MACON, Ga. – With history hanging in the balance, the Mercer University football team seized control early in the second half and never looked back, taking down Stetson University 41-14 in front of a standing room only crowd of 12,027 at Mercer University Stadium.
The win gives Mercer 10 victories on the season and sets the NCAA’s all-time record for victories by a start-up program, topping Old Dominion’s 9-2 record in 2009.
The victory catapults the Bears (10-2, 6-2) to a nation-leading 8-0 record at home, giving Mercer the most wins of any NCAA Division I program in the country, a mark that can only be tied by Auburn next Saturday with a win over Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I can’t say enough about our players,” said Lamb following the victory. “This exactly what I’ve dreamed Mercer football would be and I think we’re off to an incredible start and now we’ve got to take another step up.”
After being picked to finish 11th in the Pioneer Football League preseason poll, Mercer shocked the conference in its only year in the league, posting a 6-2 record and finishing alone in third place.
“Well from the first night to now you’ve seen a group of freshmen, let me say a group of young men, really grow up,” Lamb said. “You’ve seen a maturation process over a 12-game season.”
The double-digit win total is third in the illustrious 10-year head coaching career by Lamb, who picks up win No. 77. A finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award as the top FCS coach in the country, Lamb finishes one victory shy of his highest single-season win total, a feat he accomplished in 2005 when he appeared in the FCS National semifinals with an 11-3 record.
The story of the night was a familiar theme for the year as John Russ turned into the ultimate triple threat with three total touchdowns, including one passing, one rushing and one receiving to propel Mercer to a Homecoming win.
The three scores gave Russ 34 total touchdowns on the year as he put the finishing touches on his resume for the Jerry Rice Award as the top FCS freshman in the land. The offensive mastermind ends the year with 1,916 passing yards and 903 rushing yards.
Mercer tallied the first points of the game when Tyler Zielenske capped a 66-yard drive with a 27-yard field goal on the opening drive of the contest.
After Stetson took the lead with a 21-yard touchdown on the first play of the second quarter, the Mercer offense caught fire when JeTarii Donald broke through the line, eluded a pair of tackles and was off to the races for a 37-yard touchdown to give the Bears the lead right back at 10-7.
The captain of the Mercer defense came up big on the ensuing drive when Corey Lockett picked off his first pass of the year and set the Bears up for another explosive scoring opportunity. The trick plays came out on the next play from scrimmage when Russ found Josh Jones and a pass back to Russ resulted in a 32-yard receiving touchdown for the quarterback to extend the lead to 17-7.
Stetson connected on a 3-yard touchdown in the final seconds before the half to cut Mercer’s lead to just three heading to intermission.
The Bears were shot out of a canon in the second half and Donald was back to his big plays when he took a screen pass from Russ, escaped defenders from every angle, weaved through traffic and scored from 49 yards out to give Mercer a 24-14 lead.
After another Zielenske 27-yard field goal, Russ was at it again when he broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run to put the game out of reach and make it a 20-point affair at 34-14 with 3:38 remaining in the third quarter. Caleb Brown rounded out the scoring with a 2-yard touchdown run to give Mercer all the offense they would need in a 41-14 victory.
Tyler Ward added another double-digit tackle performance with 11, while Mike Gray had eight and Devin Davidson chipped in six.
When the lights are switched off one final time at Anderson Field, the memories will still last as Mercer started a program from scratch and saw over 75,000 fans enter the gates and watch the Bears make history one game after another.
With one chapter closed, another opens, as Mercer makes its transition to the historic Southern Conference next season and will play a full slate of SoCon games.