FOOTBALL: Second half lull dooms Mercer in loss to Southwestern

Published 10:52 am Saturday, September 10, 2016

HARRODSBURG — There is nothing the same about the current Mercer County football team as last year. That much was evident in the Titans game Friday against state-ranked Southwestern, a team which beat them by 36 points a year ago.

Unfortunately for the Titans, the result will go down the same in the record book.

Mercer squandered a double digit halftime lead as the Warriors scored three straight touchdowns in the second half, resulting in a 28-26 loss for the Titans at Alvis Johnson Field.

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“We’re never happy after a loss,” Mercer coach David Buchanan said, “but without a doubt in the big picture, we’re much, much better. We’re significantly better than we were last year. I’m pleased with that going forward.”

The Warriors smacked Mercer 42-6 last year, the fourth of five straight losses to open the 2015 season. Southwestern coach Larry French is quite familiar with the Mercer program, having coached there for 15 years. One of his players was Buchanan, who was a quarterback, and French has taken note of the job his former player has done.

“David is doing a tremendous job here, getting excitement built up with the football team and in the community,” French said. “… They can go far in the playoffs.”

While never calling Alvis Johnson Field home while he was in Mercer, the field holds special memories for French, as does the community.

“We played a lot of games here that were good games,” French said. “It’s a tremendous football community, great people here. … I know the people real well here. It’s always good to come back home, but I don’t like playing Mercer; David and I are too good of friends.”

The Titans came out with a point to prove, going down the field and scoring on the game’s first drive, a 15-play, 59-yard march that took nearly half of the first quarter. Gunnar Gillis put the finishing touches on the drive with a one-yard push up the middle.

On their third drive, which spanned the first and second quarters, the Titans ripped off an 11-play drive, with Grayson Blevins doing the honors and scoring on a two-yard run.

“I really don’t know this, but I’m not sure they took us too seriously,” Buchanan said. “Once they did, they played a lot better. I don’t know that, I try not to be a psychiatrist and just be a football coach.”

Each team scored once more before halftime. Southwestern showed a glimpse of what was to come, using a punishing run game and a big-play pass to get within 13-6. Meanwhile, Mercer nearly chewed up the final four minutes of the half as D Smith scored from one yard away with 10.5 seconds left in the half.

French said his team came out cleaner and more motivated in the second half. The teams traded punts on their first possessions, but the Warriors (3-1) scored on their next three drives. They took the lead at 21-20 on a 67-yard pass from Brandon Pruitt to Blake Lanham late in the third quarter, and Patric Edwards provided some needed cushion with a two-yard TD rush in the fourth.

“They could have quit in the first half when they got down, but they grouped together at halftime and came out and played a lot better in the second half,” French said. “We held onto the football, quit making so many penalties.”

Mercer’s first three drives of the second half resulted in a pair of punts and a turnover on downs.

“We made a few more mistakes, they were a good team,” Buchanan said. “… We just didn’t finish it. We just didn’t play clean enough in all areas to get it done.”

The Titans weren’t quite dead after falling behind in the fourth. They scored with 4 minutes, 50 seconds remaining in the game on Smith’s second TD. However, their 2-point conversion pass was off the mark.

There was still life when senior lineman Collin Miracle recovered a fumble at the Titans’ 28-yard line and 1:47 on the clock. A 20-yard pass from Gillis to Smith and a nine-yarder to Tanner Robins breathed some excitement into the waning moments, but three incompletions and a two-yard pass play stalled the drive at the Southwestern 44 with 48.8 seconds left.

Edwards led all rushers with 133 yards on 22 carries, with 85 yards coming after halftime. Pruitt completed 11-of-19 passes for 235 yards.

Smith led the Titans with 19 carries for 73 yards.

“He’s such a physically strong guy,” Buchanan said. “He’s got the feet, the eyes, the vision, but he’s very strong.”

Follow Jeremy Schneider on Twitter @jschneideramn