It was hot in Montgomery, AL on Saturday afternoon... really hot. Thermometers read 101 when North Alabama kicked off to Mercer in the FCS Kickoff game but Bears return ace Devron Harper let everyone know right away where the real heat would be coming from. Harper fielded the opening kick at nearly broke free for a house call before getting tripped up at midfield by his ankle.
The tone was set, at least initially.
After finding his team in an early fourth down situation, Mercer head coach Drew Cronic opted to roll the dice and it paid off. On fourth and one, quarterback Carter Peevy pushed the pile to move the chains. Five plays later, Carter connected with receiver Ty James for a 14-yard touchdown and just like that, the Bears led.
It seemed as though the rout everyone expected was on.
The Lions, even when they caught a break early, couldn’t capitalize. Harper muffed a punt later in the first quarter and set up the UNA offense deep in enemy territory. A quick stop by the Bears D mixed with missed field goal from Sam Contorno, though, kept the boys in purple off the board.
Looking to spark the offense, first-year North Alabama head coach Brent Dearmon opted to use FAU transfer quarterback T.J. Smith early and often alongside the usual starter Noah Walters. Smith gave the Lions the lift they needed as the first quarter wound down. On second and goal, he bounced to the outside and threw out a nice stiff arm on Mercer linebacker Isaac Dowling on his way to the end zone.
It was a game again.
OOOOO THAT STIFF ARM!! TOUCHDOWN NORTH ALABAMA!! pic.twitter.com/LCJd5Xl0TV— Sickos Committee (@SickosCommittee) August 26, 2023
The second quarter began with the Bears trying to regain their lost momentum but it was tough sledding against an invigorated UNA defense. Peevy attempted a flea flicker from midfield but an unblocked Makenly Newbill blew the play up with a sack and ultimately forced another punt.
It would be the Mercer defense that changed the tides. On fourth and short midway through the second frame, UNA tried running with Parker Driggers up the middle but the Bears were ready. Solomon Zubrairu and Tommy Bliss buried Driggers at the line and put a stop to the Lions drive.
This time the offense was able to muster something and, although Peevy missed James for what would have been the pair’s second touchdown of the afternoon, Reice Griffith’s 24-yd field goal felt like a win. Mercer was back up 10-7 when the break rolled around.
North Alabama got the ball first to start the second half and had a rhythm. Lacey and Walters methodically moved the ball down the field but a lightning delay put a pause on things with 11:55 to go in the third quarter.
The lengthy stoppage didn’t slow down the Lions. On their first play out of the break, Jalyn Daniels scampered for 30 yards and set up a game-tying field goal try. Contorno’s tough day kicking, however, continued as his 25-yard attempt was blocked. Mercer still clung to their narrow advantage.
Aided by a big penalty, however, the UNA defense held strong again to force yet another Bears punt. The afternoon was starting to get frustrating for Mercer and the only saving grace was the fact that North Alabama’s offense was equally stagnant.
Even when it appeared as though Peevy finally got things flowing with a big 40-yard pass late in the third, Bears running back Al Wooten II coughed up the ball at the one-yard line and gave the ball back to the Lions. It was still 10-7 as the final quarter began.
It wasn’t until there was 11:45 left in the game that Mercer got its second touchdown. Freshman running back Micah Bell bolted to the edge and trotted untouched over the goal line for the much-needed score that extended the lead to ten points.
Bell’s touchdown was the one that ultimately put the nail in UNA. The Lions were unable to produce anything else for the rest of the evening. The Mercer D put the clamps on and held on for the 17-7 victory.
There’s no denying it, Mercer will need to play better if they want to snag that first-ever playoff berth this year. The offense looked inept for much of the afternoon on Saturday and they simply can’t rely on the defense to bail them out as consistently as they did in this one. The Bears were less-than convincing but they are 1-0 all the same.
Peevy ended his afternoon with 115 yards on 12 completed passes and a touchdown. Bell led the Bears with 73 rushing yards and a score. Wooten was right behind him with 50.
On the other side, it’s pretty clear that Dearmon has injected a new sense of excitement into a North Alabama program that desperately needed it. Despite the loss, they did not look like the Lions group that only won one game a year ago. If Saturday was any indication, teams in the United Athletic Conference may have a new thorn to deal with this season.
Walters threw for 73 yards and rushed for another 25. Smith accounted for the Lions only score and ran for 21 yards on seven carries.
Mercer will prepare to face FBS Ole Miss next Saturday while UNA gets ready to battle its second SoCon opponent next week with Chattanooga coming to town.