LEXINGTON, Va. - An 18-yard touchdown pass by John Russ capped a wild contest as the Mercer Bears edged the VMI Keydets, 33-30, in overtime Saturday at VMI's Foster Stadium. The game served as VMI's home and conference opener.
After a thrilling final minute of regulation sent the game to overtime, Dillon Christopher gave the Keydets (2-2, 0-1 SoCon) a 30-27 lead with a 25-yard field goal on the first possession of overtime. Mercer took over at the 25 and ran Alex Lakes twice, before Russ found Avery Ward on an 18-yard crossing pattern over the middle for the game-winner.
On the ground, Alex Keys ran for three touchdowns, becoming the first Keydet to do so since 2014, but Mercer limited VMI to just 29 yards on 39 carries. The Bears, in contract, ran the ball 47 times and gained 195 yards.
The visitors' defensive line also made its presence known with seven sacks, the last of which helped force Christopher's field goal in the extra period.
Mercer jumped out to the 21-7 halftime lead, helped by a 6 of 9 effort on third-down conversions. VMI answered with an 11-play, 88-yard drive late in the third quarter and Keys plunged in from a yard out, making it 21-14, Bears.
Most of the third quarter had been slow developing, but that was very much not the case in the fourth. VMI tried a fake punt early in the period, but saw the ball intercepted. Mercer then had VMI on the ropes midway through the period, as it drove the ball inside the Keydet five, but VMI's defense stiffened and forced a 20-yard field goal by Cole Fisher that made it a 10-point game.
VMI answered quickly, helped by a trick play. On the second play of the ensuing Keydet drive, Al Cobb pitched the ball back to Ryan Swingle, who threw a 50-yard strike to Rohan Martin to move the Keydets in range. Four plays later, Keys plunged in for his third score of the day, but the extra point was blocked and it was a four-point game with just over five minutes to play.
After a punt, the Keydets got the ball back with 3:13 to go and drove to the Mercer 29, where it seemed as if the missed PAT may loom large. After a penalty and sack put VMI in a fourth down and 14, Cobb found Swingle for a 17-yard connection and a first down. Three plays later, the VMI QB was able to connect with Dane Forlines, again on fourth down.
That gave the Keydets a first and goal at the 10 and after an incompletion, Cobb found Swingle on a fade in the back left corner of the endzone for a touchdown and a 27-24 VMI lead. It was the first Keydet lead of the day, and it was shortlived.
Mercer got the ball on its 32 with 19 seconds to go, and Russ found Kelby Brock for an 18-yard completion. As Brock was being tackled, he completed a backward lateral to Jordan Marshall, who scooted another 10 yards and went out of bounds. VMI was whistled for a personal foul at that point, marking the ball off to its 25, and Fisher booted through a 42-yard field goal as time expired to tie the game at 27 and set up the overtime dramatics.
Cobb finished the game 31 of 43 for 309 yards and one touchdown - his 11th career 300-yard game - while Russ was 23 of 26 for 249 yards and two scores. Cobb's one touchdown allowed him to surpass Joey Gibson for the most thrown in VMI history (39).
Sanders was VMI's leading receiver with 11 catches for 136 yards, one year after notching a school record 16 catches against Mercer, and Ward surpassed the 100-yard receiving mark for the visitors.
VMI football will return to action next Saturday, Oct. 8, when the Keydets face ETSU at 1:30 p.m.
QUOTES - VMI Head Coach Scott Wachenheim
On battling back after being down two touchdowns:
“This is VMI where we never say die. Each player and coach dedicated the game to a current member of the corps and also a graduate of VMI and we gave it our all. They had two weeks to prepare for us and anytime you’re within two scores with two minutes to play you always have a chance. I said to keep playing and keep battling."
"I think we made some minor adjustments at halftime that put us in a better position. You can’t completely overhaul your game plan in just a 20-minute halftime."
On holding Mercer to just two field goals in the second half:
“Our defense has played great all year. We had several guys step up and the guys just kept playing and playing. Coach Clark does a great job of preparing the defense every week."
On special teams play:
"I thought the fake punt was there, but Mercer made a great play on it and it didn’t go our way. The play was there, though. The days of playing close at VMI are over. We’re playing to win. I didn’t come here to play close. I didn’t come here to feel good losing a close game. We’re here to win football games and these players are stepping up to make plays to win. If we convert that, you say, 'Wow, great play. Nice call.' Unfortunately, Mercer made the interception and made a great play."
On Mercer run defense:
"They played well. They had two weeks to get ready for us and came up with some different twists and blitzes. It paid off for them."