MACON, Ga. – Traveling across the country for its first road trip of the season, the Mercer University football team ran head first into the University of San Diego and the Toreros passed for 413 yards to race past the Bears 45-13 Saturday afternoon at Torero Stadium.
Entering the season as the defending Pioneer Football League champions and preseason favorite to capture the 2013 title, San Diego (3-2, 2-0) flexed its muscles early and never looked back as the Bears (4-1, 1-1 PFL) suffered their first setback of the year.
“I was really proud of our effort,” said head coach Bobby Lamb. “We didn’t execute the way we wanted to, but these guys never gave up. San Diego was big and physical up front and we couldn’t find anything consistent offensively.”
San Diego stole all the momentum on the opening play of the game when Kenn James took the opening kickoff and went 95 yards to give the Toreros a 7-0 lead.
After forcing a Mercer punt, the dynamic San Diego passing game took over and went 80 yards on just five plays, including a 46-yard touchdown strike from Mason Mills to Sam Hoekstra to open up a two score lead and make it 14-0. The 14-point deficit marked the largest deficit for the Bears all season.
Needing to answer, the Mercer offense came to life when John Russ found JT Palmer on the sideline for an acrobatic 26-yard pass completion and a first down. On the ensuing play, the Bears brought the Mercer faithful to their feet when Josh Jones was tossed the ball on a double reverse and he turned and launched a pass to Palmer in stride for a 28-yard touchdown.
“We have a lot of success with the reverse the last few games and Josh (Jones) can throw the ball, so we got on the right side of the 50 and called it and he made a good throw in there for the touchdown.”
Mercer and San Diego traded scores from there in the first half, but while the Toreros were punching the ball in the end zone, Tyler Zielenske was busy converting a pair of field goals, including a 36-yarder as time expired to give San Diego a 28-13 lead at intermission.
“We came together as a team and battled back before halftime to make it a game,” said Palmer. “This was definitely a big learning experience for us, but I am very proud of my teammates for the effort they gave.”
The Bears struggled to convert in the second half and San Diego continued to produce big plays from scrimmage, including a 50-yard touchdown pass and 50-yard touchdown run to put the game on ice in the fourth quarter.
Mills put together a career day under center, going 23-for-27 for 413 yards and three touchdowns, while James added 86 yards on the ground, a 95-yard kick return and two total touchdowns to lead the Toreros.
“I just shook his (Mills) hand and told him he was one of the best quarterbacks I had ever seen,” said Lamb of San Diego’s senior leader. “He has a strong arm, great poise in the pocket and can throw about every route out there. Here was very impressive.”
Palmer’s four receptions for 100 yards, all coming in the first half, led the Mercer attack, while Russ finished 15-for-32 for 160 yards and one interception.
Mercer won the time of possession battle, holding the ball for 30 minutes and 55 seconds, while converting on 5-of-15 third down attempts.
Rob East sent a season-high seven punts in the air for a total of 274 yards. He averaged 39.1 yards per attempt and pinned the Toreros inside the 20-yard line on two different occasions.
The Bears return to action next Saturday, welcoming Valparaiso to town for another PFL contest. Kickoff is slated for noon at the friendly confines of Mercer University Stadium.