The Mercer Bears (5-1, 2-1 PFL) assembled three scoring drives over 90 yards to defeat Valpo 35-21 at Anderson Field in Macon, Georgia on Saturday afternoon.
Tanner Kuramata (Rancho Cucamonga, Calif./Claremont) enjoyed an outstanding day as the junior caught two touchdown passes and racked up 170 receiving yards. It was the third time in the last four games Kuramata recorded at least 120 receiving yards.
For the fourth time in six games this season, Valpo scored a touchdown on its opening drive. Valpo (1-5, 1-2 PFL) constructed a 7-play, 65-yard drive capped off by a Denzell Conway (New Orleans, La./MICDS [Mo.]) 7-yard TD run to give the Brown and Gold their first lead of the day.
The defense forced a quick three-and-out on its first stand. The Crusaders continued to dictate the pace of play in the first five minutes until a personal foul took the wind out of the offensive sails. Valpo was unable to move the chains on that drive following the penalty.
Freshman punter Alex Kozlowski (Novi, Mich./Detroit Catholic Central) had a dazzling afternoon as he pinned the Bears inside their own 10-yard line three times. His first punt shoved the Bears back to their own 4.
It was then that Mercer QB John Russ and running back Payton Usher went to work. A Bears offense that has been rush-reliant in the first half of 2013 went back to the well as the home team rattled off a 14-play, 96-yard drive. Russ crossed the goal line from six yards out to complete the series.
A first quarter that saw 101 combined penalty yards ended with the score 7-7.
Kozlowski's second boot of the day was downed inside the Mercer 1-yard line. Russ gave the Bears some breathing room with a three-yard keep before he tossed a 93-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Josh Jones. The extra point made it a 14-7 Mercer lead.
Valpo responded on their ensuing possession. Eric Hoffman (Manitowoc, Wis./Lincoln) had one of his best drives of the day as he went 6-for-7 for 89 yards on a seven-play series. He found Kuramata in the back of the endzone to tie the game at 14-14.
The Crusaders and Bears traded three-and-outs before Mercer took possession with four minutes to play in the second quarter. Faced with a 4th and 2 at the Valpo 25-yard line, head coach Bobby Lamb opted to go for it. With the defense anticipating the rush, Russ threw a TD pass to tight end Robert Brown and the Bears recaptured their seven-point lead.
Mercer led Valparaiso 21-14 at half. Hoffman was 17 of 20 passing and Kuramata had 142 receiving yards in the first half.
Similar to last week, the Crusaders saw a heavy diet of rushes in the second half. Halfway through the third quarter, Usher broke off a 41-yard carry to move the Bears into the red zone. Six plays later, Mercer extended its lead to 28-14 thanks to a quarterback keep by Russ. The Bears held the ball for 9:59 in the third quarter.
Mercer continued to pound the ball in the final quarter as a 92-yard drive made it a 35-14 ball game. Seven of the nine plays on that sequence were on the ground.
To their credit, the Crusaders kept chipping away. The offense responded with a quick pass attack that culminated in Kuramata's second TD catch of the afternoon from Hoffman.
With the score at 35-21, Valpo recovered the ensuing kickoff at the Mercer 24 following a Bear fumble. Hoffman and running back Brandon Hall (Muskegon, Mich./Orchard View) drove the Crusaders deep into Bears territory, but an incomplete pass on 4th and goal from the 6 thwarted a potential comeback. The Brown and Gold didn't get the ball back after the turnover on downs.
Hoffman finished the day 30-of-39 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. At 170 yards, Kuramata was the only receiver in the game to record more than 100 yards.
Russ rushed for exactly 100 yards and threw for 192. He threw - and ran in for - two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Usher netted 109 yards on 19 carries.
Valpo will return to Brown Field next Saturday when it welcomes Morehead State (2-4, 2-1 PFL) to town. Kickoff is slated for 1:00 pm.