In three outings, Mercer football has lost to The Citadel three times by a combined total of five points.
The Bears (0-1, 0-1) dropped their season opener Thursday to No. 15 The Citadel (1-0, 1-0) 24-23 after the Bulldogs’ Cody Clark kicked a 35-yard field goal with 2:20 remaining. The score was The Citadel’s first points in over 48 minutes of game time.
Mercer was punched in the mouth — figuratively — in the opening three minutes. The Citadel led 14-0 after three minutes because of a 70-yard rushing touchdown on its second play from scrimmage; it then strip-sacked Mercer quarterback John Russ on the Bears’ first offensive play, a turnover which led to an 8-yard rushing touchdown.
But after the Citadel took a 21-3 lead with 5:46 remaining in the first quarter, Mercer scored 17 straight points before halftime. The Bears took their first lead of the game early in the third quarter, but The Citadel ultimately had the final laugh.
STARS OF THE GAME
Payton Usher: The senior running back did not start the game but led the team in rushing with 89 yards on 10 carries. Head coach Bobby Lamb said his night was cut short because of a quadriceps injury but did not mention how serious it was.
Marquise Irvin: Irvin more than doubled his catch count from all of last year Thursday, leading the team with eight receptions for 81 yards.
John Russ: The fourth-year starter was responsible for both of Mercer’s touchdowns and made an impact through the air and on the ground; he passed for 172 yards and one interception on 15-of-25 passing and ran for 74 yards.
Cole Fisher: Mercer’s kicker went 3-of-3 on the night including a 26-, 31- and 47-yarder — which was a career long.
Tyler Renew: The Citadel’s B-back in its triple option, Renew led the team’s potent rushing attack with 146 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries.
STATS THAT POP
Penalty brigade: Mercer was penalized 10 times for 103 yards in the outing. Most notably, a holding penalty took away a touchdown in the first quarter and resulted in only a field goal for the Bears.
Limiting The Citadel’s rushing attack: In the last two years, The Citadel has averaged 430 yards per game on the ground against Mercer. On Thursday, the Bulldogs ran for just over half of that amount (262) on 4.9 yards per carry.
(1) Mercer showed serious resilience: Mercer got punched in the mouth early. And I’m not talking about Floyd Mayweather-esque body jabs. The Citadel went full-out Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago on the Bears in the first three minutes.
A worse start could not have been dreamt. But Mercer bounced back, settled in on defense and eventually took the lead until late in the game. While the Bears couldn’t find a way to finish off another close game, their ability to even be in the game at that point is indicative of the makeup of the roster.
(2) Keep an eye on the running back position: Starting running back Alex Lakes was not 100 percent going into the outing and was not his usual self, running for only 57 yards and 3.8 yards per carry on 15 totes. The bright spot at the position was Usher, but he will also be dealing with an injury after Thursday.
Lamb said senior C.J. Kleckley and transfer Charlie Davidson are the next two in line to receive work at the position. Given wide receiver Chandler Curtis is already injured for the Bears, the running attack will be vital to initiate the offense.
Russ provided fantastic production from a quarterback, but the depth and health at the position will be keys for the next few weeks.
(3) Irvin could have a big year: The sophomore wide receiver only had 15 catches in 2015 but could very well be on his way to shattering that this season. On one drive alone Thursday, he grabbed six receptions. With Chandler Curtis out with an ankle injury, Irvin looks to be one of Russ’s go-to targets out wide.
Lamb on another close loss: “I’m proud of our team ... We rebounded with a great effort ... We’re hurting right now. It’s a tough loss. We put a lot of energy and time into this game, but at the end of the day, it’s just one game. Every Southern Conference game is going to come down to the fourth quarter, and we have to find ways to win them.”
Lamb on mindset after being down 21-3: “We just had to continue to play, and I was proud, because in the second quarter, we played really well in the second quarter. We had it going offensively and made a lot of plays.”
Tyler Ward on poor defensive start: “We didn’t adjust to the speed. I think that first run was kind of like, ‘Whoa, they are as fast as we’ve been talking about.’ So we didn’t adjust, and we let them hit it right up the pipe. It was just one missed assignment and one play that came back to hurt us in the end.”
Russ on frustration of close loss: “It seems like it happens every game. Every game that’s close in the SoCon we seem to lose and not make a play. I didn’t make plays out there. I need to make plays as the quarterback and leader of this team. I feel like I’m just a broken record every year.”
Russ on penalties: “The [referees] are going to call what they see. They do their job, and we have to do our job and not give them that opportunity ... It’s hard to see out there. You can’t blame a [referee]. You have to do your job to make them not call that play.”
Bears drop season opener after late-game field goal