Bend, but don’t break.
The Golden Eagles gave up 416 yards and 27 first downs to the Bears offense, but a few late-game heroics were enough to escape with a 29-22 comeback win over Mercer Saturday night at Tucker Stadium.
Tech’s defense, while it looked sloppy at times, forced the Bears to settle for short-yardage field goal tries at the end of several drives. After giving up drives of 66, 56, 59 and 37 yards, Mercer fell short in the red zone on three times, settling for 24, 26 and 19-yard field goals, including a missed 37-yard attempt.
While the Golden Eagles were gashed on a few drives, giving up a pair of touchdowns on 89 and 63-yard drives, limiting the Bears to just three points on three occasions in scoring territory kept their opponent at bay.
“That wasn’t the game plan,” Tech head coach Watson Brown laughed. “We’re just bending way too much. We aren’t breaking. Them kicking field goals and us scoring touchdowns is the difference in the game.”
Tech established the tempo early in the contest. How early? Fifteen seconds from the opening kickoff. On the second play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Jared Davis launched a pass to redshirt sophomore receiver Krys Cates, who beat a defender in the middle of the field and ran untouched for a 74-yard touchdown. A John Arnold PAT gave Tech a 7-0 lead before the students participating in the third annual “Running of Freshmen” could find their seats.
“It was a post (route), and J.D. put it right on the money,” said Cates of the opening score. “I knew I had (the defender) beat after I turned him around, and (Davis) threw a perfect ball.”
After an 8-yard Avery Ward touchdown pass from Mercer’s John Russ and a blocked PAT attempt for Tech nose guard Mike Cain, the Golden Eagles increased their lead to another score, as Davis dove into the end zone on a 7-yard scramble. On its next drive, Tech gained 63 yards before running back Dorian Carter punched in a 1-yard touchdown – his first collegiate score.
Mercer made its comeback in the second half. The Bears looked like a new team in the third quarter, scoring 16 unanswered points on Russ’ 1-yard quarterback keeper for a touchdown and another field goal – their third of the game – to take a 22-21 lead.
After three scoreless drives blanked the first half of the final quarter, Tech began its last drive with 7:23 on the clock. Davis, who had connected with Cates on four passes for 160 yards already, found his favorite target of the night again. Facing 3rd-and-goal at the 8-yard line, Davis tossed up a ball to Cates – with just one man to beat – who grabbed the ball and fell in the end zone for the go-ahead score with just 1:47 to go in the game.
But the touchdown wasn’t enough. Opting to go for two, Brown and Davis called for Cates’ number again, who reeled in a grab on the opposite side of the end zone, giving Tech a 29-22 lead.
The Bears came up empty on its final series, allowing Davis to lead the Golden Eagle offense in victory formation to stamp Tech’s first win of the season.
While the Bears collapsed, falling behind to some critical passes from Davis and runs from Ladarius Vanlier and Radir Annoor, they certainly didn’t give away a free win Saturday night. Mercer controlled the clock for 34:14 to Tech’s 25:46, putting up 261 rushing yards on a heavy 51-carry effort.
“Just pure grit,” said Brown of the win. “We made a lot of mistakes, but we hung in there. Eighty-seven plays to (our) 56 – you don’t win that many games with that. We’ve got to find ways to make stops on defense, and we made a lot of mistakes, but it’s nice to make mistakes when you win. It’s a whole lot more fun.
Brown’s players echoed his talk of grit.
“We never give up; it was all gas, no breaks,” said senior running back Ladarius Vanlier. “That’s something that gives us confidence knowing that whenever we put it together and execute our game, it’s going to be rough on our opponents.”
For Cates, who had a career night recording 197 yards and two TDs on seven catches, the performance was particularly special considering he hauled in his first touchdown since Nov. 2, 2013 before missing all of last season with a preseason foot injury. His breakout night was enough to earn the Ohio Valley Conference Offensive Player of the Week award.
“It’s super uplifting to me,” said Cates. “My mindset hadn’t been right for the past few games, but my teammates gave me some confidence for this one.”
Brown added that Cates was due for some numbers and praise.
“It was time for him to be one of those ‘go-to’ guys,” said Brown of Cates, “and lo and behold, he showed it again. It’s what he was as a freshman before he got hurt, and I think he’s going to be hard to handle the rest of the year.”
Brown and players returned to Overall Field this week to prepare for a road trip to Murray State for their first OVC matchup of the season. The Golden Eagles (1-2) and Racers (1-2) kick off at 6 p.m Saturday.