An interception with less than two minutes to go thwarted a potential tying drive, as the Mercer Bears edged the VMI Keydets, 27-24, in Southern Conference football action Saturday in Lexington, Va. It was the first meeting ever between the programs.
With 1:32 remaining and VMI (1-4, 0-2) driving into Mercer territory, Keydet quarterback Al Cobb threw a fade down the left sideline for Doug Burton, but MU defensive back Zach Jackson came from his safety position and leapt in front of the ball for the game-turning interception. From there, the Bears were able to run out the clock and preserve the margin for their first-ever SoCon victory.
In the setback, Sam Patterson led VMI with six catches for 93 yards and a touchdown. The receptions were his first catches of the season. Quarterback Cobb chipped in with a 30 for 44 day that included 322 yards and two touchdowns, but he was intercepted twice.
Mercer (4-1, 1-1 SoCon) was paced by its rushing attack that rolled up 269 yards on 53 attempts. Alex Lakes led the way with 98 yards on 20 carries. Quarterback John Russ, who entered the game ranked in the top-10 nationally in pass efficiency, was held to 12 of 22 for 176 yards.
Mercer struck first on a warm afternoon with very little wind. On their first possession, the Bears used 11 plays to go 79 yards, 34 of which came on the legs of Lakes. He then capped the push with an 18-yard dash for a score, putting the visitors up, 7-0.
The next quarter-plus was a struggle for both teams, as each squad committed two turnovers before the Keydets tied the game in the second quarter by taking advantage of one of those miscues. Chandler Curtis, the current SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week, fumbled a punt at the Mercer 13 and James Fruehan fell on the loose ball. The Keydets then scored four plays later on a one-yard run by Jabari Turner, his sixth rushing touchdown in three games, to tie the score 7-7.
Mercer then took over with 2:55 left in the half and responded immediately. The Bears went 75 yards in just 1:15 and scored on a nifty misdirection reverse run by Curtis, a 23-yard dash that made it 13-7. Joe Nelson then blocked the ensuing point after.
That would not end the first half scoring, however, as the teams traded interceptions on the next two plays, with Damian Jones logging the Keydet pick with 1:12 left in the half. Cobb then accounted for 26 yards on the next three plays and got the Keydets into the endzone with an eight-yard touchdown pass to J.C. Garvin.
Garvin’s first career touchdown catch allowed the Keydets to go into the locker room with a 14-13 halftime lead, thanks in large part to Cobb’s 14 of 18 performance over the first 30 minutes.
The third quarter was critical, as Mercer would outgain the Keydets 206-67 in the period and outscore the home team 14-3. That got underway right away, as Mercer took the kickoff and went 75 yards in eight plays to retake the lead, 20-14, on a one-yard touchdown run by Lakes.
After a Keydet punt that saw the Bears pinned to their own 4-yard line, the visitors put together perhaps the game’s decisive drive. Mercer went 96 yards on seven plays and scored on a 62-yard reception by Curtis, giving MU a 27-14 lead with 6:58 left in the third.
The Keydets then saw Dillon Christopher boom a 49-yard field goal on their next possession to cut into that margin, and with 5:36 left in the third quarter, it was 27-17 Mercer. That was the score at the end of the third quarter, and after an exchange of punts in the fourth, the Keydets cut into their deficit again.
VMI’s defense rose up on the next Mercer possession and forced a punt, giving VMI the ball with 3:34 left. An eight-yard completion to Derrick Ziglar to start the drive had a 15-yard penalty tacked on, moving the chains 23 yards. Five plays later, however, Cobb was picked down the left sideline by Jackson for the fourth Keydet turnover of the afternoon. Russ then ran for 19 yards on Mercer’s next play, picking up a first down and icing the game.
Defensively, Miller Williams logged a career-high 13 tackles for the Keydets, while Fruehan forced a fumble and recovered another. Jackson had a fumble recovery and an interception for the visitors.
VMI football returns to action Oct. 4, taking on the Chattanooga Mocs in Chattanooga, Tenn. Action gets underway at 4 p.m.
QUOTES – VMI HEAD COACH SPARKY WOODS
“Very disappointed in the loss. Congratulations to Mercer, they really out-executed us and at critical times especially. They did a great job coming out in the second half, taking the ball down and scoring on the first drive. We weren’t able to answer. I thought they had a good team coming in, I thought they played well and (head) coach Lamb has done a really good job with them.
Us on the other hand, I thought we played hard, I think we’ll see some good plays made by our team, plays like Damian Jones’ interception put us in position to score. However, I think that there’s such a fine line for us to win, we really can’t be careless with the ball. We get the ball in our hands, running with the ball in our hands, we’ve got to hold on to it. We can’t have personal foul penalties that keeps their drives going and stops ours. We can’t have catastrophic plays on special teams; we seem to have on a game that swaps ends of the field…We didn’t have any catastrophic plays (today) and that’s an improvement for us in special teams. That’s why the game was 27-24.
We’ll see times where we executed well and we’ll see times where we were out of position because we didn’t know where to line up, and I take responsibility for that. I have to fix that. Other than that, it was a good football game. Mercer is a good team, their quarterback is an outstanding football player, their running backs are as well and they were very aggressive on defense. We had a hard time moving the ball against them when they didn’t even load the box. That’s a concern for me.”