No matter what the rest of the season holds, Mercer won’t soon forget the slightly cloudy afternoon when Jacksonville came to town.
Mercer went from an 11-point deficit to a 10-point lead and sweated out explosive Jacksonville’s offense in the final minutes to take a thrilling and exhausting 45-42 win over the Dolphins in Pioneer Football League action.
“It’s like I told the referee,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “I said, ‘Listen, these guys are giants over there; we’ve got all freshmen and about six sophomore over here.’ I said, ‘They just keep playing.’
“It was one of the best football games I’ve ever been involved with.”
Mercer improved to 9-1 overall and 5-1 in Pioneer Football League play while Jacksonville fell to 4-6 and 3-4.
It took linebacker Tosin Aguebor chasing down Jacksonville quarterback Kade Bell and forcing a fumble that Devin Davidson recovered with 1:26 left to finally seal it.
“Just a three-man rush,” Aguebor said. “He scrambled out, so I started chasing after him. And I got him. “It was just a crazy game.”
No more so than the final portion of the fourth quarter.
Quarterback John Russ spent the afternoon taking an absolute beating, usually on runs but on some pass plays, as well.
Still, the Bears were in the lead when he handed off to JeTarii Donald, got a wobbly lateral back and threw the ball downfield to JT Palmer, who didn’t have an abundance of room left in the end zone. Palmer hauled in the pass as defenders closed in for a 33-yard touchdown pass that put the Bears on top 45-35 with 6:17 left in the game.
The scoring play came after Mercer’s tuckered-out defense followed another Bears score for the lead by forcing a punt. And the Bears had to come up with another stop.
Jacksonville pulled within three at the 2:40 mark after Frantz Caudio’s 1-yard run to end the 91-yard drive. The Dolphins, who still had all three timeouts left, couldn’t get the onside kick, and Mercer took over on the Dolphins’ 47.
“I said, ‘Guys, we need to run it three times, make them burn the timeouts,’ ” Lamb said. “I said, ‘We’re getting ready to throw it.’ We tried to throw the tight end seam route on a little pass, they covered it pretty good.”
Mercer punter Rob East, however, pinned Jacksonville on its own 3 with 2:09 left.
Bell moved Jacksonville on Mercer’s 40 with 1:33 left, completing passes of 14, 18 and 26 with a few incompletions sprinkled in, Bell making a prophet of Mercer defensive coordinator Mike Kolakowski.
But On first-and-10, the coverage was there, and Bell went left, soon chased and caught by Aguebor, who forced the fumble to essentially end the game. Bell finished 25-of-40 for 405 yards and two touchdowns, plus 69 yards on the ground.
“He said, ‘Coach, he’s the FCS version of Johnny Manziel,’ ” Lamb said. “And he was dead on.”
Down a touchdown at halftime, Mercer sliced into the Jacksonville lead with a field goal on its first drive of the third quarter. The Dolphins answered on their next possession, needing 2:13 to go 70 yards and take a 35-24 lead with 9:21 left in the third.
Jacksonville was ready to deliver a painful body punch after a Mercer three-and-out, quickly getting to the red zone only to stall and then miss a 36-yard field goal.
Russ and Robert Brown connected on a 46-yarder, and then Russ found Palmer for 16 on fourth-and-5, Donald diving in on a 3-yard run to bring the Bears to within 35-31 with 1:21 left in the third.
The first half was wild enough, with the teams combining for 582 yards on 71 plays.
Mercer led 7-0 and Jacksonville scored 21 straight points. The Bears tied it, and then the defense bowed up, stopping the Dolphins three times inside the 1, but Caudio had a hole on the right side of fourth down on the final play of the half to give Jacksonville a 28-21 halftime lead.
It was a tease for the wild second half.
Russ took over the running game when Payton Usher left in the first quarter after taking a helmet-to-helmet hit, and the quarterback finished with 145 rushing yards on 17 carries while Donald added 62 on 20. Russ was 11-of-23 for 217 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
Safety Lendell Arnold led the busy defense with 13 tackles.
“We’re undersized, they’re bigger than we are, they’re faster than we are,” Lamb said. “We are in the right spot most of the time and we are able to make a few plays to win the game.