Linebacker Stephen Scott returned a fumble 27 yards for a touchdown, and East Tennessee State upset Vanderbilt 23-3 Saturday night to ruin the head coaching debut of Clark Lea at his alma mater.
The Buccaneers also became the sixth FCS team to beat a FBS team to open this season and third of the day joining Holy Cross and Montana, which stunned No. 20 Washington. The victory was ETSU’s first over a Power Five program since upsetting North Carolina State on Nov. 7, 1987.
“It’s a great win for us, it’s a great win for those kids,” ETSU coach Randy Sanders said. “Every time you go out there, every time you go on the field, you’re making a memory. It’s either a good one or a bad one, and I think tonight we made a memory that is going to be a good one for a long, long, long time.”
Scott said, “It’s a wonderful feeling.”
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Vanderbilt became the first Southeastern Conference program to lose to a FCS program since South Carolina lost to Citadel on Nov. 21, 2015.
Lea left a job as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame to take over the challenge of rebuilding the program where he once played fullback. Instead, he joins the man he replaced in Derek Mason losing his debut. Vandy also extended an 11-game skid that started a game after ETSU last visited Nashville in November 2019.
He called this loss “tough to stomach” but that he knew Vanderbilt had a long way to go coming into this season.
“This has always been about the vision for the future at Vanderbilt,” Lea said. “It’s never been about just playing East Tennessee State on September 4th. This is about how we build this program to sustain success over time, and this can be a critical learning moment as we move forward.”
ETSU’s defense clinched this victory, forcing three turnovers all in the fourth quarter that the Bucs turned into 10 points.
Ken Seals dropped to pass on third-and-5 at the Vandy 35 and just lost the ball under pressure from Donovan Manuel. Scott saw the ball and had one thought as he picked it up and ran 27 yards for the touchdown and a 20-3 lead.
“Just grabbing and scoring,” the freshman linebacker said.
Cornerback Karon Delince picked off a Seals’ pass at the goal line and ran 99 yards for a TD. An unsportsmanlike penalty on safety Tyree Robinson wiped out the TD, and officials put the ball at the 19. Tyler Keltner kicked his third field goal of the game, a 34-yarder, with 3:29 left for a 23-3 lead.
Quay Holmes led ETSU with 149 yards rushing, and Ty Riddell threw for 135 yards and a TD. Vanderbilt outgained the Bucs 318-314 but couldn’t overcome three turnovers — all in the fourth quarter. Sheldon Arnold intercepted Seals in the end zone with 1:45 left.
Vanderbilt started Seals, then rotated in Mike Wright for some series at quarterback after Lea had promised Wright would play as well. Vanderbilt led 3-0 after a 53-yard field goal by Alabama transfer Joseph Bulovas late in the first quarter, and the Commodores were shut out the rest of the way.
“Once they figured out there was nothing to fear, ‘Let’s go play football,’ it was amazing how well they played,” Sanders said.
Riddell put ETSU ahead 7-3 with a 5-yard TD pass to Malik Murray in the back of the end zone midway through the second quarter.
ETSU: Maybe playing in the spring helped the Bucs, who essentially finished second in the Southern Conference. The Bucs were picked fourth in their conference this preseason with a defense expected to be very stingy. ETSU came up with three sacks and five tackles for loss.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores struggled to give either Seals or Wright enough time to throw. Rotating the quarterbacks didn’t help the offense get into much of a rhythm either. Wright drove the Dores to the ETSU 34 before they turned the ball over on downs late in the third.
ETSU hosts UVA-Wise next Saturday.
Vanderbilt visits Colorado State next Saturday in a matchup of FBS teams who both lost to FCS programs to open this season. Colorado State was routed at home by South Dakota State.