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Offensive line doing its job so far for Bucs

Joe Avento • Sep 22, 2018 at 12:30 PM

JOHNSON CITY — These days, when East Tennessee State’s offensive linemen hear people talk about their performance, they don’t have to cover their ears.

That’s because for the first time in four years, they’re actually keeping their quarterback upright.

The Bucs’ line, which has been battling the injury bug, has allowed just one sack over the past two games and four for the season.

They get their next chance to keep the momentum going Saturday when they play host to Furman in a Southern Conference football game. Kickoff is set for 7:30 p.m. at Greene Stadium.

“I think a lot was made of the offensive line when I first got here,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “When I watched them on tape, I didn’t think it was quite as bad as I was hearing. They have gotten better, no question, they’ve taken to the challenge. I think they got tired of hearing about them.

“Coach (Matt) McCutchan is coaching them hard and I’m also on them. They are probably get tired of hearing me. I’m not going to settle for less than what I think is championship-level performance. Once we get that, then I’ll probably get quiet and they won’t hear from me as much at practice.”

After allowing Mars Hill to get three sacks in the season opener, the line has stiffened. Tennessee got one, when Austin Herink was run out of bounds for a one-yard loss. VMI never got to Logan Marchi in Saturday’s 27-24 victory.

“We took a lot of pride in that,” senior guard Ben Blackmon said. “That’s one of our keys each game and we always say, ‘Don’t let him get touched.’ For Logan to not get sacked in a game was a big deal. That’s huge. It doesn’t come along often and we want to make it happen more often, so this was a good first step.”

The offensive line is working under their third coach in as many years. Erik Losey left for Southern Miss after the 2016 season. Last year, the line worked under Dewayne Alexander, now Tennessee Tech’s head coach. Sanders brought McCutchan with him from Florida State.

“We’ve made a lot of improvements in a lot of areas,” Blackmon said. “We are still not where we want to be. We still feel like we have another level we can get to, but I feel like we’ve made a lot of improvements. We need to eliminate the mistakes. We just have to go out there and do it. It starts with practice and working hard to get better.”

FAST START

The Bucs (2-1 overall, 1-0 SoCon) scored last week before they even had an offensive snap, thanks a punt return for a touchdown by Quan Harrison. Even though they picked off three passes in the first quarter, they didn’t score again until the second.

“Getting off to a fast start is always important,” Sanders said. “I thought we got off to a fast start last week, but we left it laying there. We wasted it.”

Furman knows a thing or two about getting off to a fast start against the Bucs. The Paladins have outscored ETSU 108-42 over the past two seasons. They won 56-35 last year and scored the first 52 points in a 52-7 thrashing of the Bucs in 2016. That Furman team came to Kermit Tipton Stadium with an 0-5 record.

Furman comes in 0-2 this time around with losses to Clemson (48-7) and Elon (45-7). Starting quarterback Darren Grainger has passed for a total of 89 yards in two games.

FURMAN COACH

Clay Hendrix, the Paladins’ coach, was the SoCon coach of the year last season after his team went 8-5 and made the playoffs in his first year at the helm.

LAST YEAR

ETSU’s 35-point outburst against Furman last year was its highest scoring total of the season. Herink, now Marchi’s backup, passed for 434 yards and three touchdowns.

DEFENSE SHINES

ETSU’s defense is ranked second in the SoCon in yards allowed, giving up 323 per game. The Bucs are tops in rush defense holding opponents to 62 yards a game. That’s half of what second-place Wofford is allowing.

“I’ve been pleased with the way the defense has played this year,” Sanders said. “I like the way the guys are playing. I like the way they’re competing.”

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