Johnson City, Tenn. (September 21, 2002) - With quarterback Jatavis Sanders (Stone Mountain, Ga.) at the helm and running back Gaven Varner (Summerville, S.C.) trampling defenders, East Tennessee State's offense awoke from it's slumber to defeat VMI 35-21 at Memorial Center on Saturday night.
Varner, who carried the ball 15 times for a season-high 128 yards, rushed for three touchdowns, all in the first half, to lead the Bucs (2-2, 1-0 SoCon) to their second consecutive victory at home. Sanders added 61 yards on the ground and 213 from the air on 20 of 31 passing, as ETSU tallied nearly 500 yards of total offense.
"We have a young offense, but we've been working harder and harder in practice to get better," said Varner. "I give all of the credit for our success tonight to our offensive line. They did a great job of blocking and opening up some holes."
Head coach Paul Hamilton, who has become frustrated with the offense making mistakes in the past, also noted a big improvement on Saturday.
"For the first time we had continuity and consistency on offense," Hamilton said. "We have to continue be able to control the things that we have control over. That's the kind of a team I want to see us become, and if we do that, then we can turn into a good offensive football team."
East Tennessee State enjoyed a 28-0 cushion at halftime as the Buccaneer defense held VMI to a first-half shutout, but the Keydets offense led by the arm of quarterback Joey Gibson, initiated a third-quarter comeback. Gibson hooked up with wideout Greg Carlson on a 73-yard pass play, bringing VMI all the way to the ETSU four-yard line and set up the Keydets first score of the game. Gibson found the endzone on a QB sneak from two yards out to make the score 28-7. After a defensive stop, VMI came back 71 yards on its next possession and scored on another Gibson sneak, this time on the ETSU one-yard line to get within 14.
In the fourth quarter the Keydets kept rolling on the offensive side of the ball when Gibson found John Bell on a 15-yard TD pass to make it 28-21. ETSU's final score on the game came on a 21-yard run draw by Sanders.
Cornerback Montreal Harkley (Hanahan, S.C.) led the Buccaneer defense with two interceptions for a total of 80 return yards and seven tackles, while Justin Reinier (Panarama City, Calif.) picked off a Gibson pass with 43 seconds remaining in the game to seal the victory.
The Bucs will travel to Cullowhee, N.C. next Saturday to take on the Catamounts of Western Carolina. Right now Hamilton is happy to be undefeated in the Southern Conference, but went straight to work following the VMI game to prepare his team for Western Carolina.
"They are a very good football team," Hamilton said of the Catamounts. "There's no question that we have to go to Cullowhee and play very well in order to come out of there with a win."