Behind Enemy Lines: The Mercer Cluster's Hayes Rule talks AlabamaBy Matthew Speakman | 11/15/2017 10:49pm
Alabama is coming off of a dramatic win against Mississippi State. On the horizon is a winner-take-all Iron Bowl. Before that happens, Alabama has to play Mercer. Earlier in the year, Mercer faced off against Auburn in a sluggish 24-10 loss. Still, Mercer was able to force five turnovers and give the Tigers a scare. To get more insight on Mercer, we talked to Hayes Rule of the Mercer Cluster, the Bears' student newspaper. Here is what he had to say:
Q: What do you make of Mercer scheduling two big-time programs in Alabama and Auburn this season?
A: It’s bold, but necessary. Mercer, in only its fifth season since re-establishment, is trying to do its best to get its name out there on a bigger stage. What better way to do that than play two of the best teams in the SEC? Mercer usually tries to schedule only one money game each season, but when Alabama offered a contract for 2017 and 2021, Mercer couldn’t turn that down. I think it’s a great thing for the program. It brings in $600,000 for the athletics program, exposes Mercer’s name on a bigger stage and is a great recruiting tool.
Q: Are the players confident that they can compete with Alabama considering the way they played against Auburn?
A: I think it’s fair to say everyone knows Alabama is the bigger, faster and stronger team. But that doesn’t mean Mercer is simply going to lie down. I expect them to come out swinging and use that Auburn game as a confidence booster. The defense is feisty and will try to hang with Alabama’s offense.
Q: What have you made of Kaelen Riley's performance this year?
A: He has been solid overall, even for a non-freshman. Considering he is a freshman, what he has done has been really impressive. Other than one or two games this season, he has been plenty capable of leading the offensive charge. He has taken care of the ball well -- seven interceptions -- which is a major plus. But Mercer hasn’t exactly kept him on a leash. The Bears have allowed him to throw it deep. They weren’t ultra aggressive against Auburn, though, and I expect -- Coach Lamb said this in the weekly press conference, too -- that Mercer will employ that same strategy against Alabama.
Q: How tough is it to defend the receiving duo of Marquise Irvin and Chandler Curtis?
A: Each one can do a little bit of everything. The offense is known for shorter, quick passes, and Chandler Curtis excels at that. He’s arguably one of the best punt returners in the FCS. But he can also beat you over the top, so you can’t sleep on him. Irvin is the bigger-bodied receiver of the entire bunch and will be a key in the redzone. He has scored against Georgia Tech and Auburn.
Q: Alabama has struggled to pass protect its last two games. Can a guy like Isaiah Buehler expose that and force Jalen Hurts to make plays with his feet?
A: The calling card of this team is certainly the defense, specifically the front seven. They call themselves the L.O.C., or the Legion of Chaos. Isaiah Buehler and Dorian Kithcart have been fantastic on the defensive line all year, and the linebacking trio of Lee Bennett, LaMarkus Bailey and Will Coneway has been very strong. One thing to watch for is turnovers. The Bears forced five turnovers against Auburn, which is truly the sole reason they were able to stick around in that contest. Mercer does an outstanding job of stripping the ball.
Q: What do you think Mercer has to do to keep this game competitive?
A: Offensively, they need to stay within the chains and not make any big mistakes. Mercer won the turnover battle against Auburn, so it will need to do that again, but it also needs to slow this game down and keep it low-scoring. Mercer is not going to score many points against this Alabama defense, so it will look to control the clock if possible. Although they should stick to that strategy, they also cannot be afraid to take a couple deep shots throughout the outing. That was something Mercer really didn’t do against Auburn, and I think it possibly could have changed the outcome of that game if they had done so. The defense will battle and be scrappy.
Q: Finally, give us a score prediction and why you chose that.
A: Alabama 45-10. Mercer’s defense is good enough to not allow Alabama to run up the score THAT badly, although it’s obviously an incredibly difficult challenge for the Bears. Expect Mercer to be scrappy at the start and hang in for the first quarter, but I think Alabama’s talent and depth will prove to be too much in the second, third and fourth quarters for it to be competitive near the end.