2014 Football, Game 9: The Citadel vs. Mercer

The Citadel vs. Mercer, to be played to be played in Macon, Georgia, at Mercer University Stadium, with kickoff at 4:00 pm ET on Saturday, November 1. The game will not be televised. It will be streamed on ESPN3.com, with Dan Mathews providing play-by-play, D.J. Shockley supplying the analysis, and Hannah Chalker reporting from the sidelines.

Note: this game will NOT be streamed on the SoCon Digital Network.

The game can be heard on radio via the various affiliates of The Citadel Sports Network. Mike Legg (the new “Voice of the Bulldogs”) will call the action alongside analyst Lee Glaze. It is also possible to listen to the action with a smartphone, using a TuneIn Radio application.

WQNT-1450 AM [audio link], originating in Charleston, will be the flagship station for The Citadel Sports Network. WQNT will have a two-hour pregame show prior to each home football game that will be hosted by Ted Byrne. The pregame show and game broadcast will be produced by Jay Harper, who will also provide updates on other college football action.

Links of interest:

Game notes from The Citadel and Mercer

SoCon weekly release

Mike Houston at his 10/28 press conference

Mike Houston on the SoCon teleconference

Bobby Lamb on the SoCon teleconference

Bulldogs plagued by self-inflicted mistakes

Mercer gears up for The Citadel

Mike Houston (in that above-linked “plagued by self-inflicted mistakes” article):

Saturday’s game was frustrating, because it goes back to what I said at the beginning of the season. And that is that we can win our share of games as long as we do what good football teams do.

Late in the year, good football teams take care of the football, don’t have penalties on critical downs and play good, fundamentally sound defense. And although we did some good things Saturday, we didn’t do those things that we needed to.

This is especially true when there is less margin for error, as is normally the case for varsity teams at The Citadel. When the Bulldogs turn the ball over three times in their opponents’ territory, and commit two false-start penalties when preparing to go for it on 4th down — well, they aren’t going to win many games, particularly on the road.

Frustrating is a good word for The Citadel’s performance against Western Carolina. The Bulldogs were ready to play last Saturday against the Catamounts. The effort was there. The execution was not.

In my game preview I wrote that I wanted to see “crisp play on both sides of the ball”. It wasn’t quite present in Cullowhee, at least from the Bulldogs’ perspective, and so the result was another loss.

The offense had the aforementioned turnover and penalty issues. As for the defense, one statistic sums up the day: Western Carolina averaged 9.6 yards per play.

The Citadel has to get better if it wants to record another victory this season. That’s the bottom line.

What is now Mercer University was founded in 1833. The school was originally located in Penfield, Georgia, a small town between Atlanta and Augusta. The campus relocated to Macon in 1871.

The institution is named for Jesse Mercer, a Baptist leader who was the first chairman of the school’s Board of Trustees. The college was originally established by Baptists, but no longer has an affiliation with the denomination.

MU has about 4,400 undergraduate students and almost 4,000 graduate/professional students. They are enrolled at twelve different colleges located in Macon (the primary campus), Savannah, and Atlanta.

Mercer has over 68,000 alumni. Its most notorious graduate is probably Nancy Grace.

Obviously, Mercer is new to the SoCon, so just to quickly recap some varsity athletics particulars:

– The school fields teams in 17 of the league’s 20 sports. The exceptions are men’s track and field (both indoor and outdoor) and wrestling.

– Mercer also has varsity squads in two sports that are not sponsored by the SoCon: women’s lacrosse and sand volleyball.

In ’92, Mercer played its first college football game.

That would be 1892. In January of that year, the Bears played Georgia in Athens, losing 50-0.

Mercer may have lost the game, but it acquired a nickname/mascot. Well, allegedly:

The choice of the bear as Mercer’s mascot is said to have been prompted by a University of Georgia football player. In that first football game between the two schools, one of the Georgia players saw a Mercer player burst through the line of scrimmage and exclaimed, “Whence cometh that bear?”

If you really believe that a football player at Georgia said “Whence cometh” while a play was in progress, I have a washed-out bridge in Adams Run to sell you. It strikes me as a latter-day explanation provided by the sports information director of a bygone era, someone inspired by Epicurus or the Bible.

