorial Center, an indoor stadium that sat about 8,400. It was built in 1977 as a way to generate interest in the football program and to serve as a multi-purpose facility on campus. It was referred to as the "Mini-Dome."

The Bucs played in the Mini-Dome until the school dropped football after the 2003 season. When ETSU re-started football for the 2015 season, it played at a local high school for two years before the opening of William B. Greene Jr. Stadium on campus.

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What is now called the ETSU/Mountain States Health Alliance Athletic Center was built in 1977 as a home stadium for East Tennessee State's football team and as a multi-purpose building on campus. It was popularly referred to as the "Mini-Dome." and sat 8,539 fans. ETSU Athletics photo

About Johnson City

The original Mountain Dew soft drink was bottled in Johnson City from the 1940s to the 1960s, when Pepsi Cola acquired it.

The city is a regional economic hub fueled by ETSU and a "med-tech" corridor. It is the principal city in the Johnson City metro area, which has a combined population of 200,966. Counting the regional "tri-cities" of Johnson City, Kingsport and Bristol, the area has an estimated 500,000 residents.

Johnson City is just west of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Appalachian Ridge/Valley Province region. Roan Mountain, with an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, is approximately 20 miles to the southeast. Buffalo Mountain, a ridge 2,700 feet high, is the location of a city park on the south side of town.

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Buffalo Mountain, just outside Johnson City, Tenn., offers panoramic views of the surrounding area. Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

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Johnson City, Tenn., is the home of East Tennessee State University. This is a shot of Kings Common Park in downtown Johnson City. Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

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Johnson City, Tenn., is the home of East Tennessee State University. This is a shot of Kings Common Park in downtown Johnson City. Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau photo

Mike McFeely is a columnist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. He began working for The Forum in the 1980s while he was a student studying journalism at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He's been with The Forum full time since 1990, minus a six-year hiatus when he hosted a local radio talk-show.
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