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The Ruling: Aggressive play-calling comes up big

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The Ruling: Aggressive play-calling comes up big

Marquise Irvin catches a ball kicked by VMI.

Marquise Irvin catches a ball kicked by VMI.

Elijah Henderson

Marquise Irvin catches a ball kicked by VMI.

Elijah Henderson

Elijah Henderson

Marquise Irvin catches a ball kicked by VMI.

Hayes Rule, Lead Writer

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They say it’s not about how you start but how you finish.

Or, I guess in Mercer’s case, how you play in the second quarter. The Bears ended their three-game losing streak Saturday with a 49-14 win over Virginia Military Institute, accumulating a season-high 575 yards on offense and allowing only 225 yards defensively.

Mercer fell behind early after Kaelen Riley threw a pick-six interception on the team’s first offensive play. The Bears didn’t move the ball effectively for the rest of the quarter.

And then the second quarter struck. In the blink of an eye, Mercer scored 21 unanswered points to take full control of the game.

Technically, it was only over the span of four and a half minutes, but Bears strung together three big scoring plays — a 61-yard pass to Chandler Curtis, 79-yard pass to Tee Mitchell and a pick-six by Travonte Easley.

The Keydets never threatened a comeback after that. Mercer would tack on four more offensive scores — three rushing from Mitchell, C.J. Leggett and Alex Lakes and one pass to Curtis again — while VMI’s lone offensive touchdown was a 79-yard pass in the third quarter.

Here are three takeaways from Mercer’s blowout victory:

(1) GO DEEP

In the past few games, the offense has been a little more conservative than usual. But in the first half against VMI, the Bears aired it out.

And it reaped touchdowns.

The first two scores were passes of over 60 yards, each of which traveled at least 40+ yards in the air. In the first four games, Mercer completed only one pass of over 50 yards.

“You want to do it, but it’s like playing golf,” said head coach Bobby Lamb. “It’s like a risk/reward par 5. Do you want to go for it, or do you want to lay-up sometimes? I like to keep the pedal to the medal and throw the ball deep, but I also like to protect our quarterback.”

Two things: First, shoutout to Coach Lamb for making a golf reference. He knows me too well. Second, I agree that there should be a nice balance between conservative and aggressive play. I’m not suggesting Mercer play backyard football and toss it downfield for fun.

But I do believe the Bears could utilize their deep threats a little more. We saw a glimpse of what that could look like against the Keydets. Granted, VMI’s defense isn’t exactly… good. But still.

Mercer could balance the running game and screens we see out of the offense by throwing a couple shots down the field throughout the game. Let receivers like Chandler Curtis, Marquise Irvin and Avery Ward use their speed down the field.

Curtis, specifically, thrives on the deep ball.

“I think I watch too much NFL and Madden, so I throw deep balls all the time,” Curtis said. “I like the more explosive plays.”

Against VMI, Riley completed 13 passes for a season-high 318 yards, an average of 24.5 yards per completion. That’s an unbelievable yards per completion number. Most of those yards came through the air. Riley has shown he can complete the deep ball; he has been on the money with his touch down the field.

Before the VMI game, I had one Twitter follower mention the offensive conservativeness on offense. I told them we’ll see if that changes against VMI. And we did, at least in the first half.

Lamb seemed more comfortable and content with the play calling in the second half, where the team relied more on short chunk plays. But I think airing it out several times a game, on top of some conservative play-calling, wouldn’t hurt.

Elijah Henderson
VMI’s Duncan Hodges (12) attempts to throw to another teammate.

(2) Defense continues to limit points allowed

The defense allowed only seven points to VMI’s offense, a 79-yard pass. It was the first play of a drive in the third quarter and accounted for a huge chunk of the Keydets’ offense for the day; without it, VMI would have only had 146 yards.

“The defense is playing really good football right now,” Lamb said. “I really felt like, coming in, that we would have a good defense this year, and they’re really gelling together and playing together. I saw guys flying around to the ball.”

It’s not just a fluke. The defense has truly held its own in the first five games, especially in the first three quarters. Entering Saturday, the Bears allowed only 10.2 points per game to opponents in the first three quarters.

In the fourth quarter alone, they allowed 9.5 points.

If the Bears can clean up some of the issues in the fourth, this defense can be really, really good. Not only are they limiting points, but they are causing turnovers. They added to that tally by snatching three interceptions Saturday — two by Stephon Houzah, one being a pick-six.

Lamb even told Houzah after that game, jokingly, that maybe he should switch to wide receiver.

“It’s exciting when you see them get a turnover because they’re all excited and jumping around on the sidelines. It gives you energy, and the more energy you get in a 60-minute game, the better you’re going to be.”

Elijah Henderson
VMI’s Devone Humphrey (28) runs the ball while Mercer’s Harrison Poole (12) defends.

(3) Running attack goes for season-high in yards

Everyone touched the ball Saturday as the Bears registered 257 yards over 51 carries on the ground. This running attack is extremely refreshing to see after last year, when the team had to move linebackers to running back just to have someone carry the ball.

The offensive line struggled to get a push in the first quarter, but Lamb said the team made adjustments.

“I was proud of our offensive line for taking control of the game in the second half, and that’s what kind of got us over the hump offensively,” Lamb said. “We knew we had to come out and establish the run [in the second half] … We’ve got some talent back there, and it’s nice to have a lot of running backs because you can run the ball and not worry about what the next play call is going to be.”

Leggett led the team in rushing for the second straight game, carrying the ball 16 times for 89 yards. Mitchell carried 12 times for 56 yards while Lakes toted it 10 times for 46 yards. Even freshman Tyray Devezin chipped in five carries for 27 yards.

Before Saturday, the season high for rushing was 177 against Jacksonville in the opener. The highlight of the running back crew was Lakes, who — with his score — tied John Russ with his 30th rushing score, tying the program record. He also surpassed Russ as the leading rusher.

“In the headsets, they tell me [Lakes] needs one touchdown to tie the all-time rushing touchdown record … It was great to see [Lakes] do that. Obviously not getting the carries he got last year, but for him to come in there at the end and do that, that was special.”

Elijah Henderson
Mercer’s Kaelan Riley attempts to throw the ball to a teammate.

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The Ruling: Aggressive play-calling comes up big