MACON, Ga. - Playing in its first Pioneer Football League game in program history, the Mercer football team proved all the critics wrong by forcing seven turnovers to come away with a 31-17 victory over Drake in front of another raucous crowd at Mercer University Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
The Bears (4-0) continue to stay unbeaten in their return to the gridiron and will now be on the radar of teams all over the country following a decisive victory over the two-time defending PFL champions.
"First of all I just want give my staff credit for coming up with a great game plan," said head coach Bobby Lamb. "Give our players credit for just an unbelievable will to not give up and give in."
Turnovers proved to be the difference maker as the Mercer defense, who entered the game as the top ranked defense in the country, picked off four passes and forced three fumbles to keep the Bulldogs off balance all afternoon.
"It was just a wonderful effort by our kids. They're learning every day and the amazing thing is they think they can beat anybody."
Coming off a Drake fumble in the first quarter and leading 3-0, redshirt freshman John Russ took over and broke through with a quarterback keeper up the middle. After breaking through the line he found himself in a foot race with the secondary and legged out a 44-yard touchdown run to give Mercer a 10-0 lead.
On the ensuing Drake possession, freshman Alex Avant picked off a pass and created a highlight film on the return. After pulling down the tipped pass, he slid to the far sideline, eluded a pair of tackles and cut back to the middle of the field where he raced to the corner of the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown return. The highlight play brought the 8,150 Mercer fans to their feet as the Bears jumped out to a 17-0 second quarter lead.
Drake finally put a score on the board in the final minutes of the first half when Andy Rice found Nick Rosa for a 67-yard touchdown pass to make it 17-7 heading to the intermission.
The score for the Bulldogs broke a scoreless streak of 157 minutes and 34 seconds for the Mercer defense that spanned over four games.
The Bears came out in the second half and continued to execute on offense when Russ found JT Palmer for a 40-yard pass play that setup a one-yard touchdown run by Russ to give Mercer a 24-7 lead with 5:44 left to play in the third quarter.
The two-time defending PFL champions started to rally back from there, running off 10 unanswered points to pull within a touchdown at 24-17 with 8:09 to play.
Looking to regain the momentum and silence the Bulldogs one last time, Lamb went for the knockout punch. On second down and seven, Russ sold a play-action fake and found Josh Jones over the top for a 62-yard touchdown reception to make it 31-17.
Drake looked to answer with a long pass attempt on the first play of its next drive, but Collin Oliver was all over the coverage and made a diving interception to put an exclamation mark on a dominating performance by the Mercer defense.
After taking a knee to run out the clock, Russ ended the game 9-for-23 through the air for 172 yards, one touchdown and one interception. The redshirt freshman also added 55 yards on the ground and two rushing touchdowns.
Payton Usher proved to be another workhorse with 90 rushing yards on 22 carries and two receptions for 31 yards.
To go along with two catches and 57 receiving yards, Palmer returned two punts for 46 yards, including a 26-yard return in the third quarter.
Tosin Aguebor produced another stellar game with nine tackles, two sacks and one forced fumble while Alex Avant added 11 tackles, one interception and a 35-yard touchdown return.
Tyler Zielenske was perfect with a 37-yard field goal in the opening quarter and then converted four consecutive extra points, while Rob East recorded six punts for 227 total yards.
The Bears continue their Pioneer Football League slate next Saturday, traveling to California to take on San Diego. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. EST.