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Mercer downs Western Carolina to get back to .500

Mercer%27s+Avery+Ward+%2884%29%2C+left%2C+and+John+Russ+%287%29+celebrate+after+the+first+touchdown+in+their+game+against+The+Citadel.
Mercer's Avery Ward (84), left, and John Russ (7) celebrate after the first touchdown in their game against The Citadel.

Mercer's Avery Ward (84), left, and John Russ (7) celebrate after the first touchdown in their game against The Citadel.

Jenna Eason

Jenna Eason

Mercer's Avery Ward (84), left, and John Russ (7) celebrate after the first touchdown in their game against The Citadel.

Justin Baxley, Sports Editor

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After a bye week and two road games, the Mercer Bears found comfort inside of Five Star Stadium as they moved to 3-3 on the season with a win over the Western Carolina Catamounts (1-5) after a strong second half.

The Bears and Catamounts traded punts and missed field goals for much of the first half before Cole Fisher hit a 37-yard field goal to put Mercer up 3-0. But the Bears were unable to keep the Catamounts out of the end zone as they scored on a hook and lateral with seven seconds left in the first half.

The Catamounts momentum carried over to the second half as they went up 14-3 on a 2-yard run by Connell Young.

John Russ and the offense was finally able to get going on the next drive as they answered back with a touchdown of their own. Russ delivered a pass to Sam Walker from 19 yards out for the touchdown. The play ended up leading to a major momentum shift in the game, as Russ was hit after he threw the pass leading to a roughing the passer call.

The penalty was assessed on the kickoff, and Mercer took advantage as the kick coverage team forced a fumble giving the Bears the ball back at the 4-yard line. Alex Lakes was able to convert on the next play for a touchdown.

Following the two quick strikes, the Catamounts lined up for a pass and LaMarkus Bailey jumped the route and tipped the ball up to himself. The interception set up a touchdown from Russ to Marquise Irvin.

Western Carolina tried to mount a comeback but each time Mercer would answer with a score of their own. The game ended when Lendell Arnold intercepted the ball on third and long.

STARS OF THE GAME:

LaMarkus Bailey: He was all over the field in the game. He had a key fumble recovery on the muffed kickoff and an interception on the next drive that turned a Mercer deficit into a 24-14 lead.

Chandler Curtis: Curtis has only gotten the chance to play in a handful of games over the last two seasons due to a series of injuries. When Curtis is the lineup, he is hands down Mercer’s best playmaker. The Bears got him involved in a variety of ways as he got a carry, four catches and returned punts and kickoffs. Curtis looked to be back in his role as the all-around playmaker.

Alex Lakes: Lakes racked up 112 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Lakes seemed more explosive in the game and hit the hole much harder than he has all season. He could use this game as a springboard to get back in form after struggling for much of the season.

STATS THAT POP:

Defense responds: After not forcing a single turnover last week against Chattanooga and allowing a season-high 52 points, the Bears defense came out with  swagger. They forced five turnovers and made crucial stops all game.

Timekeeper: The Bears dominated time of possession as they held the ball for 36 minutes of the game compared to just 23 minutes for the Catamounts.

THREE TAKEAWAYS:

(1) Bouncing back: The Bears were dismantled at the hands of Chattanooga. The offense struggled to get going and the defense couldn’t stop the Mocs. It was important for the Bears to bounce back this week, and they responded. This shows that the Bears will not break after a tough game. It also marks the first SoCon win by double digits.

(2) Still in the playoff race: The Bears still have an outside shot to make the FCS playoffs. Chattanooga suffered their first loss against the Citadel this week and with Mercer’s win over a conference opponent they are moving up the standings. The Bears will probably need to win out.

(3) Full-powered offense: The Bears seemed to finally have all their weapons back and when that happens they are scary good. With guys like Avery Ward, Curtis and Irvin on the outside, it is hard to double cover anyone. The Bears also have a slew of solid tight ends led by Sam Walker that can make an impact down the seam. Add that with Lakes, Payton Usher and C.J Kleckley running the ball and the offense is hard to stop. It also can’t be stated enough how much John Russ and center Kirby Southard mean to the team at the QB and Center spots.

BEAR BITES:

Lamb on being back home: “The atmosphere was great. What a great night to play football and what a great fanbase we got.”

Lamb on Alex Lakes: “Alex has been beat up all year but he is a tough son of a gun. He looked like the old Alex today.”

LaMarkus Bailey on the offense converting on turnovers: “They always have our back and they converted on those turnovers. It really made us feel like a cohesive unit.”

Chandler Curtis on his chemistry with Russ: “I always go back to my freshman year. We just always clicked and on the same page. At the next game, we are going to click even more.”

Chandler Curtis on the wide receiver group: “I know if one of us is locked down then we can always go on to the next one. It’s a team effort and I am just glad I got them as teammates.”

John Russ on Sam Walker’s diving catch: “It was an amazing catch and I am glad I have got him on my team.”

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Mercer downs Western Carolina to get back to .500