When your opponent is up 31-17 with 1:40 left and has a win probability of 99.4%, the thought of winning the game seems completely far fetched. Especially when that opponent has just run off 24 straight points and out gained you 457 yards to 182 yards. Unfortunately for East Tennessee State, this was the daunting scenario they faced in their first FCS home playoff game since 1996.
It wasn’t only daunting because of the situation, but it was also due to how they arrived at this point. Midway through the third quarter ETSU was up 17-7 and had knocked Kennesaw State’s starting quarterback, Xavier Shepherd, out of the game with an injury. The home crowd at William B. Greene Stadium was electrified and victory looked to be on the horizon.
But things started to unravel from there. ETSU’s next three drives were as follows: 3 plays & 0 yards, 3 plays & -27 yards, 3 plays & 0 zero yards. Time of possession for those possessions was a minuscule 3 minutes and 12 seconds combined. Not exactly what you need when you’re looking to close out an opponent like Kennesaw State. A team that went 10-0 in FCS play and suffered their only loss of the regular season on the road vs FBS Power 5’s Georgia Tech.
The Owls seized this opportunity and performed brilliantly to turn the tables in Johnson City. Energized by their dual threat backup QB Jonathan Murphy, KSU proceeded to score 3 touchdowns and a field goal to take advantage of ETSU’s offensive collapse. Murphy, who had only attempted 5 passes all season, threw for 125 yards and 2 TDs. What was even more impressive was his 164 yards on 28 carries and 2 rushing TDs. His presence and command of the triple option propelled KSU to a 31-17 late in the 4th quarter.
Kennesaw State had silenced the home crowd and put the Buccaneers in a near impossible position. Yet ETSU persisted. A 13 play 78 yard drive, which included 4th & 5 conversion, was capped by a 12 yard TD pass from QB Tyler Rydell to WR Will Huzzie. This score cut the deficit to 31-24 with 1:28 remaining.
With just one timeout left, ETSU has no choice but to call for an onside kick. From 2014-2020, onside kicks in college football games were recovered at a 23.8% success rate. A higher percentage than one would imagine, but also recovered less than 1⁄4 of the time. The Buccaneers were both lucky and good, as they recovered the onside kick on the KSU 48 yard line. Riddell passed on all 5 plays of the ensuing drive and ultimately connected with RB Quay Holmes on a 4 yard TD pass with only 35 seconds on the clock.
Down 31-30, ETSU Head Coach Randy Sanders faced a difficult decision. Kick the extra point to force overtime and hope the momentum they’ve gained will carry over to the extra frame. Or don’t risk giving the potent Kennesaw State offense another opportunity and go for the two-point conversion to end the game.
Ultimately Sanders rolled the dice and decided to go for two. Sanders called on his QB one more time and Rydell conjured up more Buccaneer magic by finding TE Nate Adkins open in the back of the end zone. The gutsy calls by Coach Sanders left everyone at Greene Stadium absolutely stunned. Bucs fans were going crazy, while Owls fans were in disbelief watching what had just transpired.
KSU did have one last shot with the ball, but with just 28 seconds remaining. After a 9 yard completion and calling their final timeout, Murphy threw 3 straight incompletions to end the game. Final score: East Tennessee State 32, Kennesaw State 31.
The home fans rushed the field to celebrate what might be the most significant victory in program history. Their 11th win eclipses the 10 win seasons of 1969 and 1996, which stood as the most in a single season.
ETSU’s win for the ages earned them a spot in Round 3 of the FCS playoffs. They will travel to Fargo to face #2 seed North Dakota State. The Bison have of course won 8 of the last 12 FCS National Championships and are 21.5 point favorites.
Most FCS fans find the thought of ETSU upsetting NDSU to be pretty unlikely. Almost unlikely as ETSU overcoming a 14 point deficit with less than 2 minutes remaining. Well, we just saw ETSU pull off the improbable. Maybe, just maybe, they will go to Fargo this Saturday and pull off the “impossible”...