SoCon Game of the Week: Western Carolina at No. 12 Mercer

No. 12 Mercer (4-1, 2-0 SoCon) hosts Western Carolina (3-2, 1-1 SoCon) on October 8th at 4 p.m. EST with Mercer leading the overall series 6-2

Western Carolina and Mercer Logos side by side
Source: Redshirt Sports

Western Carolina heads out on the SoCon road for the second time this season, once again facing a ranked opponent as they battle the No. 12 Bears Saturday afternoon at Five Star stadium in what is the SoCon game of the week.

The game between the Catamounts and Bears has both Southern Conference title and playoff implications. The Catamounts first road test against ranked foe saw them fail a couple of weeks ago, dropping a 35-12 contest at then No. 17 Samford.

Saturday’s latest clash in the series figures to feature its share of offensive fireworks, pitting the two highest scoring offenses in the Southern Conference against one another. The Catamounts enter averaging a league-best 39.2 PPG so far this season, while the Bears are right behind the Catamounts, averaging 36.6 PPG.

It’s a battle between the only two teams in the Southern Conference that have never won a league regular-season title. The Bears were close last year in what was their eighth season as a league member, while the Catamounts look to put themselves in a similar position this Saturday in what would be the biggest win of the Kerwin Bell era and would mark their first win over a ranked opponent since defeating No. 12 Furman 20-19 on Oct. 27, 1984.

In fact, the Catamounts sport a record of 3-47-2 on the road all-time vs. ranked teams away from E.J. Whitmire Stadium. All told, since 1983, which was the first time Division I-AA (now FCS) teams were ranked, the Catamounts sport a record of 12-84-3 against ranked FCS foes. The Catamounts last defeated a ranked FCS foe back in 2017, knocking off No. 17 Samford, 38-34, at EJ Whitmire Stadium.

In last season’s meeting, the Bears were able to pick up an important Southern Conference win on homecoming in Cullowhee last season, as the Bears emerged from the mountains of western North Carolina with a 34-24 win in a game that the Bears didn’t close out until the fourth quarter.

The Bears got a solid performance from quarterback Fred Payton, as he completed 10 passes for 114 yards and a touchdown, while running back Fred Davis rushed for 128 yards and a pair of TDs to help lead the Bears to the key SoCon road win, as Cronic’s team improved to 3-0 in league play with the 2021 road win.

Mercer has won six of the eight matchups between the two since Mercer joined the SoCon as an official SoCon member in 2014, with the lone two setbacks coming in wins in both 2014 and ’15, respectively, as the Catamounts picked up a 35-21 win over the Bears in 2014 in Macon, while posting a 24-21 win a year later in the friendly confines of E.J. Whitmire Stadium.

The Bears come into Saturday’s showdown having claimed six-straight wins in the series. The 2017 win by Mercer, which was a 35-33 win in Cullowhee, all but sealed WCU’s FCS playoff hopes in what had started out as a promising season, as the Catamounts were looking to bring an end to a 34-year FCS playoff drought.

The only playoff appearance the Catamounts have ever made was also the first time a Southern Conference program ever made it to a national championship game back in 1983, as the Catamounts fell to Southern Illinois, 43-7, at The Citadel’s Johnson-Hagood Stadium in their bid to become the first-ever football national champion from the Southern Conference.

While Western Carolina has the lone playoff appearance in its 39 years as an FCS member, the Bears are still in search of their first in what is their 10th season as an FCS member, and their ninth as a member of the Southern Conference.

Mercer is playing arguably the best football of any team in the Southern Conference this season, and it’s the primary reason I had them No. 1 in my power rankings following last week’s league results.

The Bears have been dominant against Southern Conference competition thus far, albeit against the weakest competition the Catamounts will face in league play this season, with the Catamounts posting a combined score of 59-7 in their two SoCon games thus far against The Citadel (W, 17-0) and Wofford (42-7), respectively.

Mercer should get its stiffest challenge to date Saturday when Western Carolina pays a visit to Five Star Stadium. The Bears, who have only one loss this season, which came in the second week of the season, as Mercer dropped a 42-17 contest at SEC West member Auburn.

