The Ruling: Running through the fourth with my woes

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The Ruling: Running through the fourth with my woes

Mercer @ ETSU.

Mercer @ ETSU.

Photo provided by Mercer Athletics

Mercer @ ETSU.

Photo provided by Mercer Athletics

Photo provided by Mercer Athletics

Mercer @ ETSU.

Hayes Rule, Lead Writer

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Mercer entered Saturday off arguably its best performance since re-establishment. Sure, it was a loss.

But it was a pretty dang good loss.

It was expected that performance would kickstart a run through Southern Conference play that could, potentially, result in a conference championship. In last week’s “The Ruling,” I even noted that this Mercer squad is the best team since the program’s re-establishment.

It was fair, right? Mercer had taken care of business against Jacksonville, truly should have defeated No. 10 Wofford, then took Auburn deep into the fourth quarter.

But that bandwagon lost a wheel Saturday.

The Bears (1-3, 0-2) could not capitalize on their momentum from the Auburn performance on the road against East Tennessee State University, falling 26-23 in overtime. It’s the third straight loss for the Bears.

Mercer fell behind early 10-0 after ETSU scored a touchdown off a first-drive Tee Mitchell fumble; the Buccaneers then tacked on a field goal early in the second quarter.

Then the Bears woke up. Mercer scored 20 unanswered points in the second and third quarters — three touchdowns from Chandler Curtis, C.J. Leggett and Tee Mitchell along with a missed extra point.

Mercer led 20-10 early in the fourth quarter before ETSU controlled the rest of regulation. It added a field goal with more than 11 minutes remaining; Mercer then missed a 35-yard field goal on its ensuing drive and watched as the Bucs drove down the field to tack on a touchdown with more than four minutes remaining.

The Bears held possession first in overtime and settled for a field goal before ETSU scored a touchdown on its first offensive play.

Here are the four takeaways from Mercer’s overtime loss:

(1) Fourth quarter woes

Mercer was outscored 10-0 in the fourth quarter, adding to the deficit it holds in fourth-quarter scoring this season. The Bears have been outscored 38-13 in the final quarter, including a 14-point lead against Wofford and 10-point lead against ETSU.

“We’ve talked a lot about this as a staff, we talked about it as a football team, and we’ve got to keep putting our guys in situations to do it in practice and maybe we can get over the hump in the game,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “It came down to simple fundamentals … So it’s back to the basics, fundamental-wise, and then it’s getting these guys to feel good about themselves going into a fourth quarter.”

Losing conference games is tough enough. Losing conference games when you hold a double-digit lead in the fourth quarter? Devastating.

After I posted my column to Facebook last week, one person commented: “Mercer just has to start winning games like the Wofford one. There’s no way around it.”

And he’s right. The goal for Mercer each year is to win a conference championship and make the FCS playoffs. We can talk about beating non-conference opponents like Jacksonville or playing well against Auburn, but ultimately, the games that matter are in conference.

So far this season, Mercer had two conference victories in the palms of its hands but couldn’t secure them. That boils down to –as Coach Lamb mentioned:, playing fundamentally sound and making the plays that should be made; and playing as aggressively as  the first three quarters.

Mercer has come back and won games in the fourth quarter — see: Furman, ETSU and VMI last year — but on too many occasions it has been the Bears on the losing side of the fourth quarter.

“We’ve been around the block with this deal, where if you talk about it too much then you go overboard and who knows what’s going to happen,” Lamb said. “I just think we have to keep working as a team, keep coaching them, we’ve got to keep being fundamentally sound.”

(2) C.J. Leggett is carving out a role

The running back stable is noticeably deeper this season. Coming into the year, I was curious how exactly the carries would be allocated with Alex Lakes, Mitchell and Leggett all healthy.

Thus far, it seems that Lakes has been the odd man out. He has received only 18 carries,  with none against ETSU.

Leggett, on the other hand, now leads the team in carries this year — 47 — after a season-high 19 against the Bucs. He finished the game with 109 rushing yards, becoming the first Mercer player to rush for over the century mark in the last five games dating back to last year.

“I really think [Leggett] came into his own [at ETSU],” Lamb said. “He’s done some really good things in practice. He was injured during preseason camp so we didn’t get to see a whole lot of him, but back in spring practice he had a really good spring. He’s a load now, he goes in there and he may turn it into a five- or six-yard gain, but he’s moving the pile.”

The running back situation is worth watching the rest of the year, but it looks like Lamb is settling on a duo of Leggett and Mitchell.

(3) Laundry was flying

The teams combined for 21 penalties for 214 yards. That’s not a typo.

Mercer “won” that battle — if you can even call it a win  — by committing 10 penalties for 95 yards. In the first three games, Mercer combined 10 penalties for 86 yards, with  only two penalties against Auburn.

“That’s a very disturbing number for me,” Lamb said. “It is a crazy game when you commit only two penalties in front of a crowd of 90,000 [people at Auburn last week] and then commit 10 today in front of 8,000 [people].”

Retweet. Although, I expect this 10-penalty outing to be more of a fluke than anything. Now if the Bears commit 10 penalties against VMI at home, there may be a genuine issue.

(4) Bears have work ahead in order to compete for SoCon title

Starting 1-3 isn’t ideal, but what makes it even less ideal is that the Bears are 0-2 in conference. Mercer is currently last in the conference and four games back of Wofford, who is 2-0 in the SoCon.

The Bears face six straight conference opponents before finishing the season with Alabama; they will return home against VMI Saturday at 4 p.m., who is 0-1 in conference but also winless on the year.

“We’ve got a long way to go in this league,” Lamb said. “It’s a long process, and you never know what’s going to happen during the course of the year. That’s why you have to take them one at a time … We haven’t even talked about conference [title discussions] this week. We know at the end of the day that you have to play them all and add them up, so we got a tall order ahead of us to play VMI and getting ourselves better.”

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