Two months after the Georgia game, Mercer played the Savannah Catholic Library Association, losing 20-2.

The Bears’ first victory came in November of 1892, when they defeated Georgia Tech 12-6. The contest (which was Tech’s first-ever football game) was played in a local Macon park.

Mercer played once in 1893, losing 10-6 in a rematch with Georgia Tech played in Atlanta. The coach of the Bears for that game was George Tweedy Stallings, who had recently finished his regular job for the year, that of a professional baseball player. Stallings also served as the Bears’ baseball coach during this period.

He would play only seven major league games, but still managed to carve out his place in baseball history. Stallings managed the 1914 “Miracle Braves” of Boston, a team that was in last place in the National League on Independence Day before surging to the NL pennant. The Braves then swept the heavily-favored Philadelphia A’s in four straight games to win the World Series.

For that accomplishment, Stallings was known for the rest of his life as “The Miracle Man”.

Incidentally, Stallings is not the most famous baseball coach in Mercer history. Cy Young coached at Mercer from 1903-1905.

(One more note on Stallings: some references list him as a graduate of VMI. However, there is apparently no evidence Stallings ever attended that school.)

Mercer started playing football games on a regular basis in 1906, when it joined the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The football program would move to the Dixie Conference in 1930.

That victory over Georgia Tech in 1892 would be the only one Mercer ever recorded against the Yellow Jackets, as the Bears lost 15 of the other 16 games in the series (one matchup ended in a tie). Mercer was 0-22 versus Georgia.

The Bears were more competitive against another bunch of Bulldogs, winning four of eleven games against The Citadel (with one tie). The teams played six times in a seven-year period between 1925-31, meeting in several different locations (Charleston, Macon, Augusta, and Savannah).

That 1931 game would prove to be the last between the two programs until this season. Mercer would disband its football program following the 1941 campaign, never restarting the sport after World War II — not until last year, that is.

On November 19, 2010, Mercer’s Board of Trustees voted to reinstate varsity football, though not as a scholarship sport. The school hired former Furman head coach Bobby Lamb to lead the program two months later.

Lamb signed his first class of recruits in February of 2012, with an eye on competing in the Pioneer League (which had accepted Mercer as a member). However, when the school announced in May of 2013 that it was joining the SoCon (beginning with the 2014-15 school year), it also stated that it would transition to scholarship football. Lamb thus did not sign a full class of scholarship recruits until February 2014.

Mercer also built a new football/lacrosse complex. The 10,000-seat Mercer University Stadium opened for gridiron activity in 2013 with more fans in the stands than seats, as 12,171 supporters watched the Bears defeated Reinhardt 40-37 in the school’s first football game since 1941.

The Bears would finish last season with a 10-2 record, winning their first four contests before losing at San Diego. Mercer’s other loss last season came on the road against another Pioneer League opponent, Marist.

Not coincidentally, USD and Marist were two of the three best teams in the Pioneer League in 2013 (along with Butler). Arguably the best win of the season for Mercer was its victory over Drake.

Mercer opened this season with a back-and-forth, who-has-the-ball-last kind of game, a 45-42 home triumph over Reinhardt (which is an NAIA school in Georgia). There were ten lead changes in the contest.

The following week, the Bears lost 25-20 to Furman, the Paladins’ first game after losing starting quarterback Reese Hannon to a season-ending injury. The key play in the game was a pick-six by Furman in the fourth quarter.

MU rolled in its next two games, winning at Stetson 49-0 and pummeling Ave Maria of the NAIA 42-21 (the Bears led the Gyrenes 42-7 at halftime). Mercer then won its first SoCon game, a 27-24 triumph at VMI in which a last-minute interception near the goal line preserved the victory.

Mercer has lost three of its last four games, all conference matchups. The lone victory in that stretch was a 49-21 walloping of Austin Peay.

Samford defeated the Bears 21-18. The score was 21-10 with a minute remaining when Chandler Curtis (more on him later) returned a punt 99 yards for a touchdown. A subsequent onside kick was recovered by the homestanding Birmingham Bulldogs.

