Alex Avant had one of those “that needs to go on ‘SportsCenter’ ” moments Saturday.
The Mercer cornerback was in the right place at the right time during the second quarter of the Bears’ Pioneer Football League debut against Drake. Andy Rice’s pass was tipped by Avant, kept up the air a little bit longer by a couple of more tips from other players, then fell into Avant’s hands.
What followed was nothing short of thrilling. He worked his way from sideline to sideline, spinning out of several tackles before finding the end zone for a touchdown.
Avant’s rambling return set the tone for Mercer’s 31-17 win at Mercer University Stadium.
“That might could get on ‘SportsCenter,’ ” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “That was a heck of a play. Even our team on the sidelines, we’re sitting there looking at him and, ‘Well, the play’s over,’ and we’re ready to call a play. I’m thinking, ‘OK, we’re on the 40, we’re on the 35,’ and all of a sudden he spins out of there and keeps running. Obviously there were some big linemen waiting on him down there, and he was athletic enough to get the ball in the end zone.”
On the statistics sheet, it was a 35-yard interception return. The 50 yards of field he covered made it seem much longer. And the momentum Mercer gained was undeniable. The Bears’ victory likely came as a surprise to those who thought Mercer’s lone year of non-scholarship football prior to moving to the Southern Conference would be a struggle.
Saturday’s contest was Mercer’s first game against an established program. By defeating one of the conference’s three champions from last year, the prospects of what this season might become for this start-up program filled with underclassmen grew even brighter.
“The amazing thing is, they think they can beat anybody,” Lamb said. “Obviously as a coach, you’ll sit in the video room, and you’re looking at the film, and you look at the size of these guys and the fact they had 13 juniors starting and seven seniors and we’ve got 19 freshmen and three sophomores starting. It didn’t look good on paper. But they never flinched. They never flinched the entire game. When they came back to the sidelines, they were ready to go out there again.”
Mercer (4-0, 1-0 Pioneer League) claimed a dramatic victory in the turnover battle. After recording just four takeaways in the first three games, Mercer had seven against Drake (1-3, 0-1). Four of those came in Mercer territory, bringing potential Drake scoring drives to a halt.
Avant’s interception return was Drake’s fourth turnover, following two fumbles and an interception. The Bulldogs had one more turnover in the first half and two in the second half, including an interception with 2:29 remaining that ended Drake’s final drive. The turnovers ate away at a strong passing performance by Rice, who completed 21-of-34 passes for 273 yards and two touchdowns but also threw four interceptions.
“We just ran to the ball and flew to the ball,” said Mercer linebacker Tosin Aguebor, who had two sacks and forced a fumble. “When you do that, turnovers happen. And that’s what happened in this game.”
The passing numbers of Mercer quarterback John Russ weren’t quite as impressive in terms of completion percentage. He connected on just 9-of-23 passes for 172 yards and a touchdown. But he made up for the low completion percentage with some big plays, including a 44-yard scoring run early in the second quarter and a 62-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Josh Jones midway through the fourth quarter. Russ also scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter after completing a 40-yard pass to JT Palmer that set up the touchdown.
Avant’s touchdown gave Mercer a 17-0 lead, and the Bears led by 17 points again (24-7) following Russ’ 1-yard scoring run. Drake scored on a 7-yard pass from Rice to Grahm Butler late in the third quarter and added a short field goal with 8:14 remaining to cut Mercer’s lead to 24-17, but the Russ-to-Jones bomb effectively wrapped up the victory for the Bears.
“They made it extremely easy for our offense,” Russ said of Mercer’s defenders. “We put up 24 points, and (Avant) put up seven himself. The defense with seven turnovers helped us out because we weren’t executing on all cylinders on offense. When they have seven turnovers and they stop them with 17 points, we can win a game.”