Photo provided by Mercer Athletics.
Last Saturday, Mercer accomplished something it hasn’t done since 1931: a win over The Citadel.
And it’s not like the Bulldogs are a pushover. The Citadel entered the game ranked No. 17 in the FCS and as the reigning Southern Conference champion.
The Bears not only defeated the Bulldogs 24-14, but they did so on the road in impressive fashion. Mercer led 21-0 entering the fourth quarter before The Citadel mounted a minor comeback that came up short.
This wasn’t your typical air-it-out contest. Mercer relied on its defense and running game, scoring all three of its scores on the ground — one from C.J. Leggett in the first quarter, then two from Tee Mitchell in the second and third quarters.
But they would only add a field goal in the fourth and allowed the Bulldogs to score 14 points, once again being outscored in the fourth quarter. The Bears have only won the fourth quarter once this year — in a win against VMI.
The fourth quarter continues to be a big story for the team, but here are the main takeaways from a big SoCon victory:
(1) Defense has made huge strides from last season, proving to be elite
Last season, the defense ranked eighth in the conference in points allowed in the SoCon.
This season, it leads the SoCon in that category; the Bears are allowing only 18.8 points per game. But it’s not just points per game.
Mercer’s defense made play after play Saturday against The Citadel, including two forced turnovers in the fourth quarter that essentially saved the game — a turnover on downs on its own 13-yard line and an interception with more than three minutes remaining.
The resurgence started this summer, when LeMarkus Bailey, Lee Bennett and Eric Jackson nicknamed the unit the “Legion of Chaos.”
“[A]nd they’re chaotic, man,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “They fly to the ball and they really enjoy playing with each other. It is a really close-knit bunch. There’s a sense of excitement on the sidelines when they’re on the field.”
Because they’re balling. The defense is also forcing turnovers — 15 total — ranking first in the conference and fifth in the country in turnover margin. And it’s not a matter of the team getting “lucky”; using the Auburn game as a prime example, the Bears truly are forcing many of the turnovers.
“In our team meeting at 3:30 p.m. Sunday afternoon, the first thing I talk about is turnover ratio,” Lamb said. “There’s a chart that says 80 percent of teams win when they win the turnover ratio. That’s a big stat we always talk about.”
The Citadel entered the game averaging more than 333 rushing yards per game. Mercer limited the Bulldogs to only 201 rushing yards. Performances like that not only impresses fans — it gives the players confidence, and it certainly seems like the defense is overflowing with it right now.
“It just makes us want to keep working harder because we want people to know that when they play us they’re going to have to deal with our defense,” Eric Jackson said.
(2) Lee Bennett named STATS National Defensive Player of the Week:
A defense is a unit, but it helps if it has some standout players. Many players have made big impacts throughout the season so far, but Lee Bennett probably had the best individual defensive performance of the year Oct. 7Saturday: 16 tackles, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and a tackle for loss.
That stat line resulted in not only a SoCon Defensive Player of the Week award but the STATS National Defensive Player of the Week.
Lamb noted him as a highlight of the game, pointing out that “he played 72 of the 78 plays in very tough conditions” on top of his impressive stats. Bennett, a senior, leads the team with 54 tackles and is one of three linebackers on the team who has performed at a high level this season.
(3) Offense relies on ball control
The Citadel runs an extremely run-heavy offense, and because of that, loves to control the tempo of the game. The Bears decided to try to beat the Bulldogs at their own game.
They did. The Citadel leads the conference in time of possession, more than 35 minutes a game, by a large margin. Mercer managed to beat the Bulldogs in the time of possession department — 33.5 minutes to 26.5.
Lamb said winning the time of possession battle was “huge.”
Mercer ran the ball 50 times and passed it only 23 times. Quarterback Kaelan Riley passed for a season-low 111 yards while Mitchell rushed for 100 yards on 23 carries and Alex Lakes toted it 16 times for 86 yards.
The rushing attack has proven to be effective the last two weeks, going over the 200-yard mark both games. While Lamb and the offense may start to rely more on the running game and defense over the next few games, I wouldn’t expect the game plan to be this conservative.
The Bears simply did what they had to win this game. And they did that, marking only the second time Mercer has beaten a ranked opponent in the modern era.