By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
GREENVILLE, S.C. — It was like Paladin Stadium was turned wrong side out for Bobby Lamb last Saturday at Furman as he and his team dressed in the visitor’s locker room and he watched the game from the vantage point of the “wrong” sideline.
It was weird feeling for Lamb, considering he had “spent 29 years on that sideline,” pointing to the home side of the field.
But the results on Saturday afternoon were pretty much the same as most of those years as Lamb walked away with a 27-20 overtime win as his Mercer Bears (5-5 overall, 2-4 in conference) beat the Furman Paladins (4-6, 2-4).
The game marked Lamb’s first trip back to Furman since he was ungraciously dismissed as head coach in 2010 after finding success as a quarterback, assistant coach, offensive coordinator and finally — for nine years — head coach.
Lamb landed on his feet as the head coach at Mercer, resurrecting a football program that had been dormant for 70 years.
When Mercer decided to move to scholarship football after the 2013 season, leaving the Pioneer Football League for the Southern Conference, it meant that Lamb’s new team would collide with the one where he has been somewhat of an icon.
“Their in our conference,” Lamb said of his Paladin allegiance. “We recruit a lot of the same players. They are kind of our enemy.”
When Lamb’s son, Taylor — now the sophomore starting quarterback at Appalachian State — was asked how his father was handling the emotions of going back to Furman, the younger Lamb said “He’s not like that. He doesn’t get emotional about that sort of stuff.”
But as cool, calm and collected as Bobby Lamb may have been on the football field — a trait his son also displays — he did admit that he felt the emotional tugs on Saturday, particularly when he walked out on the Paladin Stadium grass for the first time.
“I got here early and got all of that stuff out of my system,” Lamb said. “Once the game started, it was like a normal football game.”
Except this was far from a normal, college gridiron contest.
After Mercer dominated the first half, building a 13-0 lead in a game that the Bears could have easily turned into a second-quarter blowout, the Bears struggled with prosperity in the second half.
The second of two scoring connections between sophomore quarterback John Russ — one the nation’s top passers as a freshman — and receiver Avery Ward expanded the Bears’ advantage to 20-0 with 8:22 remaining in the third quarter.
But over the last quarter and a half, Furman made a mad rush at a comeback.
“We tried to lose the game about three times in the fourth quarter,” Lamb said.
TD aerials of 22 and 26 yards from Reese Hannon to Andrej Suttles made it a 20-14 game with less than 12 minutes to play.
However, Mercer had plenty of chances to salt the contest away the rest of the period.
After a shanked punt gave the Bears the ball at the Furman 39 and Tee Mitchell rushed eight yards on first down, a bad snap led to a fumble that Jordan Hawkins recovered for the Paladins at the Furman 32.
Bear defensive end Tosin Aguebor, who was a headache for the Paladin offense all afternoon long, stopped Furman’s next drive with a sack and forced fumble on Hannon that Aguebor recovered at the FU 40.
Mercer drove as far as the Furman 25, but back-to-back penalties forced the Bears to settle for what could have been a clinching field goal with just over a minute remaining.
The normally dependable Jagger Lieb, who successful kicks of 43 and 19 yards in the first half missed this time wide to the right from 44 yards to keep Furman on life support.
Hannon, who had taken a physical pounding through much of the game, was knocked out of the game after a pair of incompletions before Furman faced a third and 10 from its own 27 with 1:06 seconds on the clock.
Blazejowski, who finished a mediocre 6-of-11 with 92 yards and one interception, picked up 34 of those yards to Jordan Snellings on the next play and Furman got a shot of adrenaline with a first down at the Mercer 39.
Two plays later, Blazekowski found Logan McCarter free for a 37-yard strike that pushed the Paladins to the Bears’ two with 46 seconds remaining. Kealand Dirks finished off the drive with a touchdown plunge to tie the score at 20 with 32 ticks left and it looked like Lamb and his Bears were headed for another close loss.
But Dirks was called for a celebration penalty when he spiked the ball and the extra point went from a 20-yard kick to 35 yards.
Jon Croft Hollingsworth then missed the PAT and the game headed into overtime.
“I brought the players around me before overtime and told them ‘Guys, we are better than them and we were going to run the ball down their throats in overtime,”‘ Lamb said. “I told them to not be surprised if we didn’t even pass the ball.”
Alex Lakes, the leading rusher in the SoCon last season and a runner who carried the ball 19 times for 141 yards in this game, smashed off-tackle for 15 yards on the first play of the extra session, bounced outside for eight more on the play after that and then scored from the two to give Mercer the lead once again.
After the successful Lieb extra point, Blazekowski’s pass on first down was intercepted by Zach Jackson at the Mercer two to end the game and give Lamb and his team a special win.
“We did everything you could possibly do in the fourth quarter to lose,” said Lamb. “I’m proud of the way we came back in overtime. It was another momentum win for our program.”
It was another tough loss for Furman coach Bruce Fowler, who coached Lamb as a player and with him as an assistant after Fowler’s own years as a Paladin player.
“Give Mercer credit,” Fowler said. “They did the job at the end. Obviously, we played poorly in the first half. We were proud of the comeback. We had some opportunities there at the end and weren’t disciplined enough to do the things we needed to do.”