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McFeely blog: East Tennessee State earns unlikely game against Bison with near-miracle 88 seconds

Buccaneers pull out unlikely FCS playoff victory against Kennesaw State to continue theme of fourth-quarter comebacks

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

FARGO — You know those stories of people who were dead, or at least nearly so, and they speak of seeing a bright light? East Tennessee State might want to visit an optometrist to make sure its players and coaches aren't suffering from burned retinas.

The Buccaneers were as dead as a football team can be in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Saturday at home in Johnson City, Tenn., trailing Kennesaw State 31-17 with less than 2 minutes left on the clock. Kennesaw State had dominated the second half to that point, rolling up 457 total yards for the game and controlling the clock like an option team can do.

It appeared the seventh-seeded Bucs, champions of the Southern Conference, had expired and the unseeded Owls were headed to Fargo this week to play North Dakota State in the quarterfinals.

Then came the Miracle at Buffalo Mountain.

Don't know if anybody else is calling it that, but this flatlander is impressed by the 3,300-foot Great Smoky Mountains hill that overlooks Johnson City. So the Miracle at Buffalo Mountain it is.

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ETSU scored two touchdowns and tacked on the winning 2-point conversion with 35 seconds left, recovering an onside kick between the TDs, to rally for an improbable 32-31 win over the Owls and a national television date with the Bison at the Fargodome.

You had to see it to believe it. And if you see it, which I have, you'll still be wondering how Kennesaw State is not NDSU's opponent.

Even ETSU head coach Randy Sanders, 33 years in the business, hadn't quite seen anything like it.

"That one right there, the way it happened, the grit, the determination, the never-die attitude of the players makes it as good as anything else," Sanders told the Buccaneers Sports Network after the game.

Kennesaw State kicked a 45-yard field goal with 5:02 left for a 31-17 lead, eschewing going for a fourth-and-3 at the ETSU 28 in favor of getting a 14-point lead. Unexpectedly, that decision kept the door open for everything that came afterward.

Taking over at its own 22 with 4:59 remaining, ETSU matriculated the ball downfield slowly. Steadily, yes. Too slowly, it seemed. The Bucs grinded into Kennesaw territory but the clock had drained away to less than 2 minutes left. After quarterback Tyler Riddell threw an incomplete pass from the Kennesaw State 12 with 1:40 remaining, ESPN's win probability tool gave the Owls a 99.4% chance of victory.

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But Riddell hit Will Huzzie for a touchdown on the next play and the PAT kick made it 31-24 with 1:28 left.

ETSU still needed to recover an onside kick to give itself a chance. It did, with Tyler Keltner dribbling the kickoff straight ahead 17 yards to the Kennesaw 48, where it was recovered by ETSU's Tim Stayskalon with 1:26 left.

"The odds of recovering an onside kick. If you look that, the odds are against you," NDSU head coach Matt Entz said at his weekly press conference Monday. "I think the ball probably bounced off four or five different people. That's the way it is. It's an oblong football. It doesn't have a true bounce to it."

It didn't take long for things to get really interesting.

Consecutive completions from Riddell to Nate Adkins totaled 39 yards and got the ball inside Kennesaw's 10. Riddell had an incompletion before an offsides call moved the ball to the 4. A pass for no gain followed. Then Riddell found Quay Holmes open in the middle of the end zone and the star running back made a nice catch on a low throw for a touchdown to make it 31-30 with 35 seconds left.

Sanders said the decision to go for two points and the win had already been made long ago. He had told Riddell before the final drive started that if the Bucs scored a TD they were going for two points.

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East Tennessee State plays in William B. Greene Jr. Stadium in Johnson City, Tenn. Dakota Hamilton/ETSU photo

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"I was going for two and the win," Sanders said. "We're not going to OT."

Riddell found Adkins again in the middle of the end zone for two points and a 32-31 ETSU lead.

Kennesaw State got the ball at their own 27 with 28 seconds remaining and no time outs and could only advance it four yards before time ran out.

Sanders got a hug from a Tennessee state trooper positioned on the ETSU sideline and students stormed the field.

It was the fifth time this season ETSU (11-1) rallied from a deficit in the fourth quarter to win.

"If you look at their season, they've had a lot of close games. I'm sure they are a confident football team right now because of that," Entz said.

The reward is a road trip to Fargo to play NDSU, the eight time FCS national champion which destroyed Southern Illinois 38-7 on Saturday by running for 389 yards. The Bison opened as 23-point favorites.

"I feel like we have a good football team. We're 11-1. ... We're 15-3 in this calendar year (including the spring FCS season). If you can go 15-3 in a calendar year or 11-1, you got a chance," Sanders said. "We just gotta go play. ... It doesn't matter who is the best team. It's which team plays better and our challenge is to play better than them next week."

ETSU will try to transport the Miracle at Buffalo Mountain 1,300 miles northwest to the flat-as-a-table Red River Valley.

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