Valparaiso made an 800-mile road trip to a new facility.
Mercer’s reinstated program was in its sixth game, and Valparaiso has been playing for more than 90 years, although few of the recent ones have been very successful.
Nevertheless, the Crusaders sure seemed at home on the road for a long time before Mercer gained control in a 35-21 win Saturday afternoon in Pioneer Football League action.
“We knew this was a very dangerous team throwing the football,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “They had a 500-yard passing game, a 409(-yard) passing game. They had four receivers with 16 or more catches.
“We knew we had to control the ball.”
Valparaiso quarterback Eric Hoffman kept Mercer’s linebackers and defensive backs busy, completing 30-of-39 for 316 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Tanner Kuramata caught eight for 166 yards and both scores.
Mercer ended one half and began the next with drives that pretty much sealed it.
“I thought we didn’t play quite as well in the first half; we kind of slopped around a little bit,” Lamb said. “Made a few adjustments in the second half — our coaches did a great job — and therefore, we were able to break through with our run game in the second half, kill the clock basically and score touchdowns.”
Mercer improved to 5-1 overall and 2-1 in Pioneer Football League play while Valparaiso fell to 1-5 and 1-2.
Quarterback John Russ took care of most of Mercer’s points, with two rushing and two passing touchdowns. He ran for 100 yards on 18 carries and was 9-of-17 for 192 yards with no interceptions. Payton Usher ran for 109 yards on 19 carries as the Bears averaged 5.6 yards per carry en route to 286 rushing yards.
Valparaiso went 65 yards on seven plays to start the game with a touchdown, then held Mercer to a three-and-out.
“That was a really good drive,” Lamb said. “They took it right down our throats early, and it was really scary there for a while.”
The Bears soon regrouped and tied it with an impressive 14-play, 96-yard drive that took up more than seven minutes. Russ hit JT Palmer for 21 yards on third-and-21 to keep it going.
For the second time in 20 game minutes, Valparaiso pinned the Bears deep, this time inside the 1. On the third play, Josh Jones was extremely open and hauled in Russ’s pass for a 93-yard touchdown four minutes into the second quarter.
But the Crusaders answered, sparked by a 49-yard pass from Hoffman to Kuramata. They then stunned Mercer.
Mercer called timeout before a third-and-16 play, and an incompletion followed. The Bears called another timeout before fourth-and-16.
Still, Kurmata got open as Hoffman was flushed and found him for the touchdown, and Valpo tied it at 14 with 7:46 left.
Mercer soon faced fourth-and-2 from Valparaiso’s 25. Russ faked the pitchout to the left, rolled right and hit an open Brown for the 25-yard score at the 1:49 mark en route to 21-14 lead at the break.
“I don’t know if we were impatient,” Russ said. “But we definitely wanted to be more in control throughout the game than we were.”
Mercer had 2 more yards of total offense at halftime, and Hoffman was 17-of-20 for 205 yards, five passes going to Kuramata for 142 yards.
“We gave up a lot of chunks of yards,” Mercer linebacker Corey Lockett said. “Big plays, explosive plays.”
The Crusaders got a huge stop early in the third as Mercer was driving, going from the 25 to Valparaiso’s 35. The Bears were held on third-and-6, had a delay of game on fourth-and-5 and then punted, nearly pinning the Crusaders at the 1.
“We didn’t get any points because we got the delay,” Lamb said of a debatable delay of game flag on the Bears. “We did maintain a long drive to kind of set the tone for the second half, even though we didn’t get points.”
Valparaiso gave it back with a three-and-out, and the Bears marched 59 yards on seven plays — sparked by Usher’s 41 yards on the first play — with Russ keeping from the 5.
That put Mercer up 28-14, and the Bears put it away with a nine-play, 92-yard drive early in the fourth quarter, JeTarri Donald powering in from 4 yards out at the 9:36 mark.
Valparaiso scored on its next possession and got it back when Donald fumbled the kickoff. The Crusaders got to the 6, and then Aaron Avant batted away a fourth-down pass in the end zone.
“The defense came out there and responded with a big stand,” Lamb said. “I was excited about our defense being able to do that and then our offense run the clock out.