Alabama is about to be the sweet home of the Mercer Bears.
Picture this: Mercer trails No. 1 Alabama 27-24 with six seconds remaining. The Bears have the ball on Alabama’s 42 yard line.
Mercer has one shot. One opportunity. To seize everything they ever wanted. Will they capture it, or will they let it slip?
Quarterback Kaelan Riley’s palms are sweaty, knees are weak and arms are heavy after being battered around most of the game.
But there’s still one shot. Riley takes the shotgun snap, alludes a rusher and chucks the ball down the field, into the endzone and into the hands of Marquise Irvin.
Touchdown. Bears win. Say goodbye to ‘Bama’s perfect season and national championship hopes. Everyone loses themselves to the biggest upset in college football history.
A man can dream, right?
Mercer will square off against Alabama Saturday at noon EST in what will be the biggest challenge the Bears have ever faced.
This week’s “The Ruling” will be a recap of Mercer’s 35-33 win over Western Carolina as well as a quick look at the Bears’ game against Alabama.
While everyone is talking about the matchup with the Crimson Tide, don’t overlook how good of a win Mercer had over Western Carolina. The Catamounts entered the game ranked No. 25 in the FCS, boasting a 7-3 record and with hopes of making the playoffs.
Mercer traveled to Cullowhee with nothing on the line but pride and pulled out a victory. The Bears played a great first 21 minutes of the game, leading 28-14 behind scores from Tee Mitchell, Alex Lakes (x2) and Chris Ellington.
The Catamounts added a touchdown but missed an extra point before halftime to trail 28-20. Mercer wouldn’t score again until five minutes remaining in the game, but the defense held Western Carolina’s offense to only two field goals during that span.
A Riley rushing touchdown increased Mercer’s lead to 35-26 and essentially sealed the game.
Here’s what you need to know from the victory:
(1) The offense recovered after a bad performance against Samford
After scoring only three points against Samford, the offense bounced back in a big way Saturday. The Bears tallied 35 points, the third-most they’ve scored this season and the most in a conference game.
“I think we stuck to the game plan this week,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “Even when it got tight, we stuck to the plan and we knew what we had to do. We didn’t get the ball thrown down the field as much as we would have liked, but the inside zone game was really working.”
Against Samford, every facet of the offense was quite, quite bad. Against Western Carolina, every facet of the offense was quite, quite good.
Riley did not throw it much, but he was efficient: 9-of-15 for 102 yards. The rushing game was specifically quite, quite good.
(2) Run, Bears, Run!
The Bears ran for 217 yards on 54 carries. Yes, that’s only four yards per carry, but Mercer still moved the chains.
“You can’t get upset when you run the ball and get three yards instead of the six that you wanted, but we were very patient on offense,” Lamb said. “That was rewarding.”
It was especially rewarding because the Bears ran for a season-low 33 yards against Samford. Mitchell led the charge with 26 carries for 120 yards and a score. Lakes toted it 20 times for 87 yards and two scores. Riley also added a score on the ground.
Mitchell said it was very important to get the running game going at this point in the season.
“I feel like in 2014 and 2015, we focused on the run and then would hit a big play down the field with our receivers. This year, I think we lost our identity,” Mitchell said. “You heard [Coach Lamb] mention the game plan. They made a concerted effort to get us [running backs] the ball and gave us a chance to prove we can run the ball and head into next year with a lot of promise.”
(3) TRICK PLAYS!
It looked to be a field goal attempt.
But it wasn’t. Mercer faked a field goal in the second quarter and reaped the benefits: It turned into a 25-yard pass from Tanner Brumby to Ellington.
“Each one of our assistant coaches has a ‘team’ or ‘system,’” Lamb said. “Will Patterson [tight ends coach] is also in charge of what we call our ‘Score Team.’ Will and I got together and we usually come up with some kind of fake each week. I can’t tell you how many times you have a fake on, but you have to end up calling it off because you don’t get the right look. So we had the right look, and it was great execution by Tanner Brumby.”
Maybe we’ll see another trick play against Alabama? The Bears attempted a fake field goal against Auburn that should have gone for a first down...
(4) Enjoy your Saturday
If you’re traveling to Tuscaloosa, simply enjoy the environment. Enjoy being there.
It’s a fantastic opportunity for Mercer to play on two big stages this season for several reasons. First, it brought in over $1 million to the athletics department, as reported by a Cluster article last year.
Second, playing large FBS schools gets Mercer’s name out on a larger scale, both for the athletics department and the university as a whole.
The victory over Duke in the NCAA Tournament was incredibly useful in expanding Mercer’s image nationwide. I’m not saying playing Alabama will have that same impact, but it helps.
Third, it helps with recruiting. Telling high school players that you get to play FBS opponents like Alabama and Auburn? Sign me up.
Lamb said he would have laughed at you five years ago if you told him Mercer would be playing Alabama.
“Five years ago we were in the Pioneer Football League; we were a non-scholarship football program and we really weren’t looking past year one. We didn’t know which direction we were going to go in,” Lamb said. “Bill Underwood, our university president, wanted to take this to the next level, and you never know when those opportunities are going to come along. At the time I took this job, I had no idea we would be in the Southern Conference and that we would be playing the number one team in the nation. It’s been a quick ride but a fun ride as well.”
The Ruling: #WeWantBama
Alabama is about to be the sweet home of the Mercer Bears.