Rocky start turns into blowout win for Titans

Published 9:23 am Saturday, September 24, 2016

HARRODSBURG — It wasn’t exactly an ideal start, but things got better in a hurry for Mercer County.

The Titans turned the ball over on their very first play Friday night, but they turned things around and turned into a force after that, scoring on six of their next seven possessions to crush Marion County 43-6.

Mercer followed back-to-back losses with a mercy-rule victory in its District 4A-5 opener at Alvis Johnson Field, putting up five touchdowns before halftime and keeping Marion far from the end zone.

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“It was a rough way to start off, but I’m happy with the win,” Mercer coach David Buchanan said. “We had a two tough weeks, but we did a lot of good things tonight, and I’m very pleased when that happens.”

On a night when Mercer honored its 2006 Class 2A championship team, which mowed down 15 opponents by an average of 41 points per game 10 years ago, the Titans won in the same dominating fashion, then posed for a group photo with the ’06 champs following the game.

They outgained Marion by about 250 yards and triggered the running clock in the closing seconds of the first half.

But things didn’t look so good for the Titans in the opening seconds.

Mercer (3-3, 1-0 district) was given a gift on the opening kickoff, as Marion’s Keith Ballard fumbled the return and Easton Cocanougher recovered the ball for the Titans on the Marion 20-yard line.

Quarterback Gunnar Gillis seemed to be headed toward the end zone on the Titans’ first play from scrimmage, but he fumbled the ball at the 2-yard line and Trinity Sherill recovered for Marion (1-5, 0-1).

Gillis redeemed himself the next time he carried the ball, however, scoring from a yard out on a quarterback sneak to cap a seven-play, 54-yard drive following a Marion punt.

He was the first of five Titans to score touchdowns as they quickly pulled away from the Knights, who turned the ball over three times in the first half.

Tyus Short recovered a fumble for Mercer at the Marion 27 on the Knights’ next play from scrimmage, and the Titans’ D Smith scored the first of his two touchdowns five plays later on a 5-yard run.

Smith led Mercer with 110 yards rushing. He scored on a 7-yard run on the Titans’ final play of the first half, then sat out the second half with what appeared to be a minor ankle injury. Grayson Blevins also ran for 75 yards and a touchdown.

Gillis completed four of six passes for 105 yards, and he connected with Tanner Robins for a 69-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.

Mercer’s defense kept Marion behind the midfield line in the first quarter and stymied the Knights’ only first-half scoring threat in the second when quarterback Mason Sullivan was stopped for a 1-yard loss on fourth-and-2 from the Titans’ 20.

“I thought we blocked well and I thought we ran to the ball well. Those are the two things that stood out to me,” Buchanan said.

It was far from a flawless performance for the Titans, even after the opening fumble. Mercer was called for eight penalties in the first half and 11 in all.

Still, the Titans got the two things they wanted most from their district opener: a win and assurance that they are continuing to improve.

“I think we are getting better,” Buchanan said. “I’d like to play a much cleaner game than what we played, but I do think we’re making progress and I think we’re getting better.”

Seth Tatum scored on an 8-yard run early in the second quarter to give Mercer a 20-0 lead, and Tatum ran in two two-point conversion attempts later in the period.

The first followed the Gillis-to-Robins touchdown, and the second followed Smith’s second TD run — which was set up by Aaron Johnson’s interception and 47-yard return — and gave Mercer a 36-0 lead with 12 seconds left in the first half.

Marion’s offense moved the ball well at times against Mercer. The Knights ran 13 plays during the second-quarter drive that ended Sullivan was stopped on fourth down, and they scored on a 10-play, 87-yard drive in the fourth quarter when Sullivan threw a 16-yard TD pass.

Sullivan, a freshman, finished 12 for 20 for 114 yards.

“He’s going to be an outstanding quarterback,” Buchanan said. “This video will be really good for us to see some things we need to work on, because I think Allen did a good job of finding some things.”

Blevins capped Mercer’s scoring with a 24-yard touchdown run on the opening drive of the second half, a series in which he carried the ball six times for 47 yards.

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