“We’re in newfound territory,” Sanders, the Bucs’ first-year head coach, said Monday during his weekly news conference at Greene Stadium. “I think they like winning. I think they like that a lot. I certainly like it. I want us to get used to it. The more you win, the harder it becomes to win because suddenly you become a game that’s circled on the schedule.”
The Bucs (4-1) have won three games in a row and, at 3-0 in the Southern Conference, are alone in first place, half a game ahead of Wofford.
That start has gotten the attention of coaches across the country. The Bucs were one spot out of the Top 25 of the coaches’ FCS poll, released Monday. They’re ranked 26th after receiving 17 votes.
“Our team has grit and they have fight,” Sanders said. “You can see the effort. You can see the heart. We don’t always play smart, but we’re playing hard. Once we learn how to play smart and hard, then we have a chance to be a really good football team. I think we’re a good team right now. I think we will get better as it goes.”
The next step for the Bucs is learning to keep the foot on the gas until they can put away an opponent. Their three SoCon wins have been by a total of eight points and had one play in each of those games gone differently, they could be 0-3.
They were ahead of Chattanooga 17-0 at halftime and another score would have turned it into a rout. Instead, they had to withstand a furious comeback attempt when the Mocs scored twice in the fourth quarter and had the ball with a chance to win or tie at the end.
“I felt like for a little bit in the third quarter, we had too many guys looking at the clock, trying to get the game over instead of playing to win,” Sanders said. “We need to go put them away. We’re trying to wish wins into play.”
Nasir Player was named the Southern Conference defensive player of the week after getting 2½ sacks against Chattanooga. The junior defensive end has five sacks this season and usually occupies two offensive linemen so the others can make plays. ETSU leads the league in sacks with 20.
Player also hurried Chattanooga quarterback Nick Tiano three times and made six tackles. Two of his sacks caused fumbles.
ETSU returns to Greene Stadium on Saturday for a nonconference game against Gardner-Webb. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m., and it’s homecoming at ETSU.
Gardner-Webb (1-4) of the Big South Conference has played a tough schedule, with losses to No. 5 North Carolina A&T (45-6), No. 6 Wofford (45-14), Appalachian State (72-7) and Western Carolina (28-10). They beat Limestone 52-17 to open their season.
“Gardner-Webb doesn’t have a good record, but they have a good football team,” Sanders said. “When you look at the teams they have played, they are playing some pretty good competition. ... We’re not going to just show up and win this game because we’re ETSU. We have to go out and play well.”