The Ruling: Tip of the cap to you, Mercer football

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The Ruling: Tip of the cap to you, Mercer football

Destin Guillen and Behr Cooper work to defend the play by Mercer during the Mercer vs. Auburn game at Auburn University.

Destin Guillen and Behr Cooper work to defend the play by Mercer during the Mercer vs. Auburn game at Auburn University.

Rose Scoggins

Destin Guillen and Behr Cooper work to defend the play by Mercer during the Mercer vs. Auburn game at Auburn University.

Rose Scoggins

Rose Scoggins

Destin Guillen and Behr Cooper work to defend the play by Mercer during the Mercer vs. Auburn game at Auburn University.

Hayes Rule, Lead Writer

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Six years ago, Mercer didn’t have a football program.

Saturday, it trailed the No. 15-ranked FBS team in the country by only seven points midway through the fourth quarter.

Mercer fell to Auburn 24-10 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, an eye-opening performance for many that was highlighted by five forced turnovers. It was the 11th time the teams met; the last outing was in 1922.

Auburn won all 11 of those contests, allowing Mercer to score a total of 11 points combined.

The Bears nearly matched that total Saturday and had a legitimate shot at WINNING with approximately eight minutes remaining. After Auburn’s kicker Daniel Carlson — who is the program’s all-time leading scorer — missed a 26-yard field goal, Mercer took control trailing 17-10.

But it went three-and-out.

Auburn took advantage of a short punt and a targeting penalty to tack on a late score to essentially put the game away. But that’s not the point. The story isn’t that Mercer lost.

It’s what we saw in the loss. No, you’re never “excited” when you lose, but Mercer’s program took a major step forward Saturday, the biggest step forward it has taken since its re-establishment.

“People found out a little bit about Mercer football [Saturday] on the national stage,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “It was a big step for us. A game like this can propel you.”

Don’t undermine the performance; Mercer was on the verge of what would have been, arguably, the biggest upset in college football history. Try to find one that would’ve been better. I’ll wait.

After the game, I spoke with a reporter who writes for “Sports Illustrated.” He’s working on a piece looking at FCS programs playing FBS programs. He latched onto Mercer because of its unique schedule: It’s an FCS program who is playing two SEC schools this season.

The reporter was extremely impressed with the Bears. Considering Mercer’s program was re-established only five years ago — and I’m paraphrasing here — he said, “There’s no way that team should have even been in that game. No way.”

But they were. Mercer played Georgia Tech well in the first quarter last season but could not keep up. The Bears were head-to-head with Auburn up until the very end.

“It just showed the world what we’re about this year,” said wide receiver Marquise Irvin, who caught the team’s lone touchdown. “Last week we had a heartbreaker, but just for the games on now, we’re going to be rolling and get a win streak going because we feel like we’re the best team in the FCS.”

Here are the takeaways from Saturday’s outing:

(1) This is the best team since re-establishment

Pre-season, running back Tee Mitchell said there was something different about this team. He, along with several others, have noted just how close the team is this year.

Granted, we hear that often. But the performance is living up to the talk so far. The Bears took care of business against Jacksonville and really, truly should have beaten Wofford, the No. 10 team in the FCS.

They didn’t, but still: This team is talented.

Lamb said only time will tell if this is the best Mercer team in the modern era, but he absolutely believes it’s the most talented team he has had.

“We’re there now. We have four scholarship classes in place. We’re there, and this is our time to shine,” Lamb said. “It takes a lot of hard work. We lost a heartbreaker last week, and to come back and have this kind of performance after a heartbreaker shows a lot about our program and our players.”

And that’s one of the most impressive aspects worth mentioning. The Bears played their best game in the last five years after losing in unfortunate fashion last week. After the Wofford loss, Lamb mentioned that his team could either be resilient or pout for the rest of the season and keep losing.

I didn’t see any pouting Saturday.

The talent and speed on the roster is noticeable. I fully expect them to be competing for the Southern Conference championship this season — if they can bring that kind of energy to every game the rest of the season.

I expected to have to wait at least one more week to see just how well Mercer would respond to the Wofford loss, but I saw everything I needed to see on Saturday. They’re Gucci.

“At the end of the day, the resiliency factor that I think our team has really came through,” Lamb said. “And I was proud of that. We got something to work with as we move forward in the Southern Conference.”

