MACON, Ga. - The Mercer University football team used 478 yards of total offense and four total touchdowns from redshirt freshman quarterback John Russ to race past Valparaiso 35-21 on Saturday afternoon at Mercer University Stadium in Pioneer Football League action.
A week after their first loss of the season, the Bears (5-1, 2-1 PFL) returned home to 8,272 fans and used a comeback win to keep Valparaiso (1-5, 1-2 PFL) from earning multiple wins in a season since 2008.
"The offensive line did a great job opening up some holes and our running backs did a good job breaking some big runs today," said head coach Bobby Lamb. "We struggled to find our rhythm on offense early, but these guys kept battling and had nearly 500 yards of total offense."
For the second-straight week the Bears got off to an inauspicious start when Valparaiso went seven plays on its opening drive, capped by a 7-yard touchdown run from Denzell Conway to give the Crusaders an early 7-0 lead.
Both defenses clamped down from there and Mercer was held scoreless until its final drive of the opening quarter when the Bears went 96 yards on 14 plays and used a 6-yard scamper from Russ to knot the score at 7-7.
The Bears then came through with a stop on defense and the Crusaders launched a punt inside the 1-yard line to back Mercer up against its own end zone early in the second quarter.
Following a pair of runs up the middle, the Bears found themselves facing a third down and four. Russ went to work from there and aired out a pass to Josh Jones who caught the pass in stride and went the distance for a 93-yard touchdown to give Mercer a 14-7 lead. The 93-yard pass marked the longest play from scrimmage for the Bears in 2013.
The two teams traded nearly identical scoring plays from there, as Valpo converted a fourth down for a 25-yard touchdown pass to tie the game 14-14. On the following possession, Mercer faced a fourth down and long and came through with a 25-yard touchdown pass of its own when Russ found Robert Brown to extend the lead to 21-14 heading to intermission.
The ground game took over for Mercer in the third quarter when Payton Usher, recently named to the watch List for the Jerry Rice Award, ripped off a 41-yard run that led to a 5-yard keeper from Russ for another touchdown. The rushing score for Russ marked his fourth total touchdown of the day as the Bears raced out to a 28-14 lead.
Mercer kept the ball on the ground in the fourth quarter and completed its third touchdown drive of 90 yards or more when JeTarri Donald crossed the goal line with a 4-yard run up the middle to break the game wide open and make it 35-14 with 9:36 remaining.
The momentum immediately shifted back to the Crusaders over the next three minutes, however, as Valpo answered with a touchdown of its own and forced a fumble and turnover on the ensuing kickoff to take over in Mercer territory trailing 35-21.
After driving inside the 10-yard line, the Bears clamped down on defense and Aaron Avant swatted a fourth down pass away in the end zone to give Mercer the ball back with less than six minutes to play.
Mercer kept the ball on the ground and used a trio of first downs to ice the game and seal a perfect 5-0 start at home in its first season of football in 72 yards.
Usher's 41-yard run in the third quarter propelled the redshirt freshman to his third 100-yard rushing game of the year with 109 yards.
Russ ended the day 9-for-17 through the air for 192 yards and two touchdowns, and added 100 rushing yards and two more scores on the ground.
Brown led all Mercer receivers with four catches for 54 yards and one score, while Jones' 93-yard touchdown reception proved to be his lone grab of the day.
Tyler Ward continued fly to the ball on defense, recording 11 tackles and one sack, while Devin Davidson added in seven tackles and Corey Lockett chipped in six.
The Bears look to remain perfect at home next Saturday, welcoming Carnegie Mellon to town for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Mercer University Stadium.