Defense, Riley lead surging Mercer into showdown with Furman

Mercer quarterback Kaelan Riley and the Bears have won three straight games.
Mercer quarterback Kaelan Riley and the Bears have won three straight games.

A strong defense and an improving young quarterback can be a recipe for success.

It’s certainly working for Mercer.

The Bears are riding their first-ever Southern Conference three-game winning streak into their game Saturday at Furman. Mercer is 4-3 overall and 3-2 in conference play, while Furman is 4-3 and 3-1.

Mercer has allowed 38 points in its wins over VMI, The Citadel and Chattanooga.

“This is year five for (Mercer’s program), and I don’t remember having a more impressive stretch on the defensive side of the ball than the last of couple weeks. It’s really been contagious,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “They’re running to the ball; we’ve got great leadership on the defensive side of the ball, and it’s a joy watching them play. I really enjoy watching those guys fly around, and they’re trying their best to get a three-and-out.

“They really celebrate after a big play. They celebrate the right way, which is important, as well.”

Mercer leads the conference in scoring defense, allowing 17.6 points per game. The Bears are third in total defense, allowing 337.3 yards per game.

“It feels good to come out and play well,” linebacker Will Coneway said. “We put in a lot of work during the week in preparation, extra film. The guys are coming together, and we’re out there making plays on Saturday; it always feels good when it pays off.”

That defensive effort has been complemented by the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Kaelan Riley.

Riley is fourth in the conference with 205.3 passing yards per game. He has completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,437 yards and 12 touchdowns.

“We’re putting more on his plate each week. He’s done a lot better at directing our offense, especially Saturday when we’re getting a lot of different looks that we haven’t seen before,” Lamb said of last week’s win over Chattanooga. “We didn’t do a whole lot in the first quarter; then we got going in the second quarter. I think the biggest thing for Kaelan is when he sets his feet, and we have really good protection, he is throwing at a high efficiency right now and making big time throws.”

Riley is fourth in the conference with 226.6 total yards per game in his first season as the Bears’ starter.

“The live reps have been important. Just getting used to the game,” Riley said. “The slower it gets, the better it goes. That was the plan from the beginning. Just take it step by step and improve every week.”