(2) LeMarkus Bailey is the real deal

Bailey stands at 5-foot-11, 201 pounds. Auburn’s offensive line weighed an average of more than 311 pounds.

Bailey didn’t care. He finished the game with a team-leading 11 tackles (10 solo), including a tackle for loss, forced fumble and fumble recovery. The senior linebacker was all over the field.

“He needs to make Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Week,” Lamb said. “[Bailey] has the heart of a lion, and he has a never-quit attitude. He’s all over the field. His motor never stops. He’s really grown up; he’s really matured.”

Lamb mentioned that Auburn puts a lot of pressure on a defense’s SAM linebacker, and Bailey was up for the task. He looked comfortable in front of nearly 90,000 fans.

“It was a blessing and opportunity,” Bailey said. “That’s just how I look at everything I’m faced with: It’s an opportunity to showcase my abilities and God-given talents.”

This wasn’t a fluke. Bailey racked up 10 tackles and an interception against Jacksonville and recorded eight tackles against Wofford. Last season, he recorded the third most tackles on the team — 56.

He, along with the rest of the front seven, has been impressive thus far. The Bears limited Auburn to 146 rushing yards on 43 carries, a meager 3.4 yards per carry.

Bailey was a major part of that effort. He very well may be a First Team All Conference player this year at this pace.

(3) The Bears survived the injury bug

Entering the game, two things were of utmost importance: that Mercer brings home the $450,000 check for playing and to avoid as many injuries as possible.

The Bears accomplished that and then some. Linebacker Kyle Trammell hobbled off the field but returned later to the game. He was the only player who seemed to struggle with an injury during the game.

Returning back to Macon was a major goal for the coaching staff as — in the grand scheme of things — this game was not that important. The string of conference games on the schedule are of utmost importance, so the Bears needed to enter them healthy.

(4) Mercer could have been more aggressive on offense

The offense was extremely conservative in the first half. Quick passes are a staple of Bobby Lamb’s offense, but this was like Bobby Lamb’s offense on steroids, adderall and coffee.

Lamb said that was the offensive strategy heading into the game.

“We played within the chains. We didn’t try a whole lot,” Lamb said. “When you play a team like that and they have two 315-pounders on the inside that are really good players, we have to double team them. So we ran our inside zone package.”

The conservative strategy wasn’t a bad one, per se. It’s important to allow Kaelan Riley, a redshirt freshman, time to settle into the game. The Bears finally became more aggressive in the second half.

“We knew in the second half we were going to open it up a little bit, which would put us in a situation maybe to lose yards sometimes, but I think we still stayed within the chains,” Lamb said. “We wanted to push the ball down the field a little bit.”

In the first 10 offensive drives, Riley averaged only 4.4 yards per completion — 10 completions for 44 yards. In the team’s lone touchdown drive, Riley completed six passes for 54 yards and a touchdown.

But they could have been more aggressive throughout the game — not only pushing the ball down the field a little more, but also on fourth down. The Bears attempted one fake field goal that would have worked, but the runner tripped just short of the first down.

Earlier, Mercer settled for a field goal on 4th and 2 from the 4 yard line. I understand the thinking, but I certainly thought, “C’mon, Bobby, go for this one. We didn’t come here to kick field goals.”

But it’s difficult to question the conservativeness too much, because at the end of the day, it gave them a chance to win in the fourth quarter.

(5) Turnovers on the menu

Mercer forced five turnovers in the outing, four of which were fumbles — a program record for most fumbles forced in a single game. Some blame may rest on Auburn for the turnovers, but honestly, the Bears did an outstanding job of just stripping the ball.

“We have plastered all over our building, ‘The ball is the issue,’” Lamb said. “We strive on takeaways. And those balls were ripped out … That’s what we try to practice.”

By the time we reached three, four, five turnovers… I couldn’t help but just laugh. It was like in the movie “The Longest Yard” when one inmate couldn’t hold onto the ball to save his life because “he just ate popcorn.”

Maybe Mercer sent over a “Thank you” gift pre-game to the Tigers: buckets and buckets of buttery, movie theater popcorn. Gracious, right? But Mercer knew what it was doing. Savvy move, Bobby. Savvy. Move.

Problem is, the Bears couldn’t take advantage of those turnovers. They scored only three points off the five turnovers.

Mercer’s defense has now forced eight turnovers through three games.

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