The Mercer Bears staved off multiple rallies by the VMI Keydets to hang on in rain-soaked shootout that ended with Bears winning 34-27.
The Bears and Keydets traded field goals to open the game with VMI leading 6-3 early in the second quarter. Quarterback Robert Riddle put the Bears up 10-6 with a 5-yard touchdown to Steven Peterson in with 10 minutes left in the first half.
But it was a play near the end of the half that proved this to be a costly victory for the Bears as Riddle suffered an injury that forced Kaelan Riley into the game.
Riley answered the bell as he led the Bears down the field to open up the third quarter with a field goal attempt but head coach Bobby Lamb reached into his bag of tricks and dialed up a fake. Holder and backup quarterback Harrison Frost hit tight end Chris Ellington on a short pass for a touchdown to give the Bears a 20-6 lead. Riley would hit Yahsyn McKee before the end of the third quarter to give Mercer a 27-6 lead.
The Keydets made it interesting as they scored 14 unanswered but it was a 56-yard touchdown by running back Tyray Devezin that sealed the game for the Bears. VMI would add a touchdown but was unable to recover the onside kick.
Mercer moves to 3-4 on the season and will go on the road to the Citadel next week in another Southern Conference game.
“If you weren’t here tonight you missed a dang fun football game,” Lamb said. “Let me salute our band, cheerleaders and dance team for hanging around the entire game with it pouring out of a boot. We are happy to get the win.”
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Quarterback Robert Riddle suffers a devastating injury, Riley steps up
In the first half, Riddle ran right on a quarterback keeper then he was hit by a host of Keydets. The scene that followed was one of the most emotional in recent memory for the Bears. Riddle suffered a lower leg injury. Both teams surrounded him as he was lifted on to the stretcher and into the ambulance. He is scheduled to have surgery after the game at Navicent, Lamb said.
“I have been coaching a long time. That might be the toughest injury I have seen,” Lamb said. “Both teams getting around him was really special. Because it’s really what the game is all about. It is a team game.”
The former Southern Conference Freshman of the Year, Riley stepped in and delivered one of his better performances in recent memory. He finished with 9-of-15 for 127 yards and a touchdown. Riley should be the starter moving forward as Riddle will be out for the season. Harrison Frost looks like he will serve as the primary backup with the Bears looking to preserve former Warner Robins standout Dylan Fromm’s redshirt status.
“You know the first thing on my mind, it was all about Robert. I was sick to my stomach that this would happen to him two years in a row,” Riley said. “It’s hard for me to even talk about it because he is one of the best guys I know.”
The Bears still have an outside shot at winning the conference but will need a lot of help from other teams and must win out in conference play. Riley will be the key to success moving forward and will need to be a consistent performer at the position.
Harrison Poole becoming a leader in the secondary
Poole’s name was called on nearly every play it seemed as he had five pass breakups and repeatedly impacted the passing game for VMI. VMI quarterback Reece Udinski came into the game as one of the best quarterbacks in all of FCS football.
He has yet to throw an interception this season and came into the game chasing the record for most pass attempts without one at the FCS level. Poole put that record in jeopardy on multiple occasions as he had quite a few hit his hands.
“He is one of the most consistent guys we have had back there all year,” Lamb said. “He has a great mindset every day when he comes to practice.”
The Bears secondary has been searching for someone to step up as some key pieces have been unavailable. Poole seems to be that player. If he can continue to develop as a lockdown cornerback, the Bears will be tough to beat.
Offensive weapons finally emerging
Running back Tyray Devezin has been banged up for much of the season but the Bears finally got back a healthy version of him against VMI and he made the Keydets pay. Devezin finished with 193 yards on 25 carries and the game-sealing touchdown.
“He had 193 tough, physical yards. He is a bull,” Lamb said. “I can’t say enough about the effort he gave tonight. But our offensive line really blocked well.”
Tight end Chris Ellington stepped up as a top target for Riley in the game and finished with 74 yards on six catches. His trick-play touchdown was a big turning point as well for the Bears in the game. Mercer has done well in recruiting big-play tight ends but they have been underutilized the last couple of seasons. Ellington’s performance against VMI could lead to more play calls to the tight ends.
Wide receiver Yahsyn Mckee broke out in this one and grabbed the first touchdown of his Mercer career. McKee ran a fade route to the end zone and pulled down a big grab while staying in bounds. McKee’s ability to make moves in space could provide a spark moving forward as it has been some missing at the position since David Durden went down for the season. He finished the game with 4 catches for 59 yards and touchdown.
These weapons will have to continue to emerge for the Bears to compete the rest of the season.