Turnovers and penalties doomed Mercer against Western Carolina (sound familiar?). The Catamounts won in Macon, 35-21.

Last week, the Bears lost at Chattanooga 38-31. Mercer trailed 35-14 before mounting a comeback, but couldn’t quite reel in the Mocs.

General statistics for consideration, Mercer’s offense/The Citadel’s defense:

Mercer has passed (or been sacked on passing plays) 39% of the time. Passing yardage accounts for just over 50% of the Bears’ total offense.

MU leads the SoCon in offensive pass efficiency and total offense. It is second in scoring offense, and third in rushing offense.

One caveat: While Mercer is averaging 33.6 points per game overall, that number drops to 23.4 points per game in league play.

Mercer is averaging 5.1 yards per rush and a SoCon-high 8.9 yards per pass attempt, which combined have resulted in a league-leading 6.5 yards per play.

The Citadel ranks next-to-last in the league in scoring, rushing, and total defense, and last in passing defense  and pass efficiency defense. The Bulldogs are allowing 5.3 yards per rush and 8.4 yards per pass attempt, which adds up to 6.6 yards per play.

The 63-56 2OT game against Charlotte skews those numbers slightly, but the Bulldogs have not played well on defense in the two games following the matchup with the 49ers either. The statistics bear that out.

Despite the fact that the Bears lead the conference in first downs per game (20.4), Mercer has not been all that successful on third down. Its conversion rate of 35.4% ranks behind every other SoCon team except Furman. Saturday’s matchup may be a case of the stoppable force versus the movable object, however, as The Citadel’s defense ranks last in opponents’ third-down conversion rate (an unsightly 49.2%).

MU’s offense has a red zone touchdown rate of 69%, while the Bulldogs are second-best in the SoCon with a defensive red zone TD rate of 51%.

Mercer is +3 for the season in turnover margin, a number that is mostly to the credit of the Bears’ defense. Only two SoCon offenses have turned the ball over more often than Mercer.

The Citadel’s defense did intercept its first two passes of the campaign last week, but the Bulldogs still rank last in the conference in turnovers forced.

General statistics for consideration, Mercer’s defense/The Citadel’s offense:

Mercer is fifth in the league in scoring defense, sixth in total defense and pass defense, fourth in rushing defense, and third in defensive pass efficiency. The differential between passing defense and defensive pass efficiency can be partly explained by the Bears’ league-leading nine interceptions.

MU is allowing 4.4 yards per rush and 7.1 yards per pass attempt, resulting in a 5.7 yards/play average.

The Citadel leads the league in rushing offense and is fourth in total offense. The Bulldogs are just sixth in scoring offense, however, and are next-to-last in passing offense (and last in offensive pass efficiency).

From a per-play perspective, The Citadel is last in the league in passing yards per attempt (5.8) and second in yards per rush (5.3). Overall, the Bulldogs are tied for fifth in yards per play (5.4).

The Citadel leads the SoCon in third-down conversion rate, at 49.2%. Mercer’s D is middle-of-the-pack in that category (39.9%).

The Bulldogs are scoring touchdowns 71% of the time when they enter the red zone. Conversely, MU’s defense is allowing TDs at a 60% clip once an opponent advances inside the 20-yard line.

Mercer is tied for the league lead in forced turnovers, with 18 (including the aforementioned nine interceptions). The Citadel’s offense is tied with Wofford for fewest turnovers committed (nine).

The odds that Mercer’s D records a sack in this game are probably not good. The Citadel’s offense has only given up a sack twice this season, while the Bears are tied for last in defensive sacks.

General statistics for consideration, special teams and miscellaneous-but-interesting:

Mercer leads the conference in punt return average, with a ludicrous 20.7 yards per return (which also ranks third nationally). The Bears have three punt return touchdowns (and also a kickoff return TD).

The Citadel is last in kick return average.

The Bulldogs have made seven of their eight field goal attempts, while Mercer is only five for ten on FG tries.

