The end of last season left an all too familiar feeling for Bobby Lamb and Mercer football.
The Bears lost 35-30 to conference rival Furman in a hard-fought game. With just over 6 minutes left in the game, the Bears lost their lead and never recovered.
“Obviously, we’re really disappointed in that,” Lamb said after the game. “We’ve been 4-4 three years in a row in the league, and we have to start stepping that number up and competing for the championship.”
Losing close games has been the story of the Mercer Bears over the past few seasons, turning from heartbreak to an unwelcomed trend.
The team has had trouble closing out close games since joining the Southern Conference in 2014. In the match-ups where Mercer lost, most were by 10 points or less. That is the difference between Mercer being a perennial playoff contender and a .500 team.
The number of losses by 10 points or less:
Of the 29 losses since 2014, the Bears have lost 19 of them by 10 or less. Keep in mind that 4 of those other 10 losses have come against Alabama, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Memphis.
The losses have come in a variety of ways.
- Wofford, 2015: The Bears stormed back from being down 10 points in the final 3 minutes of the game to send it into overtime. They would score first in overtime but miss the extra point. They lost the game 34-33.
- Western Carolina, 2015: The Bears found themselves up by 11 heading into the fourth quarter. The Catamounts scored 14 unanswered to win 24-21, including the go-ahead touchdown with 42 seconds left.
- Tennessee Tech, 2015: The Golden Eagles took the lead with less than 2 minutes left to hang on for a 29-22 victory.
- Wofford, 2016: Wofford pulled off another one-point defeat in 2016. This time, the Bears would blow a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter.
There were victorious moments for the Bears as well.
Mercer knocked off then-No. 3 Chattanooga in 2015 with a final score of 17-14. The Bears closed out the 2016 season by knocking off Furman 27-24 when John Russ hit Jordan Marshall for the go-ahead score with 30 seconds left. Last season, they defeated then-top 10 ranked Samford 30-24.
But then, another string of close battles would end with Mercer on the bottom. The team has struggled to find its footing during crunch time. Then it became too late.
Last season, quarterback Robert Riddle’s season ended early when he suffered a collarbone injury against The Citadel. From there, the season spiraled away from the Bears.
This season, though, the Bears have a chance to change course and come out on top in those close match-ups.
The running back showcased his abilities when he was put into the starting after senior Tee Mitchell was injured last season.
Devezin proved to be a workhorse, tallying nearly 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.
That experience will be valuable to the Bears this season. Riddle’s ability to stretch field should also open up more running lanes for Devezin.
Depth at quarterback and the defense stepping up to support them
Another key was the relative success under third-string quarterback Harrison Frost, a walk-on who had spent his high school years backing up former Georgia quarterback Justin Fields at Harrison High School.
The Bears lost a pair of games by less than five points with him under center and even pulled off a win over Chattanooga during his short tenure.
In the games with Frost at the helm, the defense seemed to play with a bit more urgency to try and protect their young quarterback. They were able to force a sack and a turnover in each game.
This gave Mercer additional possessions and kept them in each of the games until the fourth quarter.
This season, the defense must be locked in more on offense. Too many times last season, they allowed teams to march down the field in crunch time. New defensive coordinator Mike Adams will look to make strides on that side of the ball.
Riddle the answer at quarterback
While Frost and Riley served admirably while Riddle was recovering, having the first string QB back under center could be a big upgrade on offense. He is fully healed and ready to pick up where he left off last season.
In the game where he broke his collarbone, Riddle shattered Mercer’s single-game passing yardage record with 347 yards.
The offensive line will be stocked full of veterans:
The offensive line must keep Riddle upright this season, protecting him from any potential sacks or injuries.
The good news: Austin Sanders, one of the top offensive linemen in the U.S., is returning.
All in all, the Bears want to change the narrative on their own story line.
“To be honest with you, we’ve had some very close games that could’ve gone either way,” Lamb said in an interview with The Telegraph in June. “We feel like we are getting closer and closer. It will be a great day when we can win that first Southern Conference championship.”