Week 1 AGS GOTW | The Citadel at Mercer

Marc Goold | SoCon Contributor | September 1, 2016socon1

The AGS Game of the Week for Week 1 certainly met expectations, at least in regard to drama. With The Citadel on the road in Macon, Georgia, pitted against the scrappy Mercer Bears, it was destined for drama for many reasons. First off, it was an uncharacteristic SOCON opener, as well as a season opener for both both teams. Second, the last two years saw victories for The Citadel by only two points both years. But thirdly, the expectations for both teams this year is high. Drama was inevitable.

The Citadel is coming off its best year since its giant slaying days of the early 90s which resulted in a SOCON co-championship and a road playoff victory. Mercer is in its 4th year after resurrecting its football team from hibernation since 1941. To say that Mercer has done better than most FCS startups is an understatement at the very least. They have done very well. And what talent did they get back from last year’s team that beat SOCON co champ Chattanooga? Well, basically everyone. Yes, the game played in Macon, in the shadow of Hurricane Hermine, ready to skirt middle Georgia on Friday morning, could not help be an exciting game.

The Citadel faced many hurdles for this game. The Bulldogs lost the coach that led them to success last year. They also lost their DC and to an extent their OC, Brent Thompson, as well since he was promoted to HC. Needless to say there was a bit of coaching turmoil to deal with. They also lost some key play makers on D. The offensive line took some hits but not catastrophically. But the outlook was bright with most of the offensive juggernaut intact. That is until their starting Jr QB, Dominique Allen was suspended for game one and has been out with an injury to boot. Cue redshirt freshman Jordan Black. A southpaw who was challenged to make his first collegiate start, in a season opener, on the road, in what could prove to be a key SOCON matchup. But I hope, like others, that that is why folks choose to go to The Citadel or any school: to meet challenges.

The Mercer Bears, coached by the successful, former Furman coach, Bobby Lamb has a team loaded with talent. While the SOCON brand may have taken a hit by the departure of a couple teams in recent memory, it is still a tough conference to eke out wins in. And while Mercer has had issues getting wins in their first two years, they must at least get the consolation prize for having the most number of close losses in those two years. In 2014-15 they went 3-11 in SOCON play. They lost those 11 games by a total of 98 points or about 9 points a game…on average. Toss out 3 games where they got soundly handled and they lost the other 8 by just 30 points, combined! Yes they have been close many times loosing 1, 2 and 3 pointers regularly. They are poised for a better things in 2016.

As in any opening game, their are bound to some nerves. The player, the coaches, the fans are all a twitter as to how all the preparation will play out when that whistle blows. The Citadel received the opening kickoff and went to work. Named to multiple all American first and second team watch lists, Tyler Renew took his second run to the house for 70 yards. The Dogs looked good and the confidence must have been high on the Dogs bench–offense: check!

The Bear took to ensuing kickoff and started from their 28. A quick sack of senior Bear QB John Russ and a forced fumble gave the ball back to the Dogs O to give the Bulldogs confidence on the other side of the ball–defense: check!

The Citadel capitalized on the turnover rather quickly to make it 14-0 at the 13:00 mark of the First Qtr. It looked pretty good for the Dogs. The expected drama never appeared.

Mercer, however, would not be daunted. They took the next drive 12 plays and 67 yards for a FG. A drive in which Russ was 7 for 8 throwing. Might there be a crack in the Bulldogs D?

The Dogs answered quickly with a 75 yard drive in 5 plays to go up 21-3 with 29 yard TD run by A back Reggie Williams. The Bulldogs may have been bending on D but they were running on all cylinders on O. The redshirt Freshman QB Jordan Black was leading the O well and it looked like the Bulldogs would have a banner night for the stats and an easy opening win.

But anyone who is familiar with Mercer Football knew this was not the case. They would not go down without a fight. The Bears answered quickly themselves with a 5 plays 62 yards drive capped off by a John Russ 38 TD run up the middle to make it 21-10.

After the Bears held the Dogs to a five play drive and a punt the momentum slowly started to shift. It was a little surprising but on 4th and a short 1 at The Citadel 47, the Dogs punted rather than test their young QB to move the sticks. Had Allen been in, that decision may have been different. The Citadel D had moments of brilliance but they were overly aggressive in their pursuits and the Bear’s nimble running back, Payton Usher, started to put on a show on the enduing drive. The 10 play 62 yard drive featured 48 yards from Usher and resulted in another Bear FG to make it 21-13 early in the Second.
On the next drive the Bears D got their first three and out against the Dogs option attack. The momentum had definitely shifted at this point. The drama had definitely returned. The Bears took the punt and promptly march 59 yards in 4 plays highlighted by a Russ to Avery Wood pass which should have been a TD but was downed at the 1 on a great defensive effort. A quick Russ TD made it 21-20.

The Bulldogs had a great return which was padded by a Mercer personal foul to start their drive from the Mercer 42. But the Bears D had stiffened a great deal since the opening drive and they forced a 4th and 1 again from the Mercer 33. This time the Dogs would go for it, but the Bears held and the game was definitely wide open again.

The Dogs forced a punt on the ensuing drive and ran out the clock at the half with a slim lead of 21-20. It would not be a run away game like the Dogs thought after the first three drives. Mercer, and the leadership of Senior Bear QB John Russ had stopped it cold and fought back.

After the break, Mercer wasted no time in scoring as they marched 11 plays and 46 yards to score 3 to take their first lead of the game 23-21.

Whatever defensive adjustments the coaching staffs made paid off for both teams as they traded a few punts or turned it over on downs. It was now a defensive struggle. But by the fourth qtr the real story of the game was the penalties. Or more specifically, the Mercer penalties. The Bears had at least three drive stymied by penalties.

With 9:25 to go in the 4th the Bulldogs began a 65 yard drive which included 4 third down conversions and one catch and acrobatic run for 15 yards by the Dogs FB Renew on a 2nd-17. A Bulldog FG for 35 yards made it 24-23 with 2:16 to go. It would come down to the experienced senior Bear QB against the Bulldogs D. After a 6 yard run by Russ, the Dogs coverage was good enough for 4 straight incompletions by Russ also hindered by another inopportune penalty by the bears for an ineligible receiver downfield…ouch.

After the Dogs took over at the Mercer 24 it appeared in the bag for the Dogs with Mercer having only 2 TO”s remaining, but they were not done yet, coupled with some extremely conservative play calls by the Dogs O. A missed FG with 23 seconds left on a 4th and 13 for the Dogs gave the ball back to Mercer with at least a chance to pull out a miracle. Cue the Dogs “Department of Defense.” Russ tossed it to one of his wide receivers tiptoeing the sideline only to bobble it and an alert Kailik Williams snatched it for the Dogs for their first interception of 2016.

The drama was over. For the third year in a row The Citadel Bulldogs had walked away with the slimmest of victories over Mercer. But a SOCON win in week one is worth a lot of OOC wins at this point, even a close one. Conventional wisdom has Mercer in the thick of things come November. For the Bulldogs, getting a W in Macon week one is sweet. And while it is not going to make many Mercer fans happy, this may be just what the Bears need to motivate them to win the close ones as the season unfolds.

Yes, I think the AGS GOTW for Week One lived up to its billing.

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