After a week of rest Mercer Football will be back on the field in a crucial battle against #8/9 Samford this Saturday. The Bears had the benefit of a bye week to address nicks and bruises and eye the ball game with new life after Samford fell to 3-2 in conference play after a loss to Chattanooga at home. The Bears are currently tied for fifth in conference play at 3-3.
A win this week and next week, along with some help with losses by conference teams, could place Mercer in the top four of conference play and in a position to make the playoffs. In 2016, four teams from the SoCon advanced to the playoffs.
“It’s definitely something we talk about because at this point, it is still one of the goals ahead of us. One of the goals we made was to make playoffs, and if we win out, we’re confident we’ll be in there,” said offensive lineman Thomas Marchman. “Samford got beat last week by a team we beat. Everyone is beating each other and that’s the nature of the SoCon.”
Looming in the background is Homecoming and Senior Day, the last home game of the season. Marchman, a senior himself, enjoys the extra energy on campus.
“There’s just a lot of energy around campus this week. It’s really fun. For us it is another football game, but it is fun when everyone is so excited,” Marchman said.
Fellow senior, defensive lineman Isaiah Buehler downplayed the Homecoming festivities, but acknowledged that senior day could be emotional.
“Homecoming is great; you get to see everyone you used to play with, but other than that I haven’t really experienced Homecoming other than Saturday. Senior Day is going to be tough. I came in with this class, but I have another year of eligibility and will be back next year. I won’t be going out with my boys,” Buehler said.
Buehler is a redshirt junior and will play next year for Mercer, but has hard emotional ties with this class of seniors.
“You have that one back there [Thomas Marchman in the back of the room]…I told him we’re not going to talk about Senior Day until the season is over,” Buehler said. “It’s going to be tough because you’ve developed a relationship with everyone here. It’s like trying to rip off a really sticky Band-Aid [it hurts].”
The team sports 10 seniors this year and all of them will graduate with the exception of Alex Lakes who graduated last year, but had another year of eligibility. Head Coach Bobby Lamb spoke on the seniors’ final home game.
“It’s always kind of sad seeing those guys go out there [at Five Star Stadium] one last time. They’ve put in a lot of mileage for the last four or five years and have been parts of this start-up program. We’ll remember them for many years to come.”
In light of the festivities, Mercer faces a tough task. The Samford offense averages 28 points per game and 334 passing yards a game while touting the SoCon Preseason Offensive Player of the Year in junior quarterback Devlin Hodges. Head Coach Bobby Lamb highlighted Hodges as a focus this week in practice.
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“It all starts with him. He does a great job reading the field…they give a lot of different looks, but I think the thing that is most impressive is he can extend the play with his feet. He does a great job in the scramble drill and hits guys on the move,” Lamb said.
Hodges’ leads the league in passing yards (2654) and touchdowns (22); his favorite target this year has been junior receiver Kelvin McKnight who averages over 100 yards a game.
In comparison, quarterback Kaelan Riley has progressed nicely. The redshirt freshman is third in the league in passing yards per game and fourth in QB efficiency. He has undoubtedly become the leader of Mercer’s redzone leading offense. The Bears score 93 percent of the time inside the 20 yard line. Riley has the confidence of the offense according to Marchman.
“He’s vocal…something that wasn’t really there during his true freshman year or even the summer,” Marchman said. “But he’s really grown into that role and he’s doing a great job of it. We all look up to him a lot.”
Defensively, the Bears will have to readjust to an air raid style offense. Wofford, Furman, and the The Citadel all play run a form of the option while ETSU and VMI run more traditional styles of offense. Samford will definitely look to throw the football and throw it often.
Defensive lineman like Buehler will have a less physical game than in past weeks, but will have to keep pace with Samford’s fast style of play.
“You’re mindset has to be more of making sure you’re focused on the mental block of running to the ball. If not every four yards, you just have to run a couple to get to the ball,” Buehler said. “The quarterback is scrambling all the time, so you have to have that mindset and just work throughout the week. You have to eat better and drink a bunch of water because our legs are going to get tired after a while.”
Kickoff for Saturday’s game is 3 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN3 or heard on the Mercer Sports Network.