Could Mercer go 3-0 for first time since 2013? Here’s how they can beat Austin Peay

The Mercer Bears have gotten off to a hot start in their first two games of the season, including a 45-7 blowout against Presbyterian in their latest match-up.

The Bears now return home for the first time this season to take on Austin Peay at 7 p.m. Saturday. The Governors are coming in off a 24-16 loss to Central Arkansas but had an impressive win in their season opener against North Carolina Central.

The Bears have dominated in the first two contests of the season, knocking off Western Carolina in the opener then followed it up with a rout of Presbyterian, an opponent that they added to the schedule after the season had already started.

While the sample size is small, here is what we’ve learned about the Bears from those two games.

1. Big plays, big playmakers

The Mercer offense has looked great through the first two games and a lot of that success has come on big plays.

The Bears had 4 touchdowns of 30 yards or more against Western Carolina. In the Presbyterian game, it was more of the same with three touchdowns of 30 yards or more.

This includes the longest play in school history and longest touchdown pass of the college football season when Robert Riddle hit Rob Lake for a 98-yard touchdown to go up 21-0 on the Blue Hose.

Based on the first two games, the Bears are always one carry or pass away from breaking the big one. This is is something that teams will have to be aware of going forward, as certain guys are turning into go-to playmakers.

Lake’s long touchdown could be an indicator of things to come. Riddle targeted him again on a long pass that was broken up at the last second by a defender.

The Bears already had two proven big-play guys at the receiver position in Tucker Cannon and David Durden. Adding Lake into the mix with Riddle’s exceptional arm talent provides Mercer with a lethal combination.

The Bears are on pace to have one the best offenses in the Southern Conference and have clearly improved.

Last season, Mercer went over 40 points three times. They’ve only played two games so far this season and have gone over 40 points twice.

At the running back position, Tyray Devezin as a guy who was the clear cut feature back. But through two games, it has been Deondre Johnson who has put on a show. He has a pair of touchdown runs on the season — both over 40-yard carries. He is averaging nearly 9 yards per carry. Many wondered who might replace Tee Mitchell as the speed guy out of the backfield, and Johnson is already staking his claim.

2. Defense turning into a legit unit

The Bears’ defense struggled last season, as they gave up nearly 30 points per game. Western Carolina put up 27 but scored nearly half its points when the Mercer season opener match-up was already well out of reach. In the second game, the Bears rarely let Presbyterian move the ball down the field.

One of the keys so far this season has been the Bohler brothers. In the first game, BJ Bohler intercepted a pass against Western Carolina. Kendall Bohler picked off a pass in the Presbyterian game.

Kendall is just a freshman and is already making an impact for the Bears. These two could be fighting all season to see who will lead the team in interceptions.

Joel Girtman Jr., a freshman, has also made a big impact so far, as he led the team in tackles for a loss against the Blue Hose. Girtman is a heavy hitter as a defensive back. His ability to bring the blitz from the defensive backfield or recognize a run play early on is what makes him such a special talent. Expect him to grow more into his role.

Junior Sidney Otiwu is the clubhouse leader in tackles this season. He has 15 tackles through the Bears’ first two games. He also nearly had an interception against Presbyterian.

The Bears seem to have found a solid mix of young talent and veterans making big contributions through the first two games.

It will be interesting to see if the Bears continue to let the freshmen playmakers see the field often as the competition level gets tougher.

3. High expectations

With a pair of wins to open the season, the excitement and expectations for the Mercer football program are starting to grow. The Bears are favored in all but two games remaining on the schedule, according to Jeff Sagarin’s computer model. The model predicts the Bears will fall to Furman on the road and ACC foe North Carolina.

The Bears are ranked No. 130 in the country in the model that includes all teams in the FBS and FCS. The opening games have given Mercer a significant boost.

It is easy to get excited about where this team is going based on the opening set of games, as well as recent success over Austin Peay. The Bears beat the Governors in 2015 and 2016. Mercer is favored by almost two touchdowns, according to the model.

If the Bears win on Saturday they will start 3-0 for the first time since 2013, the first year the program restarted. It will set up a key game against Furman that could put one team in the driver’s seat to win the conference title this season.

The key for Mercer heading into Austin Peay is not to look ahead to that game or get caught up in the high expectations for the team. If the Bears can continue to play at this level while remaining level-headed in close games, this could be a team on the verge of a major breakthrough that could end with a deep playoff run. But they must take care of the Governors first.

Justin Baxley is the fan life reporter at The Telegraph and writes stories centered around entertainment, food and sports in the Macon community. Justin joined the Telegraph staff after graduating from Mercer University in May 2017 with a degree in criminal justice and journalism. During his time at Mercer he served as the sports editor for The Cluster.