BY COLLIN BROOKS
East Tennessee Tennessee State sophomore kicker J.J. Jerman delivered a game-winning field goal on Saturday night to give the Bucs a 15-14 win over 18th ranked Samford and end his team’s season with a victory.
The next morning, Jerman headed to Nashville to try and use that same poise to help his 13-year old brother, Nick, win the BETA Club Presidency at the state convention. While delivering the Bucs two wins over top 25 teams, Samford and a season starting game-winning kick at Kennesaw State — who were ranked 22nd in last week’s FCS coaches Poll — it wasn’t an easy decision for Jerman as to which of the three would be a bigger win.
“That’s my brother,” said Jerman during a phone interview on Monday. “Of course those kicks were huge, but that is my family.”
Jerman’s kick also ended the Bucs season with a win for the second straight year. That number two can also show fans just how far the Bucs have come in their second season as they finished 5-6. The year before, the Bucs finished 2-9 — which included two losses to NCAA Division III teams, who don’t award athletic scholarships to their players.
“I think that tells you how far this program has come in a year,” ETSU coach Carl Torbush said. “I think it comes from being 17 versus 19 or 19 versus 21. Obviously we spotted in a couple of guys in key positions where we felt like we needed more maturity and experience… When we were building this house, the first thing we had to do was build a foundation. And I feel like even though it crumbled a little bit last year early, it’s now starting to harden and get better.
“But quite honestly I am not sure that anyone could throw much more at these young men than hasn’t already been thrown at them. And that gives them a chance to deal with adversity week in and week out.”
That might be a reasonable explanation for the poise of the Bucs and their redshirt sophomore quarterback Austin Herink, who delivered a game-winning drive. Herink said that he flashed back to one of those Division III losses last year, to Emory & Henry, when it was time to make the drive against Samford.
“We got the ball in a similar situation and we didn’t move anywhere,” Herink said. “After that game I thought, ‘the next time we get in that situation, we will be better for that,’ and we did that a few times this year…All that experience that we are building really paid off on Saturday night.”
Torbush said that they won that game because of the tribulations they have been through during the past two years, but they also won that program because the teams stuck to the game plan that his coaches provided.
“We won the ball game, in my opinion at this stage in our program, the only way we could it. We ate up the clock, we wanted to make sure we converted and got first downs and we wanted to eliminate any turnovers that we could,” Torbush said. “And defensively, if we bleed, then we were going to bleed slow. And it turned out exactly how you would imagine a victory in this ball game to turn out.”
The two things that the Bucs wanted to do were run time off the clock — they accomplished that with a by holding onto the ball for a school record 43 minutes — and they needed to force the Bulldogs to get one dimensional. Torbush said that he felt like his team did that by messing up the passing rhythm of the visiting team.
“Not letting them have the football was a big key to the game, because we knew the more they had the football, the more chances they would have to score,” Torbush said.
The Bucs out-gained the Bulldogs 329 yard to 265, only 49 of those yards came in the second and it was an impressive performance against a team that was selected for the FCS playoffs over the weekend.
For this year’s FCS Playoffs, the Bucs have or will have tangled with seven of the 24 teams. With the Bucs playing the four Southern Conference teams this year, St. Francis and Charleston Southern last year and are set to play James Madison next year.
Torbush compared the SoCon as the SEC of FCS football.
“We are going to find out because we’ve got four teams (in the playoffs),” Torbush said. “…I am going to be a SoCon fan and I hope all our players will be. Because the better they play, the better we look as well.”
THE CORE OF THE KICKING CREW
Having gone through the thick of things together, which have accumulated to about 24 games, it’s easy to see that the core of the kicking crew would be confident.
Torbush mentioned that he is confident with Jerman from inside the 40-yard line, but it wasn’t only Jerman that he is confident in. He also has the same esteem for snapper Adam Mullins and holder Nick Sexton, who have now all combined for 24 games as a vital point of the special teams.
“So I have a lot of faith in them and I have confidence in myself,” he said. “It was just another field goal so I knew that all I had to do was split the uprights and the game was over, so you just have to do what you spent years-and-years and days-and-days practicing. That’s all it comes down to.”
All of the field goals were difficult that night, because it was one of the windiest games that they had played in.
His two most important kicks came in the final six minutes, with a 39-yarder with 5:34 to inch the Bucs closer 12-14, before connecting on the game-winner from 28 yards.
But even before those two kicks, Jerman said that he knew he was going to have to stay reay, because he had an idea that it might be a close contest when Samford only held a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter. Jerman was able to connect on his first field goal of the contest from 38 yards with just under nine minutes left before halftime.
“That kind of put the thought in my head that everything that I did, had to be perfect,” he said. “So I knew that everything that had to be through the uprights. Obviously, with the game-winning field goal you feel a little bit more pressure, but everyone was just as important.”
Jerman’s quarterback, Herink, was quick to point out how many times the kicker has bailed out the Bucs this year.
“The last kick was extremely big, but the one before it, where I took the 15-yard sack and he makes that kick, that was just as big,” Herink said through a smirk. “He bailed us out and made that kick and he is a great confidence to have.”
BUILDING THE FUTURE
After the media picked to finish the season at the bottom of the Southern Conference, unanimously, as Herink added. It was a bit of a surprise, to everyone but the Bucs that they were able to finish ahead of two teams — Western Carolina and VMI.
“This summer, Coach (Allen) Johnson came into workouts and told us that we were picked last, I think it was unanimously, by the media, and I didn’t take to well to that,” Herink said.
The Middle Tennessee State transfer said that he went home and printed out the article and taped it to the wall in his room as a reminder.
“I think we took that as a chip on the shoulder and we took that through the whole season. But at the end of the day you have to focus on yourself and we continually got better throughout the season,” Herink said.
Winning the last game of the year will provide sparks for the Bucs offseason, but even more confidence will be provided to the Bucs as they realize that of their 114 players currently on the roster, they will lose four seniors this year and will lose 10 seniors next year. 41 of 44 of the two-deep roster will be back, with Torbush mentioning that most of those 41 will be back for two years.
“We have bunch of them back for a long time and the fortunate thing is we will have them back when a lot of the teams that we are playing will be losing their guys,” Torbush said. “Obviously we feel like we will get better and we need to get better.
Now, the next time the Bucs take the field, they will be on their brand new $20 million home stadium. Having a shiny symbol to call their own isn’t lost on the Bucs, according to Jerman.
“That stadium kind of symbolizes all of the blood, sweat and tears that we have put into this program the last two or three years,” Jerman said. “So it’s huge. And to win our last game at Science Hill and hopefully we can start things off at our new stadium the same way.”
But even with the new field, Herink said, the Bucs still have plenty that they want to accomplish.
“I don’t think we started this program or any of us came here to be 5-6, so while we have made great strides we have a long way to go,” he said. “So I think we will deal with that, the same way we will deal with everything else, just taking it on the chin and keep going.”