JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (Oct. 18, 2003) - Two interception returns for touchdowns by All-America senior cornerback Tony Tiller (Lithonia, Ga.) and a 65-yard touchdown run by senior slotback Andrew Nuckolls (Dalton, Ga.) on the first play from scrimmage paved the way to a 33-23 East Tennessee State victory over Liberty in front of 7,730 fans at ETSU's annual homecoming game in Johnson City, Tenn.
Nuckolls wasted no time getting ETSU on the board. Taking a pitch from redshirt freshman quarterback Scott Butler (Kingsport, Tenn.), Nuckolls weaved through the secondary and with a burst of speed around midfield, outran the Liberty (2-6) defense and gave the Bucs (3-4) a 7-0 lead just 13 seconds into the game.
On Liberty's second possession, Tiller stepped in front of a Gus Condon pass at the 31-yard line of the Flames and returned it for a score. It was the first return for a touchdown in Tiller's illustrious ETSU career, but his day was far from done.
The Flames cut the ETSU lead in half late in the first quarter with a touchdown of their own. After a clutch 21-yard scamper by star running back Dre Barnes nearly went for a score, quarterback J.R. Barley stuck in the pocket under pressure and hit tight end Jay Cline with a five-yard touchdown strike.
The Bucs widened their lead to 17-7 with a 29-yard field goal by junior kicker Jonathan Godfrey (Johnson City, Tenn.) that split the uprights. ETSU was aided in the drive by a key roughing the kicker penalty on a 45-yard attempt by Godfrey earlier in the drive.
ETSU came right back just 54 seconds later after the Buccaneer defense held and forced a punt. However, the snap was low, and punter Noah Crouch covered the ball at the one-yard line of the Flames. Freshman running back Kenny Harper (Knoxville, Tenn.) punched it in to give the Bucs a 24-7 lead with his first collegiate touchdown.
East Tennessee State's next drive ended abruptly as Liberty linebacker Manny Rojas forced a Butler fumble that was recovered by Flame defensive back Darryl Gordon. Place-kicker Scott Kiovsky capped the drive with a 35-yard field goal, cutting the Buccaneer lead to 24-10.
The Bucs put three more points on the board with their first drive of the second half, as Godfrey hit a 24-yarder with 4:33 remaining in the third quarter. That drive was the longest of the day for either team, as the Buccaneer drive lasted 13 plays and took 7:16 off of the clock.
Liberty immediately fought back, scoring a touchdown on the first play following the ETSU kickoff. Running back Marcus Hamilton split to the outside as a receiver and hauled in a 66-yard touchdown from Barley to trim the Buccaneer lead to ten points, 27-17.
As the momentum of the game started to shift toward the Flames, Tiller again made a huge play that essentially put the game out of reach. In almost an identical play to his first interception of the afternoon, only on the opposite side of the field, Tiller stepped in front of a short Barley pass and raced into the end zone for a 27-yard score. The extra-point attempt failed, making the score 33-17 in favor of the Bucs.
Tiller's first two touchdowns of his collegiate career give the Bucs five defensive touchdowns on the season. ETSU has scored 10 times on defense since the last defensive score by an opposing team on Oct. 28, 2001.
"Tony Tiller is a winner in every phase of his life," said Buccaneer head coach Paul Hamilton following the game. "it was only fitting that he went out today and made the plays that he did."
The final score of the game capped an impressive drive by Liberty that spanned 80 yards on 14 plays in 3:48. Flame tailback Eugene Goodman scored his sixth touchdown of the season from two yards out. With the score 33-23, Liberty went for two, but failed.
Nuckolls had a strong afternoon, leading ETSU in both rushing and receiving. He had four rushes for 85 yards and hauled in four passes for 42 yards. Butler ran the ball 16 times for 32 yards and senior tailback Gaven Varner (Summerville, S.C.) gained 27 yards on 19 carries. Sophomore wideout Frank Green (Monks Corner, S.C.) caught three passes for 20 yards on the afternoon.
Butler made some good throws this afternoon, completing 9-of-15 passes for 90 yards. His counterpart, Barley, entered the game late in the first quarter and made some big plays, completing 17-of-37 throws for 272 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Liberty starting quarterback Condon was 0-of-4 with two interceptions.
Barnes had a strong afternoon, carrying the ball 21 times for 92 yards while Barley gained 26 yards on eight rushes. Wide receiver Lauren Williams led the Flames, catching five passes for 90 yards. Fellow wideout Darnell Edwards hauled in four passes for 46 yards.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Mike Cullen (Roswell, Ga.) led ETSU with nine tackles in the game. Cullen has led the Bucs in tackles in six of seven games this season. Senior nose tackle Brandon Calton (Pennington Gap, Va.) had four tackles for a loss while senior defensive end Robbie Hardt (Poca, W.V.) had two sacks on the afternoon. Senior defensive end Travis Williams (Bristol, Tenn.) and senior linebacker Matt Palmer (Summerton, S.C.) each added two tackles for a loss, while senior safety Montreal Harkley (Hanahan, S.C.) intercepted his second pass of the season.
The Liberty defense was led by Rojas and Seth Reichart, who tied for the game-high with 12 tackles. Reichart and Aaron DeBerry tied fro the team lead with three tackles for a loss each.
The Buccaneer special teams were also a bright spot this afternoon, as senior punter Aaron Bass (Clinton, Tenn.) averaged 47.8 yards on four kicks and Godfrey hit 2-of-3 field goals.
The Bucs return to Southern Conference play next weekend as they will battle No. 13 Furman Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. from Greenville, S.C.
"I just want to go back to work and get ready to play probably the best team we will play all season," said Hamilton.