Mercer enters Saturday’s contest in Cullowhee sporting the 20th best offense in FCS football, as the Bears average 435.6 YPG of total offensive output, while also ranking 13th nationally in scoring offense (36.4 PPG).

In fact, the Bears entered the contest ranking 19th in the nation in rushing offense (194.8 YPG) and 37th nationally in passing offense (240.8 YPG).

The Bears might have the most balanced offense in the Southern Conference, and one of the most balanced in all of FCS football. It certainly is the best offense for head coach Drew Cronic, who is known as an offensive innovator, since taking over as the head coach of Mercer in Dec. of 2019.

Leading an offense that offers more variety than any other in the league in terms of different formations in graduate senior Fred Payton (83-of-125 passing, 13 TDs, 0 INT/22 rush yds), who is having a season worthy of SoCon Offensive Player of the Year consideration to this point. He has yet to throw an INT through the first five games of the season, which is an impressive feat for any quarterback. In fact, Payton has the most TD passes without an INT in FCS football.

He has some outstanding weapons to throw to at both wideout positions, in Devron Harper (26 rec, 354 yds, 7 TDs, 13.6 YPR) and Ty James (18 rec, 407 yds, 5 TDs, 22.6 YPR). They offer Payton and the Mercer offense the kind of threat to an opposing defense, which forces the opposition to account where each is at all times because of the big-play potential both present.

Harper is also a threat in the running game for the Bears, as he comes in having posted a pair of rushing touchdowns this season. He has rushed five times for 84 yards and a pair of scores this season.

In the ground game, the Bears have had to compensate for not having last season’s all-conference running back Fred Davis, who was out the entire season for personal reasons. The answer to not having Davis this season has been James Madison transfer Austin Douglas (45 rush att, 368 yds, 4 TDs, 8.2 YPC), who has been an explosive part of the ground game for the Bears this season.

The Bears have a seasoned and veteran offensive line, which has helped them get off to a strong start offensively this season. The leader of the veteran unit this season has been John Thomas at offensive tackle, who is an all-conference caliber performer.

On the defensive side of the football, the Bears have been consistently good under the direction of head coach Drew Cronic, and this season, which hasn’t deviated from the track record so far. As mentioned earlier, the Bears have surrendered only seven points in conference play, and against FCS opposition this season, the Bears have surrendered a total of 34 points in four games against FCS foes.

The Bears come into the contest with a defensive unit that ranks 11th nationally in total defense (294.4 YPG), while ranking ninth in scoring defense (15.2 PPG).

The Bears feature a 4-2-5 defensive alignment and have solid players at all three levels of the defense, with no discernible weaknesses defensively—at least so far. Leading the defensive front this season have been two of the league’s best defensive lineman, in preseason all-league picks Savio Frazier (19 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 QBH, 1 FF) and Solomon Zubairu (17 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.0 sack, 1 QBH).

Mercer is a defensive line that is adept with getting pressure with its defensive front, without having to blitz. The Bears have nine sacks through the first five games of the season, ranking tied for fifth in the SoCon in total team sacks, with Zubairu leading the team, with those three quarterback takedowns.

There is no drop-off at linebacker for the Bears, with Isaac Dowling (39 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF) and Ken Standley (30 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF). Both offer veteran leadership, and both are all-conference caliber players.

Dowling makes the Bears a tough defense to run against, but he’s athletic enough to line up on the perimeter as an edge pass-rusher.

The best player on the entire Mercer defense might be in its secondary, with Lance Wise (22 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU) living up to the preseason accolades and is a candidate for SoCon Defensive Player of the Year at this early stage of the season. He leads a secondary that has helped the Bears pick off eight passes this season, ranking second only to Furman’s nine INTs.

Michael Campbell (27 tackles, 2 PBUs) and TJ Moore (17 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INTs) have combined to offer solid support in pass coverage through the first five games at the two starting cornerback spots.

Only one offense has been better than Western Carolina’s offense this season, and that is Patriot League member Fordham, who leads the nation averaging an astounding 624.8 YPG. The Catamounts aren’t too far behind offensively, averaging 549.8 YPG this season.

