Oh, how the tides have turned.
Two years ago, Cinderella went to the ball. Now, going to the ball ain’t a big deal.
Mercer was that Cinderella. The Bears earned the biggest win of the program’s re-establishment in 2015 when it upset then-No. 3 Chattanooga 17-14 at Five Star Stadium.
I still vividly remember that game – Mercer donning camo uniforms – and watching from the press box as they rushed the field afterwards.
At the time, Head coach Bobby Lamb said that game “puts [Mercer] on the map.”
I also vividly remember Saturday. The Bears faced that same opponent, Chattanooga, and defeated the Mocs 30-10. It really should have been worse.
But there was no rushing the field this time.
No one was saying the win “puts Mercer on the map.” It was business as usual. Cinderella is used to winning these games now.
“It tells me we’re getting better,” Lamb said Saturday. “This Chattanooga program has obviously been on the top the last three or four years … They beat the ever-living crap out of us last year. We couldn’t do anything.”
Granted, this Chattanooga team is a little different. There’s a new head coach. Their star running back graduated. And they were down their two top quarterbacks.
A 30-10 win over a team Mercer lost 52-31 to last season and stunned the year before means something. And it means even more because no one’s talking about it. No one is shocked anymore.
Mercer didn’t play a great first quarter. Neither offense did much, and the Bears only had two drives. Chattanooga jumped on the board first, adding a field goal on the first play of the second quarter.
But it was all Mercer in the second and third quarters. The Bears started throwing it down the field, and it worked: 33-yard and 22-yard passes to Marquise Irvin and Chandler Curtis gave Mercer a 13-3 lead at halftime.
The Bears added 10 more points in the third – a C.J. Leggett run and a Cole Fisher field goal – to take control of the game. Chattanooga scored its lone touchdown with 6:24 remaining but couldn’t legitimately threaten once Tee Mitchell ran up the score to 30-10 with a 1-yard touchdown.
Here are the takeaways from the victory:
(1) Riley efficient despite no help from running game
Mercer had its worst rushing performance of the year, but that didn’t hamper quarterback Kaelen Riley.
The redshirt freshman was precise and efficient Saturday, completing 20-of-27 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns. He looked cool, calm and collected.
“Kaelan [Riley] is getting a lot better,” Lamb said. “When we protect Kaelan and he can protect his feet, he’s 6-foot-4. He can see the field. He can see the coverages … “My coaches about had a heartache when I called a pass on our own 1-yard line. And I said, ‘I know he’s going to complete it.’”
The Bears ran for only 84 yards on 35 carries, a meager 2.2 yards per tote. Mercer’s previous rushing low was 100 yards against Auburn. The poor performance on the ground is surprising, really, given how Mercer had ran for 257 and 200 yards the previous two outings.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of effective runs, but Kaelan [Riley] did a marvelous job of reading coverage and we got a lot of one-on-one matchups,” Lamb said. “Our philosophy is throw it up. We’re going to catch it, or it’s going to be a pass interference. A lot of that happened today.”
But despite Riley’s efficiency, the Bears still didn’t throw it downfield as often as I would have liked to see. We’ll see if Lamb gives Riley more freedom as the year progresses, but it’s a good sign that he was willing to let him throw pinned in his own end zone.
Riley said he didn’t exactly plan for that type of game against Chattanooga, but that it goes back to “camp rules.
“Like we say, it’s always going to be about us and how we execute,” Riley said. “I was able to read the defenses pretty well, so that was how I was able to execute.”
(2) Special teams — some good, some bad
Kicker Cole Fisher hasn’t been as dominant this year as last season, and he struggled Saturday, missing an extra point and a 32-yard field goal.
He was able to connect on the other three extra points and a 23-yard attempt later in the game, bringing his tally to 6-of-9 on the season.
But while there was a special teams blunder Saturday, punt returns remain a huge advantage for the Bears. Mercer entered the contest leading the Southern Conference in punt return average at 9.4.
Curtis simply added to that average with a 24-yard return against the Mocs.
“[Curtis] is a dangerous weapon on punt return and kickoff return,” Lamb said. “We know that. We saw him as a freshman do it. He’s been healthy all year, knock on wood.”
Lamb said the return team prides itself on getting its man down the field and blocking him.
“They know if he catches it, he has a chance to go,” Lamb said. “It’s a really, really big play for us to get our offense started.”
(3) Chattanooga simply looked BAD
The score was 30-10, and Mercer truly didn’t play its best game offensively. The defense continues to shine, and 10 points is the least Mercer has allowed in a Southern Conference game.
But seven of Mercer’s points came on a drive where it started on Chattanooga’s 1 yard line. The Mocs, down to a true freshman quarterback and almost no running game, simply didn’t compete very well.
Chattanooga managed 250 yards of offense, much of which came in the fourth quarter, including only 44 rushing yards.
(4) Only if…
Mercer is now 4-3 on the season, including 3-2 in the Southern Conference. Their losses are to Auburn by 14, Wofford by one and ETSU by three in overtime.
But consider the losses: the Bears led by 14 against Wofford – who was No. 10 in the FCS – in the fourth quarter; and they led by 10 against ETSU in the fourth quarter. Their two losses to FCS opponents were both games in which they held double-digit leads in the final quarter.
Then, they lost to Auburn on the road by only 14, a game where they trailed by one score midway through the final quarter.
You hate to look back and say “what if,” but Mercer could very well be a top 10 team in the FCS today if it weren’t for two blown fourth quarter leads. They’ve looked dominate at times, and their defense has proven to be elite.
(5) A dream is fulfilled
Anything is possible.
Don’t let your dreams… be dreams.
Isaiah Buehler didn’t. Buehler was one of the players we interviewed at the post-game press conference. He was an All-Conference player last year and was voted as a Preseason All-Conference player this year.
But I guess he’s never been interviewed during a postgame press conference. There’s a first for everything.
“This is my dream, to get interviewed after a game,” Buehler said. “This is what I think about during the games.”
It was all in good fun, and you have to love that. That’s what we’re all here for at the end of the day.