The timing could not be much better as far as Mercer’s schedule goes.
The Bears defense is coming off what could be a well-timed open date with Samford rolling into town on Saturday in what may as well be a must-win game for the postseason aspirations of each team.
For a better part of the SoCon schedule, the Bears defense game plans for option-based offenses. But much like teams in the ACC when it comes to Georgia Tech, Samford presents a whole other realm of the way that it looks to move the ball.
The Bulldogs Air Raid offense spreads the field, lining up with four or even five receivers.
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Samford quarterback Devlin Hodges leads the FCS with 28.8 completions per game and receiver Kelvin McKnight has an FCS-leading 11 touchdowns.
Needless to say, the advantage of having an extra week to prepare for Samford (5-3 overall, 3-2 in SoCon) and the offense of Macon native Chris Hatcher, the Bulldogs head coach, is something that the Bears (4-4, 3-2) will likely try to bottle up and translate to a victory during Mercer’s homecoming game.
“If you look at the league (and) the way it’s mapped out, you’ve got Wofford, The Citadel, Furman and Western Carolina – I’d include them because of their quarterback – that all run some form of option offense,” Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb said. “Then you have your standard offensive schemes. Then, all the sudden, you go against Samford. If you look at what Samford does, they’re probably more different than anyone in this league, so having a week off was probably good. We’ve got to focus on their offense and how they throw the ball and how they can create mismatches down the field. It’s been a good off week, just because of the team we’re playing.”
In facing Samford, the Bears will have to shift gears not from just the standpoint of expecting the pass more, but defensive technique as well. Mercer’s defensive backs will be out on the proverbial island in pass coverage much more, rather than being position to make expected stops against the run.
“We just came off (a game versus) an option offense (Furman), and now we have to backpedal a little bit. It’s different when you go week-to-week in this conference because you’re seeing such a different offense each week,” Lamb said. “I think our defense is ready to go. I know we had a few people who were banged up that are now healthy. We’ve got to keep the ball away from their offense as well.”
Mercer indeed does have the chance to control the game its own offense on a unit led under center by Kaelan Riley. He has passed for 1,726 yards and 13 touchdowns. His 63.8 completion percentage ranks 19th in the FCS and second in the SoCon with his 145.3 passing efficiency placing him 30th in the FCS.
The players playing around Riley are confident in what he is able to do both during and in between plays.
“Right now, he’s a clear leader of our offense. He’s vocal … something that wasn’t really there during his true freshman year or even the summer. But he’s really grown into that role and he’s doing a great job of it,” Mercer offensive lineman Thomas Marchman said. “We all look up to him a lot. Number two is just his mental approach to the game now. He’s making calls and checks that he wasn’t doing at the beginning of the year, and it makes all our jobs easier as offensive linemen when the quarterback is telling us what to do.”
If the Bears can generate multiple first downs and keep the Bulldogs on the sidelines on Saturday, Mercer stands a good chance in slowing down the Bulldogs in a gridiron version of “keep away.”
“Obviously, we want to keep the ball for as long as we can. But we are not going to shy away from scoring (quickly) though,” Lamb said. “In a game like this, we’re trying to keep the ball away from Samford’s offense because it’s so explosive. But it won’t change our game offensively. We will run our tempo when needed, but the biggest thing is to secure the football and keep the ball away from them.”