MACON, Georgia (MERCER ATHLETICS) - Mercer freshman running back Payton Usher ran for 115 yards and senior kicker Josh Shutter nailed a 31-yard field goal with three seconds left to lift the Bears to a thrilling 40-37 victory over Reinhardt University Saturday night at Mercer University Stadium.
A sold-out crowd of 12,172 were on hand for the Bears' highly anticipated return to the gridiron and they got their money's worth as the Bears and Eagles battled through eight lead changes late into the night. In the end, two Shutter field goals in the final 3:17 of play were the difference as the Bears rallied from down 34-37 in the fourth quarter.
"I've played or coached in 30 FCS playoff games, I've played in a National Championship Game, I've coached in two National Championship Games, and I told the players before the game that this was bigger than all of them," said head coach Bobby Lamb.
"This is the biggest stage I've ever been on because of what has happened in Macon, Ga. You've got to give credit to Bill Underwood for bringing this wonderful facility here. You've got to credit Jim Cole and his athletic staff for getting it ready for the game. Oh my goodness, what an atmosphere when we came running out."
Redshirt freshman quarterback John Russ threw for 218 yards and three scores, including a pair of touchdowns to sophomore receiver J.T. Palmer. Palmer hauled in four catches on the night for 70 yards to lead five different Mercer receivers with catches.
Mercer's defense was anchored by middle linebacker Tyler Ward, who registered 10.5 tackles on the evening, including a tackle-for-loss and a sack.
Mercer's evening was almost soured by three turnovers, including a pair of miscues that set Reinhart up inside the 10-yard line twice with a fresh set of downs. The Eagles converted both of those opportunities into touchdowns, and added scoring plays of 92, 78 and 44 yards to go ahead 37-34 with 11:24 to play.
"They (Reinhardt) threw the ball better than we thought they would. The quarterback did an outstanding job and they always have misdirection going this way, going that way, making throws here, making throws there and he made some big time throws in there under pressure. I thought our defense did a good job of just hanging in there."
Russ and Usher teamed up for a 13-play, 65-yard drive that Shutter capped with a 28-yard field goal to knot the score at 37 with 8:02 remaining. The Orange-clad defense then took over, forcing a turnover on downs with 30 seconds left that gave the ball back to Russ.
Mercer's quarterback completed a 46-yard pass to redshirt freshman Jordan Marshall on the second play from scrimmage, setting the stage for Shutter's game winner.
Mercer returns to action on Sept. 14, hosting Warner at 6 p.m.