Defense and Sanders Spark Keydets to Road Win at Mercer, 28-21
Courtesy: SportsPhotoGuy.com for VMI

MACON, Ga. - Junior Aaron Sanders set a new VMI record for catches in a game and the Keydet defense posted a game-deciding stop in the final minutes as the VMI Keydets defeated the Mercer Bears, 28-21, in SoCon football action Saturday in Macon, Ga. With the win, VMI broke a 30-game road losing streak that had dated to Oct. 23, 2010.

On this day, VMI had jumped out to an early 21-0 lead and still had a 28-14 lead at halftime. Mercer was able to claw back within a touchdown at 28-21, and took possession with just over four minutes to go in the contest.

Quarterback John Russ drove his team to the Keydet 25, but hurries by Brian Lipscomb and Joe Nelson helped bring up fourth down and a short completion halted by cornerback Damian Jones was not enough for a first down as the Keydets took over. VMI quickly ran out the clock and claimed its first SoCon win of the season.

Al Cobb threw for nearly 400 yards on the day, going 28 for 40 for 391 yards and two scores. Sixteen of those 28 completions went to Sanders, easily breaking the previous record of 13 set by Jeff Hubbard against Furman in 1995 and co-held by Sanders when he caught 13 passes at Ball State in the season opener. Sanders also piled up a career-high 218 yards receiving – the third highest single game total in school history.

Redshirt senior back Derrick Ziglar led the Keydets in rushing with 104 yards on 22 carries and scored two touchdowns. It was Ziglar’s second 100-yard game of the season.

VMI converted 17 of 19 third down conversions including their first 12 opportunities of the first half.

Russ completed 14 of 22 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown to pace the Bears and completed seven passes to sophomore Chandler Curtis for 109 yards including the scoring aerial.

The Keydets rolled up a season-high 567 yards total offense and Cobb produced the ninth 300-yard passing game of his career and third this season.

Defensively, redshirt sophomore Ryan Francis led the charts with eight tackles followed by fellow inside linebacker Allen Cratsenburg with seven. Francis also recovered a fumble that led to VMI’s second score of the game.

VMI won the coin toss and opened the scoring with a 12-play, 85 yard drive capped by Ziglar’s 3-yard burst up the middle to the endzone, giving the visitors a quick 7-0 lead. Cobb completed 4 of 5 passes on the drive for 67 yards and Ziglar rushed four times for 13 yards.

Keydet defensive end J.C. Garvin forced a fumble from Bear back Tee Mitchell on the Mercer’s first play from scrimmage and the ball was recovered by Francis at the 42-yard line. A 24-yard Cobb to Dane Forlines completion to the Mercer  15 set up a four yard TD pass from Cobb to Sam Patterson in the right corner of the end zone and Dillon Christopher’s extra point made it 14-0, VMI, with 6:22 remaining in the first quarter.

The game headed to the second quarter and the Keydets engineered a 14-play, 88 yard drive capped by a Ziglar 4-yard TD rush to push VMI ahead 21-0 with 13:17 left in the half.

The Bears got on the board when they covered 75 yards in nine snaps and scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak by Russ, who highlighted the possession with four carries for 31 yards and completed a 40-yard strike to Marquis Irvin to the VMI 3.

The Keydets answered quickly when freshman running back Quan Myers took a swing pass in the left flat and dash to the endzone for an 11-yard catch and scoring run with 7:36 left in the second quarter pushing the Keydet lead to 28-7 following Christopher’s extra point. But the Bears answered just as quickly with a 3-play, 75-yard scoring drive that started with a 37 yard pass from Russ to Chandler Curtis. Two snaps later, running back Alex Lakes took an option pitch and burst down the right boundary for a 37-yard TD run, cutting the Keydet lead to 28-14. The score remained as such at halftime after VMI saw its final second quarter drive expire empty handed as time ran out after having it third and goal at the Mercer one yard line.

Mercer took the opening second half kickoff and consumed exactly half of the period, before making it a one score game on a Russ to Curtis 2-yard TD pass play. The drive was keyed by a decisive 4th down conversion and a third and 13 conversion  to extend the possession. Russ was 4 of 5 in passing for 48 yards on the drive and Mercer trailed 28-21 with 7:30 left in the quarter.

The game then settled in a scoreless slugfest the rest of the way with the Keydet defense stepping up numerous times to keep the Bears off the board while VMI’s offense was slowed by three straight interceptions. The Keydets missed a golden opportunity to assume a two-score lead midway in the third quarter when Cobb’s pass intended for Sanders inside the Mercer 10 was deflected and intercepted by Mercer defensive end Kelly Brooks at the 3:21 mark. The VMI “D” forced the Bears to a quick three and out on the ensuing drive but Mercer got some breathing room when Matt Shiel blasted a season-long 73 yard punt which pinned VMI back to its own 10.

Cobb was picked off inside the Mercer 10 over the next two Keydet possessions of the fourth quarter, but Mercer in its last two offensive possessions of the game was forced to punt from the VMI 44 and turned it over on downs at the Keydet 25 with 1:26 left after Jones wrapped up Bear receiver Avery Ward to turn aside Mercer’s final scoring threat.

VMI (2-6, 1-3) SoCon returns to action next Saturday at home against Wofford. The game will be carried on ESPN 3 with radio coverage as well on the VMI Sports Radio Network at 1:15.     

Head Coach Scott Wachenheim –

 “I’m very proud of our football team. The VMI “never say, die” attitude is outstanding. After they (Mercer) scored on the drive (early in the third quarter), I went to the defense and said ‘who stole your jerseys and put them on for this game? I told them ‘if you guys play the way you play they won’t score again.’ I’m proud of them and they turned me into a prophet.”

“We played a heck of a game and moved up and down the field, we just didn’t finish some drives. It’s tough to win on the road and it’s tough to win any game, so I couldn’t be any happier or prouder of the kids.”

“The defense came up big and that’s what they’ve been doing all year for us. They stepped all day especially on that last drive on fourth down. That was huge.”