The Ruling: Why does this keep happening?


Image: Jenna Eason

Mercer’s quarterback Kaelan Riley (1) runs the ball with Wofford’s Tyler Vaughn defening in their game on Saturday, September 9 at Mercer University.

As I sat in the press box Saturday afternoon battling the setting sun in my eyes, I couldn’t help but think: “Oh, no, not again.”

This is my third season covering Mercer football. I’ve loved every minute of it. But Saturday felt like I was Bill Murray in the movie “Groundhog’s Day.” I’ve lived through this before.

Mercer had Wofford, the No. 10 ranked team in the FCS and a conference foe, on the ropes midway through the fourth quarter. The Bears led 27-14 with little more than eight minutes remaining in the outing.

The momentum had shifted their way. The defense had looked good nearly all afternoon. This team was different—it had that “it factor” to win big conference games.

And then I heard it: Wofford’s radio announcer screaming, “TOUUCHHHDOOWWNNN WOFFORD! THE TERRIERS TAKE THE LEAD!”

Wofford had managed a long touchdown drive after Mercer led 27-14, then took advantage of a fumble by Avery Ward in Mercer territory by scoring again with more than three minutes remaining.

Mercer lost to Wofford 34-33 two years ago at Five Star Stadium. The Bears lost because of a missed extra point in overtime.

I was sitting next to former Cluster sports editor Justin Baxley throughout Saturday’s game, and all he could muster to say was, “I don’t want to watch this again. I didn’t want to come back and see this happen.”

Here is what you need to know from Saturday’s loss:

(1) This team is capable of winning the Southern Conference

Despite the loss Saturday, I still believe this team has that “it factor” we maybe haven’t seen from teams in previous years. The talent is noticeable on this team.

Wofford entered the game as the No. 10 team in the FCS and the top-ranked team in the SoCon. Mercer outplayed the Terriers for 53 minutes, and that included two dropped passes that would have gone for touchdowns.

But the Bears couldn’t finish the remaining seven minutes.

Mercer committed three turnovers, two interceptions thrown by Kaelan Riley and a fumble by Ward, in the fourth quarter.

Head coach Bobby Lamb said, simply, that Wofford won the fourth quarter.

“We did some good things, but we did some uncharacteristic things, as well—things we have to get fixed as we move forward,” Lamb said. “But just as I told the team, ‘Hey, it’s early in the season. It’s the first game in the conference. There’s going to be a lot of them that are going to come down to the wire, and we can buckle up our boots and get ready for the first one, or we can start pouting and keep pouting and keep losing games because we’re pouting.”

(2) Kaelan Riley has a United States military arsenal at his disposal on offense

This is the most talented offense Mercer has had since before World War II.

Ward returned to the field Saturday after missing the first game of the season and the last four games of last season. He wasted no time making an impact—he grabbed four passes, including a touchdown, in the first nine minutes of the game—and finished with seven receptions for 113 yards and a score.

He became the first Mercer receiver to eclipse the century mark this season.

“We got [Ward] in a lot of one-on-one situations,” Lamb said. “We threw some short balls to him, we threw some out routes to him, then we threw a deep post. He’s a quality receiver, and we feel like if we can get him a one-on-one, we can make plays.”

He’s just one of the many mouths Riley can feed. In the first game, freshman Edmond Graham led the team with 65 receiving yards and tight end Sam Walker caught two touchdown passes. (Graham dropped a 71-yard touchdown Saturday while Walker didn’t have a catch.)

Marquise Irvin stands at 6-foot-2 and has 10 catches and a touchdown through two games. Chandler Curtis returns punts but also can make plays as a wide receiver.

Then there’s the backfield, which boasts Tee Mitchell, Alex Lakes and C.J. Leggett—as well as Riley, who has rushed for 68 yards in the first two games. The Bears have spread the ball around in the first two outings, and I would expect that to continue throughout the year.

Ward said he believes the offense trusts him at receiver. The offense just needs to limit the turnovers when the game is on the line.

“We put in a lot of work this summer, and I think that showed today,” Ward said. “We just have to be more consistent and be smarter down the stretch.”

(3) The defense is improved this year

Mercer’s defense ranked eighth of nine teams in the conference last season. The defense was one of my questions coming into the season, but it has performed well through two games.

The Bears allowed 28 points Saturday, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. The offense put the defense in tough spots because of turnovers in the second half: Wofford started drives on the Mercer 24, 28 and 37.

Lamb said he was very impressed with the defense Saturday.

“We gave them two short fields, and Wofford is too good of a football team to give short fields to,” Lamb said. “I thought our defense really hung in there and really dominated early.”

The Bears also made a goal line stop on fourth down late in the third quarter that seemed to be the turning point in the game; instead of the game being tied at 21-21, Mercer got the stop and turned it into three points, extending its lead to 24-14.

The front seven, led by linemen Dorian Kithcart and Isaiah Buehler, looks stout. The linebackers and secondary have performed in the running game, as well. Safeties Malique Fleming and Eric Jackson as well as linebacker Kyle Williams finished with 10 tackles against Wofford.

The defense allowed only 14 points before the final two late touchdowns, both of which came off chunk plays of 57 and 33 yards. Other than those two plays, Mercer handled Wofford’s triple option offense well.

“We did a poor job of tackling,” Williams said. “Wofford definitely gave us a lot of stuff to look at, and we adjusted to it, but it’s just those one or two, those are the big plays they’re looking for that helps them continue their success.”

(4) We’ll see the team’s resilience in two weeks against ETSU

The Bears travel to Auburn next week. While it will be a great atmosphere and entertaining to watch, I’m not sure we’ll learn much about the team—unless they actually beat the Tigers.

So, we’ll have to wait two weeks to see how well Mercer responds to this loss.

Bobby Lamb said he expects the leaders of this team to help them bounce back quicker than some teams in the past have from tough losses.

Williams said, specifically referring to the defense, that there’s a special level of closeness this year. He even managed to let loose a joke amid the sniffles during the press conference.

“We’re almost tired of looking at each other,” Williams said. “We’re that close.”