Cullowhee, N.C. - Big plays turned in by Mercer and missed opportunities by the Catamounts including a pair of turnovers spoiled an otherwise festive afternoon at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field as the Bears handed Western Carolina a 49-27 loss in both the 2019 season and Southern Conference opener.
Despite the short-coming on the scoreboard on Saturday night, Catamount fans had something to celebrate as redshirt senior quarterback Tyrie Adams took over the top spot on two of Western Carolina's all-time career offensive records. On the Catamounts' third possession, Adams ran for four yards to officially by-pass his former mentor, Troy Mitchell, becoming WCU's all-time career leader in total offense. He also became the top passer in school history, throwing for 318 yards and two TDs to supplant Mitchell on that career chart. Adams set the record on a 33-yard touchdown pass to Daquan Patten in the second quarter.
Mercer (1-0) built its momentum on Saturday evening first on special teams, amassing 173 yards between six returns -- three kickoffs and three punt returns. Quarterback Robert Riddle, who was returning from an injury that sidelined him just four games into last season, completed 11-of-23 passes for 207 yards and four touchdowns to maintain the edge for the Bears.
And thirdly, Mercer's defense – which had surrendered a WCU school-record 545 yards of total offense to Adams a year ago in Macon – corralled the elusive escape artist in preventing the St. Petersburg, Fla., native from breaking many big plays that could have swung momentum.
Mercer's David Durden caught three passes for 106 yards and a score while Cannon tallied 93 receiving yards. Tailback Deondre Johnson rushed for a game-high 114 yards and a score while Tyray Devezin ground-out 84 rushing yards and a pair of TDs for the Bears.
Adams finished the game 25-of-38 for 318 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, adding 34 rushing yards on the ground. Redshirt sophomore WR D.J. Thorpe - a converted quarterback - matched two others with a team-best six catches, finishing with a career 130 receiving yards while true freshman RB Syheam McQueen rushed for a career-best 67 yards on 11 touches.
Mercer jumped out to a 14-0 lead midway through Saturday’s opening quarter before the Catamount defense hung the first points on the Whitmire Stadium scoreboard for the home squad. Senior DB John Brannon jumped an out route, deflected the Riddle pass attempt before ultimately snaring it for his fifth career interception. The Charlotte, N.C., native wasn’t done with the change of possession, though, as he scrambled 23 yards for a touchdown – the third defensive score of his career.
Spurred by the squad’s first takeaway of the season, the defensive unit forced Mercer into a 3-and-out with a sub-par Grant Goupil 23-yard punt setting up the Catamounts with tremendous field position as the first quarter ended. However, WCU was unable to capitalize on the swing in momentum, punting two plays into the second stanza with Mercer seizing control from there. On the third play of the frame, Riddle fired a pass to Tucker Cannon in stride for an 85-yard touchdown that ignited a 28-point quarter for the Bears and a commanding 42-14 halftime edge.
Three of Mercer’s second-quarter scores were big plays with the fourth following a WCU interception that set the Bears up with the ball at the three-yard line.
Mercer stretched its lead to 49-14 midway through the third quarter before the Catamounts close the game’s scoring with two-consecutive touchdowns including a five-yard pass from Adams to TE Owen Cosenke to end the third quarter and Adams five-yard TD rush midway through the fourth. WCU nearly pulled to within two scores inside the game’s final seven minutes, but a toss pitched to the outside by Adams looking for Connell Young on an option play was bobbled and fumbled, thwarting the would-be scoring drive.
All told, WCU ran 22 more plays than did the Bears offensively -- 77-to-55 -- and ultimately outgained the Bears, 445-to-419. But four scoring plays of 32-or-more yards proved to be the difference.
Defensively, junior LB Trevor Childers led the Catamounts with a career-best 10 tackles while Mercer’s Sidney Otiwu was likewise credited with 10 stops. Brannon and Mercer’s B.J. Bohler both recorded interceptions.
Western Carolina (0-1) travels to Raleigh, N.C., next Saturday to take on the North Carolina State Wolfpack (1-0), a 34-6 winner over in-state rival, ECU, on Saturday at Carter-Finley Stadium. Kickoff between the Catamounts and the Pack is slated for 12:30 pm in a game that will be broadcast on Fox Sports South with audio coverage from the Catamount Sports Network beginning at 11:30 am.