Western Carolina also ranks ninth nationally in scoring offense (39.2 PPG), while the Catamounts rank fourth nationally in passing offense (351.2 YPG). The prolific Catamount offense, which could go down as the best in school history, is led by one of Mark Speir’s holdovers, in JUCO transfer quarterback Carlos Davis (105-of-151 passing, 1,303 yds, 12 TDs, 8 INTs/57 rush yds).

Davis has a big arm and has thrown for 1,303 yards this season, despite only playing in four of the five games. He has an embarrassment at the skill positions around him to distribute the football to.

Raphael Williams (25 rec, 343 yds, 2 TDs, 13.7 YPR), Terrance Horne (11 rec, 203 yds, 4 TDs, 18.5 YPR), and David White Jr (14 rec, 223 yds, 3 TDs, 15.3 YPR) are among the top receiving trios in FCS football, and offer reminder of a time gone by in the early 1990s, when the Catamounts featured Craig Aiken (1991-94), Kerry Hayes (1991-94) and Harold Hines (1991-94) as receiving trio during the early 1990s.

The Catamounts have an excellent pass-catching tight end, in Clayton Bardall (3 rec, 43 yds, 14.3 YPR). Bardell is one of several tight ends in the SoCon that catch the football extremely, as each functions as an excellent downfield threat. Bardall has 25 catches for 345 yards and four TDs in 36-career games.

Desmond Reid (61 rush att, 445 yds, 3 TDs, 7.3 YPG) has been one of the top dual-threat running backs in the Southern Conference this season. Reid also has 10 catches for 86 yards this season. He teams with TJ Jones (36 rush att, 153 yds, 1 TD, 4.3 YPR) to form a good one-two threat in the backfield. Jones is the better receiving threat of the two. He ranks fourth on the team in receptions for 126 yards, averaging 9.0 yards-per-reception.

The once deficient aspect of the Catamount offense—the offensive line—has become a strength. The offensive line has been anchored by preseason All-SoCon selection and Jacobs Blocking Award candidate Tyler Smith at left tackle. He has a string of 37-consecutive starts along the offensive front.

Christian Coulter has started at right tackle for the better part of two seasons after transferring in from Tusculum. The Catamounts rank seventh out of nine teams in the SoCon in sacks surrendered, yielding 13 sacks this season.

Like Mercer, the Catamounts are a 4-2-5 alignment defensively, and perhaps the most surprising improvement in the SoCon this season has been the improvement of defensive units that routinely have struggled and join Samford as one of the most improved defensive units in the SoCon and FCS this season.

Entering Saturday’s clash against the Bears, the Catamounts rank 63rd nationally in scoring defense (29.2 PPG), while also ranking 46th overall in total defense (355.0 YPG). Part of that defensive improvement has to do with a pass rush that has produced 24 sacks through the first five games of the season—which leads the FCS.

Leading the Catamount defensive front this season has been senior defensive end K.J. Milner (16 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks), while Jaquarius Guinn (5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF. 1 FR, 2 QBH) and Marlon Alexander (7 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 0.5 sack) have been solid at the two interior defensive line positions.

Milner’s four sacks in five games ranks second to only Chattanooga’s Jay Person in sacks this season, as Person has six quarterback takedowns.

Chris Morgan (14 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FF), who has backed up Guinn at defensive tackle, is tied with Milner for the team-lead in sacks this season with four QB hits, which includes 3.5 sacks in the 77-21 win over Presbyterian.

A young linebacking corps has continued to grow with each game, with Aiava Lealaimatafao (19 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FF), Hayward McQueen (15 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack) and Ed Jones IV (14 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) have gelled quickly as members of the LB unit this season, and it was somewhat of a concern coming into the season, as Western had to replace so much veteran leadership at all three spots.

Bandit ‘backer Micah Nelson (15 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) has the most returning experience at LB coming into the season, as the redshirt sophomore is now in his third season as a member of the Catamount linebacking corps.

The secondary was the strength of the Catamount defense coming into the season and has remained strong throughout the season so far. Safety Andreas Keaton has picked right back off where he left off his rookie campaign in Cullowhee, which saw him garner SoCon Freshman of the Year honors, as selected by the league’s media. He leads the team and ranks tied for 10th in the SoCon in tackles-per-game, with his 26 solo hits leading the SoCon.

Prediction: Mercer 38, Western Carolina 34