By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
Photos by Charlotte Coulson
College Sports Journal
JOHNSON CITY, TN. — Probably my most entrenched memory of a home football game at East Tennessee State was the night the lights went out at the Mini Dome.
After a squirrel committed suicide at a nearby power transfer station, blacking out about half of Johnson City, myself and the other media members attending an Appalachian State-ETSU game sat in pitch darkness for more than two hours in the press box at the top of one of the worst Division I football stadiums in America.
It was like watching 100-yard Arena League Football when the lights were on in Johnson City, with poor sight lines, difficult working conditions and a sterile atmosphere.
Was it any wonder that many in the Tri-Cities area of East Tennessee would rather venture two hours away to Neyland Stadium in Knoxville to watched the University of Tennessee, travel to their nearest sports bar, or just ignore Buccaneer football altogether?
Rather than address the venue problem, then-ETSU president Paul Stanton nefariously pulled the plug on the program and the Bucs played their final game of football in 2013, defeating The Citadel 16-13 on Nov. 22 on a last-second field goal by Jonathan Godfrey.
Some 4,303 days later, ETSU resurrected football for the 2015 season, playing its first game in 12 years on Thursday night against a college gridiron newcomer, Kennesaw State.
The Bucs, who are returning to their historical home in the Southern Conference, avoided the mistakes of the past by moving away from the decrepit Mini-Dome and deciding to play at nearby Science Hill High School while a new outdoor, on-campus stadium is constructed.
And while ETSU made its share of mistakes in a 56-16 loss to Kennesaw State, the vision of the Buccaneers playing in the great outdoors was a tremendous hit.
It was the best atmosphere this writer had ever seen at an ETSU football game as a crowd of 8,217 overflowed a stadium with 5,000 seats. When the Bucs offered standing-room-only tickets last week, some 500 ducats were snapped up in 12 minutes.
Enthusiasm was the word of the evening, from the friendly tailgating crowd in the parking lots near the stadium, to the crowded concourses that filled up a couple of hours before the game.
There were enough pre-game moments to give fans, or an old sportswriter chills as the crowd truly wore heart-felt emotions on its sleeves throughout the night.
Probably the best pre-game moment came when John Russaw, who broke the color barrier at ETSU in 1964, was introduced to huge cheers before he sang the national anthem.
Russaw shook off some early nerves to produce a heart-pounding, sensitive performance.
Adding to the festive environment was a group of about 500 Kennesaw State spectators that made the five-hour trip up from the Atlanta suburbs for their own special night and cheered every one of the Owls’ successful plays with thrilling gusto.
The evening got off to a great start for ETSU when JJ Jerman capped off a 16-play, 57-yard drive with his 36-yard field goal on the Bucs’ opening drive. Jerman’s steady kicking turned out to be one of the highlights of the night for his team.
KSU came back for a touchdown, using its Georgia Southern-styled option to set up quarterback Trey White’s 12-yard scoring dash near the end of the first period.
But East Tennessee got the crowd worked up again in the second quarter when Jerman converted a 31-yard field goal and Jajuan Stinson scampered 12 yards for the Bucs’ first touchdown to give the home squad a 13-7 lead with 6:42 left in the first half.
The rest of the game, however, turned out to be all Kennesaw State.
“If we played for a quarter and a half, we would have been won the football game,” said veteran coach Carl Torbush, the onetime North Carolina mentor. “We got tired late. We’ve got a lot to work on.”
After wingback Jae Bowen took the ball two yards for a TD and Justin Thompson added the extra point to give the Owls the lead at 14-13 with 1:48 left before intermission, the momentum of the contest changed for good when defensive end Nick Perrotta deflected and intercepted Nick Sexton’s pass and scooted 19 yards into the end zone 38 seconds later.
Kennesaw State led 21-13 at the break and never looked back.
What chance ETSU had at coming back quickly disappeared in the third quarter when Justin Sumpter converted his short, hitch reception from White (2-of-6 passing, 96 yards, 16 carries for 95 yards) into a broken tackle and a 69-yard touchdown.
On KSU’s next drive, the ETSU seemed to have Chaston Bennett (seven carries for 87 yards) hemmed in for a huge loss when he squirted free from a tackler and raced 38 yards for first and goal at the ETSU six.
Bowen powered in for the touchdown to increase the Owl lead to 35-13.
While the crowd tried to remain enthusiastic, you could feel the air seeping out of the demoralized Buccaneers on the field.
In all, KSU scored 49 straight points after East Tennessee grabbed that 13-7 advantage midway through the second period.
The Bucs finally tallied another field goal from 46 yards out by the accurate Jerman to cut Kennesaw State’s winning margin to 40 points.
Kennesaw State, which is competing in the Big South Conference, made some good adjustments in the second half to finish with 416 rushing yards on 57 carries (7.3 average) and 512 yards of total offense from its potentially powerful option attack.
The Owl defense limited ETSU to 328 yards, 230 of those through the air. Freshman QB Austin Herrick was 14-of-22 for 132 yards, while Sexton struggled off the bench with a 7-for-17 night for 98 yards with two interceptions.
KSU coach Brian Bohannon, who had spent the past 17 years with Paul Johnson in stops at Georgia Southern, Navy and Georgia Tech, was ecstatic with his squad’s historic, opening-game performance.
“A lot of hard work has been put in by everyone,” said Bohannon. “It’s big for our program.”
But even a big loss was a big success for East Tennessee State.
As the post-game fireworks show punctuated a fantastic opening night, the future looks bright for both of these Football Championship Subdivision programs.