It was 72 years in the making but the Mercer Bears are finally back on the gridiron and in the win column. In the battle of new programs, Josh Shutter kicked a 31 yard field goal to give Mercer a thrilling 40-37 win over the Reinhardt Eagles at the brand new Anderson Field on the university’s flagship campus in Macon, Georgia.
The smile on Pappy Boynton’s face spoke volumes for every Mercer Alum and friend to the University that worked to bring the football program back. After a Super Bowl-esque opening that included skydivers and a stringed ensemble, Boynton, the sole surviving player of the 1941 Mercer team, walked towards midfield for the coin toss grinning from ear-to-ear.
Mercer’s opening acts were quieted momentarily as Reinhardt’s Juice Arnold ran down John Russ’ underthrown pass intended for Josh Jones at the 3 yard line.
Eagles running back L.J. Stegall gave the offense some breathing room to the 25 with a 22 yard run but the Bears defense bowed up to force a punt.
It took a while for both teams to get their offenses on track. Mercer helped out the Eagles. Russ and running back Payton Usher mis-communicated on a hand-off sending the ball bouncing towards the goal line. The Bears compounded the miscue with a penalty for piling on top of cornerback Vashaun Washington giving the Eagles first and goal at the 3. After two failed running attempts, Eagles quarterback Johnathon Chamblee went to the play action and found Stegall all alone for the score.
Reinhardt’s score was a wakeup call for the Bears. Russ promptly led - no raced the orange and black 72 yards down the field on 4 plays to answer the Eagles challenge. Russ found tight end Robert Brown streaking down the sideline for a 37 yard score.
Before the home fans could finish trading high-fives, Stegall posted his second score of the game. On the ensuing kick-off Stegall started out right, cut left and out-raced the coverage to the endzone.
JT Palmer gave the Bears a 21-13 lead with a 22 yard touchdown reception early in the second quarter. Palmer had 4 receptions for 70 yards and 2 touchdowns on the night.
The Bears staked a 28-16 lead early in the third on a crazy fumble recovery for a touchdown. Stegall had the ball knocked into the air where it was batted about several times like a game of hot-potato until free safety Collin Oliver finally hauled it in and raced 35 yards into the end zone.
Mercer’s defense came up big when it needed to on the ensuing drive. Reinhardt mounted a 14 play, 85 yard drive to the Bears half-inch line. With two shots at the end zone, the Bears defense hunkered down and turned the Eagles over on down in what turned out to be a game saving goal-line stand.
The scoring was fast and furious the rest of the game with Reinhardt striking twice before the end of the third to take a 29-28 lead. Mercer regained the lead on an acrobatic touchdown reception by Palmer.
Reinhardt found new life after a quick 3-and-out. B Bethune’s punt sailed long forcing Usher to attempt an over the shoulder catch. The red-shirt freshman lost control of the ball allowing Reinhardt’s Adrian Hayes to recover it at the Bears 11. Two plays later Stegall was in the endzone for the third time. Ryan Thompson found Aaron Kenneday across the middle for the two point conversion and the Eagles found themselves ahead 37-34 with 11 minutes remaining.
And to think after all the previous excitement, the ride was just getting started.
Russ marched the Bears in the other direction to tie the game at 37-37 eating up 8 minutes in the process.
Ready to breathe yet, well don’t. Ryan Thompson, who started the second half for the Eagles at quarterback, moved the offense into Mercer territory draining over 2 minutes off the clock. But Mercer would not be denied as middle linebacker Tyler Ward and the defense came up big once again turning the Eagles over on downs and giving the offense the ball with 30 seconds on the clock.
After an incomplete pass into the ground, a scrambling Russ hit Jordan Marshall for a 46 yard gain to set up the game winning field goal. “We practice it every day,” said Head Coach Bobby Lamb after the game. “And believe it or not we do scramble drills where the quarterback scrambles out and the receivers have certain areas they gotta go to.”
As the ball sailed through the uprights, Shutter only stared as his holder, backup quarterback Rob East, leaped into the air from his crouched position. “I just couldn’t let my boys down,” said the lone senior and former soccer player.
But there were still 3 ticks left on the clock. A delay of game penalty against Mercer moved the kick-off spot back 5 yards. With all 12,172 fans seemingly holding their breath Shutter squibbed the kick through the middle of the Eagles return team. Travis Nunley fielded the ball at the Eagles 30, started up the left side cut back and ran smack dab into freshman linebacker Tyler Pineda where the Bears were able to bring him and the game to a close.
The Bears will take next 13 days off before they welcome Wagner to town. Reinhardt will play their first home game in school history next Saturday. Be sure that Reinhardt Head Coach Danny Cronic will have his team ready.
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