BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The Mercer University football team nearly rallied from a double-digit deficit, but the team’s bid to stay undefeated on the road this season would fall short in a 21-18 loss to Samford in Saturday’s Southern Conference clash.
The Bears (4-2, 1-2 SoCon) struggled offensively for most of the second half, but got some late life thanks their special teams and freshman standout Chandler Curtis. The Calhoun, Ga. native rolled 99 yards for his second punt return of the season with 54 seconds left. Mercer trimmed the deficit to three, 21-18, after successful two-point conversion, however, Samford recovered the ensuing onside kick attempt and proceeded to run out the clock to end the Bears’ comeback attempt.
“We had a big play at the end by Chandler Curtis that got us back in the game,” head coach Bobby Lamb said. “We were there with an onside kick and a chance to win the game if we got it. Our kids never stopped fighting, they never quit and they have that attitude every single day whether it’s a game or practice and I’m proud of them.”
Mercer’s defense provided most of the team’s highlights, holding the SoCon’s highest scoring offense to just 21 points in the game. The Bears, who came into the game ranked 12th in the FCS in forced turnovers, tallied two forced fumbles to go along with six tackles-for-loss.
“Our defense played phenomenal,” Lamb added. “My hat’s off to entire our defensive staff and players. This team was averaging 38 points per game and our team held them to 21 despite some very tough field positions.”
Jeremy James notched a team-high eight tackles and a pair of pass break-ups, while Alex Avant recorded seven total tackles, two pass break-ups and a forced fumble. Kyle Williams led the team with two tackles-for-loss en route to six total tackles on the afternoon.
The Bears’ offensive attack struggled in the second half, compiling just 53 yards after halftime to finish the game with a season-low 262 yards of total offense. Part of those struggles were the result of a 2-for-16 showing on third downs, as the Samford defense clamped down in the second half.
Curtis set a career-high in all-purpose yards for the second-straight week, racking up 232 yards to pace the Mercer offense, picking 117 yards on punt returns, 75 receiving and 40 on kick returns. John Russ finished 11-of-23 for 148 yards through the air to go along with 42 yards and a touchdown on the ground, while Alex Lakes added 56 yards rushing in the contest.
Samford got on the board first, after both teams came up empty on the opening drive of the game. The Bulldogs went 65 yards in just five plays, as Denzel Williams found the end zone with a two-yard run to wrap up the drive and grab an early 7-0 lead.
The Bulldogs drove into Mercer territory once again on their next possession, but Lee Bennett stripped the ball from quarterback Michael Eubank before recovering the ball at the Bears’ 32-yard line for the game’s first turnover.
The play turned the momentum, as Mercer racked up 29 yards on its next three plays. The Bears moved into the red zone thanks to a Samford penalty, but the drive would stall and the team would settle for Jagger Lieb’s 37-yard field goal to trim the deficit to 7-3.
After three-straight stops by the Mercer’s defense, Samford finally brook through thanks to a short field.
Williams scored his second touchdown of the game on a three-yard run to cap off a 50-yard drive and hand the Bulldogs a 14-3 advantage.
The Bears answered on their next possession though, as John Russ piled up 51 yards of total offense to help to lead a 75-yard march down the field. The six-foot sophomore wrapped up the drive with a one-yard quarterback keeper to send Mercer into halftime trailing 14-10.
Mercer’s offense struggled in the third quarter, managing just 14 yards of total offense as Samford pushed its lead to double-digits on Eubank’s 24-yard strike to Gavin Sinclair for a 21-10 advantage.
After failing to pick up a first down on each of its first four possessions of the second half, the Bears got a big break with 10 minutes left in the contest. Alex Avant scooped up a muffed punt handing the Mercer offense the ball at Samford’s 30. However, the Bears were unable to capitalize, as Lieb’s 45-yard field goal attempt went wide left.
Neither team was able to move into scoring position for the remainder of the game, as both defenses clamped down. Curtis’ return would be Mercer’s only offense of the second half, as the team fell short in its bid for a fourth-straight victory.
The Bears return to Mercer University Stadium next Saturday, October 11, when it hosts Austin Peay for a 4 p.m. kick-off.
“There’s no place like home,” said Lamb. “We can’t wait to get back to Mercer University Stadium and play in front of a packed house. We have to get better on both sides of the ball and give the crowd a show against a good Austin Peay team that is coming to town next week.”