Cullowhee, N.C. - Tyrie Adams threw for a season-high 378 yards and three touchdowns as No. 25 Western Carolina tallied its third-highest total offensive output with 507 yards on Saturday afternoon. However, costly turnovers and big plays in the special teams by Mercer guided the Bears to the upset victory over the Catamounts, 35-33, on Hall of Fame / Senior Day at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.
Western Carolina (7-4, 5-3 SoCon) twice pulled to within two points in the fourth quarter on Saturday afternoon including the final tally, but were never able to overtake the Bears after surrendering the early touchdown advantage. WCU managed just one tie at 14-14 in the second quarter.
WCU committed two turnovers - an interception and a fumble - in the loss. And though only one was cashed in for points by the Bears, both managed to stymie the Catamount offense. Adams was hit by Mercer's Jalen Lee as he released a first quarter pass that found its way into Lee Bennett's diving arms setting-up the Bears' first touchdown on the short field that tied the game at seven. The other turnover was a third quarter fumble that halted another impressive nine-play WCU drive inside the red zone.
Aside from turnovers, it was special teams play that proved to be the difference-maker. After stalling a Mercer drive late in the second quarter, the Bears converted a fake field goal into a 25-yard shovel screen pass from Tanner Brumby to Chris Ellington to grab a seven-point edge on the way to a 14-point cushion late in the first half. But the more decisive special teams blow came in the fourth quarter after WCU had closed to within two points following consecutive field goals of 31 and 38 yards, respectively, by Joshua Gibson.
On the ensuing kickoff after Gibson's second boot, dangerous return man Chandler Curtis exploited a seam and raced up the right sideline 77 yards to set-up the Bears in perfect field position at the WCU 17-yard line. Mercer's ground-and-pound approach used seven plays to move the final 17 yards with quarterback Kaelan Riley plunging in from a yard out on a fourth-and-goal play with the extra point pushing it to a two-possession game.
Curtis finished with 184 all-purpose yards including 128 in kickoff returns, 46 on punt returns, and just 10 yards on one catch in his primary wide receiver position.
Down nine, Adams and the Catamount offense took to the air, closing the deficit back to within two as redshirt senior WR Terryon Robinson ran under a 48-yard touchdown strike from Adams that ultimately provided the final tally. Electing not to on-side kick, the Bears were effective enough to run out the clock as WCU exhausted its final two timeouts to seal the upset victory, Mercer's first-ever in Cullowhee in two tries.
On the day, Adams spread the ball to six different receivers, five of which had five-or-more receptions. Robinson, already WCU's all-time leader in catches, hauled in nine passes for 119 yards and the touchdown, while his classmate Steffon Hill caught five passes for 77 yards and a score. Connell Young also posted career-highs with eight catches for 76 yards, while sophomore tight end Austin Phillips recorded his first TD catch on an eight-yard strike just before intermission, pulling WCU to within a score, 28-20, at the break.
Needing just 67 yards for his third, 1,000-yard rushing season, Catamount senior tailback Detrez Newsome was bottled up most of the day by the Bear defensive front. Although the Raeford, N.C., finished with 118 yards of total offense, just 60 of it came on the ground leaving him seven yards shy of 1,000 with one guaranteed game left to play. He did match WCU's career record for rushing touchdowns, scoring the 36th TD on the ground to match Otis McIntosh (1968-71).
Mercer ground out 217 yards in a determined rushing attack with Tee Mitchell accounting for 120 yards and a score while Alex Lakes scored twice to accompany his 87 rushing yards. It was the second-straight year that Lakes had scored two rushing TDs against the Catamounts. Quarterback Kaelan Riley threw for 102 yards on nine completions, adding 16 rushing yards including the sealing, one-yard TD rush in the fourth quarter.
Defensively for the Catamounts, Marvin Tillman posted an 11-tackle performance while four players each finished with nine stops apiece. Seniors Keion Crossen, Kendall White, and Daniel Riddle were joined by redshirt sophomore lineman Nate Link with nine stops. Crossen forced a fumble that Riddle recovered on the first play of the second half in one of the many momentum swings on Saturday, while White recorded one of WCU's three pass break-ups.
Western Carolina (7-4, 5-3 SoCon) wraps-up the regular season portion of its schedule next Saturday, Nov. 18 as it travels to Chapel Hill, N.C., to face the North Carolina Tar Heels (2-8). The Heels, winners last Thursday on the road at Pittsburgh, are winless in six tries at home this season. Kickoff is scheduled for 3:00 pm.