Mercer is apparently adept at drawing penalties, as opponents have committed 75 infractions while playing the Bears this season, a number that leads the SoCon. The Citadel is the exact opposite, as it ranks last in the league in opponents’ penalty yardage (and next-to-last in total opponent penalties).

The Citadel leads the conference in time of possession. The Bears are next-to-last in that category.

Mercer has a young roster, which is what happens when you’re only playing your second year of football since 1941. Mike Houston made a good point in his weekly press conference, however.

He noted this is Mercer’s third year (in terms of signing classes) and that more than 50% of the roster is the same age as Bulldog regulars like Mitchell Jeter and Nick Willis.

One example: free safety Lendell Arnold (who Houston recruited while coaching at Lenoir-Rhyne) originally attended Air Force’s preparatory school. He is a now a sophomore who will turn 22 in two weeks.

Bobby Lamb mentioned during the SoCon teleconference that Mercer currently has about 38 total scholarships in its program (presumably made up of full and partial offers, though he didn’t specify that).

John Russ (6’0″, 199 lbs.) leads the Southern Conference in passing touchdowns, with sixteen (he has been intercepted eight times). A native of Buford, Georgia, Russ leads the SoCon in pass efficiency as well.

He is completing 58% of his throws, averaging 9.3 yards per attempt. In his second year as a starter, Russ has developed a reputation as a fine downfield passer. Mercer is averaging 15.5 yards per pass completion, fifth-highest in all of FCS.

Running back Alex Lakes leads the conference in rushing at 102.6 yards per game, and is also tied for the SoCon lead in rushing touchdowns with twelve. He is averaging an impressive 6.2 yards per carry, and was named the SoCon Player of the Month for September.

Lakes is from Newnan, Georgia. He spent one semester at AFA’s prep school, then wound up at West Georgia the following spring, playing defense.

When Mercer announced it was going to play scholarship football, Lakes moved to the Macon school (where he had made a previous visit) to play running back, redshirting during his first year on campus.

Mercer has another big-play running back in 5’10”, 186 lb. freshman Tee Mitchell, who played high school football at The Bolles School in Jacksonville. Mitchell had an 80-yard touchdown reception against Austin Peay and a 74-yard TD catch versus Chattanooga. He also had a 41-yard run against VMI.

Chandler Curtis (5’10”, 186 lbs.) isn’t listed as a starting wideout on the Bears’ depth chart, but don’t let that fool you. He is an impact player of a very high order.

The freshman has twenty receptions, two rushes, nine punt returns, and twelve kick returns. Ten of those forty-three “touches” have resulted in touchdowns.

He leads all of FCS in return TDs with four, including a 99-yard punt return against Samford. When is the last time you saw a guy return a punt 99 yards?

Quite a few of Curtis’ big plays have come against Mercer’s non-conference opponents, but he is not just bullying outclassed teams. Curtis has four 40+ yard receptions in league play.

Mercer got some bad news earlier this week, when it was revealed that leading receiver J.T. Palmer would miss the rest of the season with a hand injury. The junior had 39 catches (five for TDs).

Tight end Robert Brown has had his share of injury problems as well, but had 49- and 35-yard receptions last week against Chattanooga. The product of Nashville is not the largest TE in the world (6’1″, 218 lbs.), but he has a habit of making big plays (averaging 18.6 yards per catch).

Brown’s primary backup, Derek Owings, is a bigger tight end (6’3″, 248 lbs.) who has started three games this season. He spent two years at Eastern Michigan before heading south to Macon.

Mercer’s offensive line has been largely unchanged through most of the season. Average height and weight of the starters: 6’2″, 288 lbs.

Right tackle A.M. Posey is the biggest of the group, at 6’6″, 321 lbs. He began his collegiate career at Tennessee. Kirby Southard has started at center for every game over the past two seasons.

Mercer usually lines up in a 3-4 on defense. As always, things may be different when a team faces a triple option offense.

Defensive end Tunde Ayinla is second on the squad in tackles for loss, with 4.5. He also shares the team lead in sacks with two.

Nosetackle Bret Niederreither is one of two players on the Bears’ roster who played high school football north of the Mason-Dixon line (Derek Owings is the other). The 6’3″, 290 lb. Pennsylvania native transferred to Mercer from Temple.

