Mercer, Wofford to finally start conference play
(STATS) – For a team showing proficiency on both sides of the ball, coach Bobby Lamb seems a little uneasy heading into Mercer’s Southern Conference opener against Wofford on Saturday.
The Bears (2-1) are coming off their bye week and have been stewing since a 29-22 loss at Tennessee Tech on Sept. 19. After holding both Austin Peay and Stetson under 300 total yards, Mercer was shredded by the Eagles’ Jared Davis for 301 passing yards, including an eight-yard go-ahead score with 1:47 remaining that negated a rally from a 15-point deficit.
While John Russ did throw a touchdown pass, he finished 19 of 36 for 155 yards, and Mercer’s inability to finish off drives with touchdowns proved to be its undoing. All three of Jagger Lieb’s field goals were from 26 yards or closer, and Lamb had plenty of time to try and figure out how to make three points become six.
"We had to close some things up after the Tennessee Tech loss and you want to get back on the field as quick as you can when you lose a game," said Lamb, who coached at Furman from 2002-10 before taking over Mercer the following year as it restarted its program for its eventual return beginning in 2013. "We really had to work on some different things like our red zone offense."
As Mercer’s offense looks to regroup, its stout run defense – yielding an FCS-low 52.0 yards per game – will get a stern challenge from Wofford’s powerful ground game that’s second in the Southern and eighth in the FCS at 263.0 yards per contest – all the more impressive considering the Terriers have played two FBS schools.
Wofford’s flexbone offense utilizes as many as four quarterbacks, and six players have at least 91 rushing yards.
"They give you so many different sets and so many different blocking schemes that you must prepare and can break it at any minute," Lamb noted, recalling how Wofford rolled up 374 rushing yards in last year’s 34-6 rout. "It’s a tremendous challenge and they beat us up pretty good in the last game of last year and hopefully we can learn from that experience and play better this time."
Wofford (2-2) also played Tennessee Tech this season, winning 34-14 at home Sept. 12. While the Terriers had only 159 rushing yards in a 16-0 victory over Gardner-Webb last Saturday, coach Mike Ayers was pleased with how his team dealt with the wet conditions that could play a similar factor in Georgia as Hurricane Joaquin makes its way up the Atlantic seaboard.
"When you have constant rain, those balls have a tendency to get slick, the quarterback-center exchange, which is crucial, can sometimes go haywire," Ayers said. "Fortunately for us, we were consistent. We didn’t give up a cheap one, we tackled pretty well on a pretty tough field where everyone was wet and they’ve got some strong runners."
This will be Wofford’s first trip to Mercer since 1941 after the Bears joined the Southern last season. Lorenzo Long had 105 rushing yards and four TDs in the Terriers’ win last year, its first in seven all-time meetings. In those six victories from 1915-41, Mercer posted three shutouts and held Wofford to 27 points overall.
ELSEWHERE AROUND THE CONFERENCE…
With eighth-ranked Chattanooga, Samford and The Citadel idle this week, three SoCon schools are wrapping up their nonconference schedules. The most intriguing one pits Furman (2-2) against South Carolina State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Both teams are receiving votes in the STATS FCS Top 25, and the Paladins followed up their road upset of FBS school UCF with a 24-21 victory over VMI to open conference play last weekend.
Furman’s special teams proved to be the difference as Brian Ross returned a blocked punt for a TD shortly after halftime and Jon Croft Hollingsworth booted a winning 42-yard field goal with 4:35 to play. The Paladins also did an excellent job keeping VMI’s high-octane offense off the field, possessing the ball for nearly 38 minutes and holding the Keydets to a season-low 279 yards.
"It was pretty balanced. We played really well on defense most of the game," coach Bruce Fowler said. "They were averaging about 480 yards coming into our game and moving the ball really well. They moved it against us some, but we were able to control the ball a little bit on offense, which helps, and play some really good defense."
The Paladins and Bulldogs are quite familiar with each other despite being in different conferences. This will be the third straight year the teams are meeting – Furman won 30-20 in Orangeburg in the first round of the 2013 playoffs and South Carolina State gained a measure of revenge last season with a 17-7 home victory.
"It’s a big challenge with a lot of the same players," Fowler said. "Offensively, they get you spread out and have receivers who are big, lanky fast guys that catch the ball well … and they’re a physical bunch."
Mocs do-everything quarterback Jacob Huesman won his second straight offensive player of the week award, and with 11 lifetime trails only Georgia Southern’s Adrian Peterson (14) and Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards (13). Chattanooga limited Presbyterian to eight yards in the second half of its 21-0 victory and is tied for 12th in the FCS in opponents’ third-down conversions at 29.8 percent (17 for 57).