When the teams met in 2015, Gardner-Webb had a veteran team and the Bucs' roster was filled with freshmen. Now the Bucs are more mature while the Bulldogs have 27 freshmen with seven freshmen starters. Only six players remain from the Gardner-Webb team that beat the Bucs 28-3 that day.
This time, ETSU (4-1) will be the heavily favored home team in the game scheduled for Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Greene Stadium.
While coaches hate the term “rebuilding year,” Gardner-Webb coach Carroll McCray doesn't shy away from where his program is following a 1-4 start. The Bulldogs have been outscored by an average of 24 points per game and have been outrushed by nearly a 4-to-1 ratio.
It has come against a tough schedule with losses to Appalachian State, North Carolina A&T, Western Carolina and Wofford.
"We've had a challenge for sure, but we're growing," McCray said. "Of the 61 kids we're bringing up there, 27 of them are first-year players. Some are really embracing the moments they have, but the biggest thing mentally is adjusting to the different offenses and defenses we face every week.
"We need to be growing more quickly than we are. We have to find some consistency on both sides of the ball to give us a chance to keep the game close in the second half. We're just being as positive as we can to encourage them to keep up the good fight, be good listeners and improve each week."
Jayln Cagle is the Bulldogs' leading rusher with 84 carries for 276 yards, although as a team, the Bulldogs are averaging just 2.8 yards per carry. It hasn’t opened up much for the passing game as quarterback Jordan Smith has completed 68 of 135 passes for 773 yards with three touchdowns and seven interceptions.
The Bulldogs moved around some players trying to spur on the offense. Jonathan Blackmon, the running back who scored the first touchdown in the ETSU game three years ago, is now at wide receiver. Brody Rollins, who came in as the backup quarterback in the ETSU game and completed 4 of 6 passes, has also been moved to wide receiver.
Blackmon, who was recruited as a wide receiver out of high school, ranks second in receptions with 19 catches for 152 yards.
"He's an athlete, and we played him at running back," McCray said about Blackmon. "We figured if we could move him and put Jayln Cagle in the backfield, it would give us more explosion on the field. When we've been able to get in a rhythm and get the ball to Jonathan Blackmon and Brody Rollins, we've become more of the team we can be."
Rollins, a product of South-Doyle High School, missed three games with an injury before coming back in the Bulldogs' last game, a 45-14 loss to Wofford. For the season, he has nine catches for 82 yards.
"Since we've been here, we've only had two quarterbacks," said McCray, in his sixth season as G-W coach. "Brody Rollins is a really athletic kid from Knoxville who had won a game at quarterback for us. But we felt like with the young quarterbacks we have, we redshirted two, that it would be good to get Brody in a position where he could make some plays for us."
The last time the teams played ETSU had a hard time making plays. Then-redshirt freshman quarterback Austin Herink completed 12 of 19 passes for just 72 yards and was sacked four times. The Gardner-Webb defense has only produced six sacks through the first four games of this season, and their coach knows it is imperative to get pressure on the Herink, now a senior, and slow down a red-hot football team.
He was particularly complimentary of the Bucs after seeing their wins over Furman and Chattanooga.
"East Tennessee State has put themselves in a position where they have a lot of confidence and a lot of momentum," McCray said. "They certainly could have been ranked in the Top 25 and ended up right outside it. It's another good team we're going to face this week."