‘The Ruling’: Can Cinderella go to the ball twice?
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One of the lasting pieces of advice my coach has told me was simply this: Anybody can do it once, but those who can back it up and do it consistently are the ones who prove to be elite Division-I athletes.
And that’s true for any college sport, or really, anything in life. When we set out to accomplish something, we don’t plan to be a one-hit wonder — a fluke. Those one-hit wonders and flukes make for great stories, but they often carry a negative connotation.
Think: Vanilla Ice’s “Ice, Ice, Baby” or Appalachian State beating Michigan in 2007.
Great stories, right? But they’ll always be known for that one performance.
Mercer football has a chance to rid itself of that title Saturday. The Bears travel to Chattanooga to face the No. 3-ranked Mocs for the first time since Mercer stunned Chattanooga 17-14 last season.
The question that remains unanswered: Can Mercer do it again? Head coach Bobby Lamb said his team is confident given how it has performed against Chattanooga since joining the Southern Conference.
“I think the neat thing about going to Chattanooga to play is that we played well there two years ago, [and] we beat them last year here in Macon, so our players aren’t scared,” Lamb said.
But, of course, they’re not overzealous.
“They know it’s going to be a tall task and that we’re going to have to play well and be turnover-free,” Lamb said.
In 2015, the Bears won the turnover battle 2-1 and limited Chattanooga star quarterback Jacob Huesman to no touchdown passes. In 2014, the Bears’ first season in the SoCon, Mercer gave Chattanooga a scare and fell 38-31.
The Mocs are impressive statistically this season: They lead the conference in points allowed — only 42 in five games — and are second in points scored per game (39.8). Not to mention, they’re also tied atop the conference with The Citadel at 5-0.
Granted, they’ve played three weak opponents in five games, but Chattanooga’s 41-21 dismantling of Samford September 24 — a game in which running back Derrick Craine ran for 222 yards and two touchdowns — is nothing to overlook.
“The Chattanooga team that we’re getting ready to face is probably as good of a team as they were last year,” Lamb said. “They’ve probably got the best offensive and defensive lines in our league – probably, maybe, one of the tops in the FCS. It’s going to be a very difficult challenge for us.”
So how does Cinderella find another glass slipper?
(1) Enter the construction site and limit Craine
Chattanooga’s senior running back is the engine of the offense. He’s averaging 6.7 yards per carry this season and has tallied seven touchdowns in the first five games. He’d probably have more if he had received a normal workload in the team’s first two games — he ran the ball a total of 18 times – but they were such blowouts that the Mocs rested him.
Mercer held Chattanooga to only 14 points last year in part because of their limiting Craine to only 4.4 yards per carry and no touchdowns. Repeat that defensive performance, and Mercer’s chances improve exponentially.
(2) Keep it low scoring and control the tempo
Chattanooga actually won the time of possession battle last year, but Mercer ultimately won that game because of its defense. The Bears rank sixth in scoring defense in the SoCon, allowing 29.0 points per outing.
If the Mocs get to 29 points Saturday, Mercer will not win the game.
(3) The offensive line will have to “bear down”
Given some of the injuries at the position and the loss of Tee Mitchell, the running game has been extremely effective early in the season. But the Bears will face their toughest test yet Saturday. The Mocs have allowed only 62.4 yards per game on the ground this year, over 100 yards better than Mercer’s defense.
Lamb praised Chattanooga’s defensive line, calling it, “possibly,” the best in the FCS. Mercer’s offensive line and running backs will have to be up for the challenge.
“We’ve got an opportunity to go up there and do something again that we did last year, and to do that back-to-back years would be pretty incredible,” Lamb said.