“Bandit” linebacker Kyle Williams leads the team in tackles for loss, with six. Like several Mercer players, he spent a year at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School.

Devin Davidson is third on the team in tackles. He’s a 6’1″, 218 lb. sophomore linebacker from Suwanee, Georgia.

Middle linebacker Tyler Ward (6’1″, 231 lbs.) is a hometown kid, having played at Tattnall Square Academy in Macon. He has been the Bears’ MLB since day 1 and currently leads the team in tackles by an enormous margin (he has 82; the second-highest total is 48).

That 48-tackle total belongs to Alex Avant (5’8″, 170 lbs.), a cornerback who (like Ward) has started every game for Mercer over the last two seasons. He played one season at Tuskegee before moving to Mercer. Avant has 14 pass breakups and three interceptions this season.

Strong safety Mike Gray is from Jacksonville. He is another player who has started every game for Bobby Lamb at Mercer.

Three different placekickers have attempted field goals for Mercer this season; each has a 50% success rate.

Jagger Lieb is listed as the starter this Saturday. He has a season long of 42 yards, and is 3 for 6 overall in field goal tries.

Tyler Zielenske is the starting punter, though Rob East (who also holds on placekicks) has the most punts for the Bears in 2013. He’s listed as the backup punter this week.

Will Roper, who handles the kickoffs, is the only senior on the Mercer roster. For the past three seasons, Roper served as the kickoff specialist at South Carolina State.

I mentioned Chandler Curtis’ return heroics earlier in the post. The regular lead kick returner for the Bears is Payton Usher, a 5’7″, 173 lb. backup running back. In limited time, Usher is averaging 8.0 yards per carry.

Odds and ends:

– The second annual Medal of Honor bowl, an all-star game played at Johnson Hagood Stadium, will be nationally televised this year by NBC Sports Network (NBCSN). That should give the game a welcome boost; for one thing, it will likely attract more quality players as a result.

– Mercer has 63 players on its roster from Georgia, 14 from Florida, 6 from Tennessee, 3 from Alabama, 2 from North Carolina, and one each from Michigan and Pennsylvania — but none from South Carolina.

– For the second week in a row, The Citadel will be a school’s Homecoming opponent.

Bobby Lamb expects an electric atmosphere.

“There’s nothing like coming home,” Lamb said about this week’s game. “From what I’m hearing, the homecoming numbers are off the charts and people being back on campus. There’s lot of excitement, and I think we’re going to have great weather.

“This late in the season, we need this, and we need the support to try to finish this season on a positive note.”

– Per one source that deals in such matters, The Citadel is a 4-point favorite on Saturday. The over/under is 56.

– This week in the Capital One Mascot Challenge, Spike The Bulldog faces Benny Beaver, the mascot for Oregon State University.

Vote for Spike!

For the fourth week in a row, the Bulldogs face a team with a dual-threat quarterback who has a lot of options at the skill positions. The defense has not fared well against the previous three squads.

Anyone less than certain about Mercer’s offensive chops should check out the statistics from the Bears’ game last week against Chattanooga. Mercer rolled up 440 yards in total offense against the Mocs, averaging a very healthy 6.7 yards per play.

On offense, I think there will be opportunities for The Citadel. Mercer struggled against Reinhardt’s wing-T offense, allowing 270 rush yards and 469 total yards. That strikes me as promising from the Bulldogs’ perspective.

Ultimately, I’m not confident in The Citadel’s chances on Saturday. The offense has to prove that besides moving the ball, it can hold on to the pigskin. It also has to avoid the killer penalties that have derailed so many potential scoring drives this season.

The defense has to get pressure on the quarterback, and get off the field on third down. Winning the turnover battle would also come in handy.

If The Citadel plays at the level it did against Western Carolina, taking into account all factors (consistency/penalties/turnovers/big plays), the Bulldogs will probably lose. If the team plays like it did against Chattanooga, the Bulldogs will lose badly.

Here is hoping that the team can get better. If it does, the Bulldogs will win this Saturday.

Improve or worsen. There are no other options.

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