For Mercer, Tech offers seminal challenge

Photo courtesy of Danny Karnik

In 2013, Vad Lee was the Jackets’ starting quarterback, Justin Thomas rode the bench, Zach Laskey shredded defenders and Jeremiah Attaochu notched an impressive 12.5-sack season.

Meanwhile, in Macon, Ga., Mercer University went about rekindling a football team that had been dormant for over a century.

Three years later, the two meet for the first time, and much has changed. Thomas is no longer the studious apprentice; he is the face of the Tech offense and striving to make the most of his final season. Laskey and Attaochu have carved out roles in the NFL, Lee in the Canadian Football League.

As for those young Mercer Bears? They are quickly — and quite impressively — maturing. Nevertheless, the odds dictate that they will fall well short of victory in The Flats.

The game looks to be Tech’s only lightweight matchup in a rather difficult schedule. The Division I FCS team restarted its program in 2013 after not having a team since the 1942 season. The Jackets will be the first FBS opponent Mercer faces in team history.

The Bears are coming off of a disappointing 5-6 season and a narrow 24-23 loss last weekend to highly regarded The Citadel on the road in South Carolina.

Despite the final score, the Bears did show certain flashes of brilliance. They showed resilience in overcoming a 21-3 deficit to return the game to 23-21 in their favor and making a number of key stops in the second half.

If the Bears hope to pose a threat on Saturday, they will have rally behind veteran leaders on both sides of the ball. According to, their quarterback, senior John Russ, will be making his 37th consecutive start this Saturday.

He has taken the field for Mercer in every game since the team’s revival, the rare steady face in a program that has experienced typical growing pains.

Russ is very similar to the Jackets’ own quarterback, redshirt senior Justin Thomas, in that he is quick on his feet and not afraid to run the ball. Listed generously at 6-foot-1, his diminutive stature allows him to slip past defenders.

He should pose some challenge for a defense that initially struggled last week to contain Boston College’s Patrick Towles, a big-bodied scrambler.

On the defensive side, the Bears will look to senior linebacker Tyler Ward to lead the team to another strong showing. Mercer has a few things going for them coming into this game: they are the underdog, they have the motivation that comes with playing their first FBS opponent, and they are coming off of a game against another triple option offense, good preparation for this week.

Head Coach Paul Johnson addressed this on Tuesday in his weekly press conference.

“They also have the advantage of coming off playing a team that is very similar to us in style,” Johnson said. “There probably isn’t a lot [we’re] going to do that will surprise them.”

As for the Jackets, while they did squeak out a win against the Eagles, they will need to improve if they hope to beat Mercer the way they are expected to.

According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, Tech currently has a 98.1 percent chance to win the game, meaning that anything short of a blowout will be seen as a significant failure.

For the offense, that means more energy on the offensive line, a better performance out of the A-backs as a whole and an overall increase in physicality.

Last week was tough going against one of the best defenses in the nation in Boston College, but that is no excuse for their poor performance. They struggled to open holes in the run game and protect Justin Thomas.

Mercer appears to be a good rebound with a defensive line that is smaller than most teams’. However, that means that this year’s more athletic line will have to prove it against quick opponents.

Besides sophomore B-back Marcus Marshall and freshman B-back Dedrick Mills, the run game was lackluster. While part of the blame falls on the offensive line and the stingy defense they faced, they were culpable as well.

At times in last week’s game, it looked as though the backs did not know where to go before the play even started and were failing to perform up to the standard that coach Johnson has set for them.

Mercer’s defense is significantly weaker than Boston College’s, but Tech will be shorthanded, with Mills suspended for a game after violating team rules. Marshall, redshirt sophomore A-back Qua Searcy and the rest of the backs will have to step up in his temporary absence.

Tech’s passing game produced a much more significant volume than it historically has in the Johnson era. With the game on the line and so many third- or fourth-and-long conversions, that is not unexpected.

It is likely that Tech will return to its bread and butter on the ground moving forward, but last Saturday’s win offered evidence that Tech’s receiving options will be better than they were twelve months ago.

The biggest standout in terms of receivers was Searcy, who led the team with 60 yards through the air. Redshirt junior receiver Ricky Jeune was surprisingly quiet, something that will have to change as the season progresses to build a versatile attack.

Tech’s defense held a struggling Boston College offense to 14 points last weekend and forced three turnovers in the process. While it was a good start, they still have plenty of room to improve, especially in terms of the pass rush on third downs.

With standout defensive tackle Adam Gotsis gone to the NFL, the line is without a go-to rusher who can get a big sack when it matters most. They will need to set up pocket pressure while keeping the mobile Mercer quarterback contained if they hope to bottle the Bears.

The Tech secondary looked impressive early, intercepting an early Towles pass. However, they were whistled for pass interference calls and played perhaps too physically at times.

While Tech only incurred three penalties for 28 yards, minimizing those yards will keep the team in favorable situations on both sides of the ball.

Anything but a significant margin of victory will disappoint Tech. Along the way, the two teams will have an opportunity to evaluate their early forms. Whether that involves scouting backs or assessing the defensive front, Coach Johnson is no doubt excited, though he may not show it.

The outcome of the upcoming game is not in much doubt, but the meeting of these two teams is historic, one that could repeat in the years to come.