Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Saturday's Wofford-ETSU game historic, like the last one

It's been a while since Wofford met ETSU on the gridiron.

The Terriers (2-1) will open conference play Saturday with a midday matchup against the Buccaneers, which is in just its second season back from a hiatus lasting over a decade. Following the 2003 season, ETSU made the decision to drop its football program and subsequently departed the league in other sports.

The program peaked in 1996, when head coach Mike Cavan led the Bucs to a 10-win season and a playoff drive into the quarterfinals. Cavan left for the same post at SMU the next season, and the conference underwent a minor shakeup with the loss of perennial power Marshall.

Wofford officially became a member of the SoCon in 1997, so the two teams were league mates for seven seasons. During that span, the Terriers were 5-2 against the Bucs, with all five wins coming in consecutive years; as Wofford climbed the ranks, culminating in its first-ever conference title in 2003, ETSU hovered around .500 and abruptly dropped its program, presumably for financial reasons.

Football has returned to Johnson City, though, along with renewed membership in the SoCon. Playing as an independent FCS member in its first year back, 2015, a young team led by Carl Torbush struggled through a 2-9 campaign. Despite the unappealing debut, ETSU is 2-0 this season, including an impressive conference victory, a 34-31 edging of Western Carolina last Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This Saturday, the Bucs will return to Spartanburg for the first time since 2003.

Wofford was embarrassed, 49-0, by Air Force in the 2003 season opener. The Terriers responded accordingly. They strung together one of the most memorable campaigns in school history, shredding through the rest of the schedule and methodically putting away each conference opponent. In fact, Wofford defeated league foes by an average of nearly 20 points in 2003.

With a shiny 10-1 regular season mark, the program earned its first-ever SoCon championship and berth to the FCS playoffs. In the postseason, the Terriers won a pair of home games against North Carolina A&T and Western Kentucky to advance to the national semifinal. Wofford fell to Delaware by fifteen points in a game televised on ESPN2.

A little over a month prior -- before any trophy was raised and an opportunity at a national championship was closer than perhaps ever before -- the Terriers still had work to do. They grabbed up at least a share of the conference title with a victory over The Citadel a week earlier and needed another win to secure an outright championship.

On Nov. 8, 2003, Wofford played for just that against ETSU.

Flaunting the backfield rushing prowess of greats like halfback Kevious Johnson -- then a freshman -- fullback J.R. McNair and quarterback Jeff Zolman, the 10-1 Terriers took the the lead shortly before halftime and never relinquished it.

Johnson and McNair combined for 171 rushing yards on 33 attempts, along with three touchdowns, compared to the Bucs' team total of 129 yards on 36 carries. Wofford backup quarterback Trey Rodgers added 51 yards.

With the Bucs trailing 28-14 in the game's waning moments, an errant ETSU pass was picked off by Derek Newberry and the Terriers could lay claim to a monumental accomplishment; less than a decade after moving up to Division I, a small liberal arts college of less than 1,500 students was capable of fielding a national title contending football team.

Wofford went on to edge Furman, 7-6, in the season finale and embark on its furthest playoff run since making the NAIA championship game in 1970.

ETSU, meanwhile, beat Chattanooga and The Citadel in the following weeks to little celebration. Capping a 5-7 (2-6) campaign, the wins marked the final time the Bucs would play a football game until 2015, twelve years later.

This weekend, the two teams' paths will again cross, reunited as SoCon foes.

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