WEST MIDDLESEX — With just three seniors listed on its 2020 roster, every play is a teachable moment for Mercer second-year head coach Jeff Lockard and his coaching staff.
Friday's primary teachable moment for the Mustangs' players in a 35-7 loss to the host Big Reds? Playing with a sense urgency and with enthusiasm on every snap.
"Against good teams, you have to come out and play with emotion right off the bat," Lockard said. "This is another learning thing. Again, we're focused on learning, learning, learning."
Facing one of Mercer County's stingiest defenses, Mercer struggled for most of the night to get any kind of offensive rhythm, finishing with just 59 yards of total offense — 39 of which came on its fourth-quarter scoring drive.
Of their 17 plays in the first half, the Mustangs (1-2, 1-2) had just three plays with positive yardage and another that made it back to the line of scrimmage against the Reds (2-1, 2-1). Mercer finished with negative nine yards of offense over the game's first two quarters.
"It goes back to us coming out lackluster and with no emotion," Lockard said. "That's on me. I'll take the hit on that. We're going to correct those problems. The key with such a young team is getting them to play Friday night football with the emotion and enthusiasm they need to.
"(West Middlesex is) a good team and Coach Means does a great job with them, but if you don't play with emotion and enthusiasm, you're going to get smacked in the mouth and that's what they did to us here tonight.”
After Mercer's three-and-out to start the game, West Middlesex used 11 plays to march 77 yards in five minutes to take a 7-0 lead on quarterback Ty Tate's one-yard plunge.
"We're not good enough yet — and I use the word yet purposefully — to get smacked in the mouth like that and respond," Lockard said. "Do I think we're going to get there? Yes, I do. I really believe that. We're taking baby steps along this learning curve to get there."
Mere seconds into the second quarter, the Reds pushed their advantage to 14-0 on a Colby Johnson 7-yard run. Short scoring runs from Ian Smith and Alex Rea extended West Middlesex' lead to 28-0 entering the break.
"These guys are still learning," Lockard said. "We're starting a freshman, a sophomore and three juniors up front. So when we're recovering from stuff like that, it's how are you going to respond? How are you going to do things? All that has be taught. We'll get there. I promise you that.”
The Reds ended any hopes of a Mercer comeback with a 76-yard kickoff return touchdown by Eddie Lowe to open the second half and start the mercy rule running clock.
"That's a big mistake," Lockard said. "Our kickoff team had been doing a good job all year. Again, mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. We'll take a look at it on film and correct it. Hopefully, it doesn't happen again."
With the mercy rule in effect, the Mustangs' offense started to gain some traction with a Ethan Wiley to Nathan Haines 38-yard strike along the Big Reds’ sideline, but the promising drive stalled with a Chris Smith interception.
Mercer finally dented the scoreboard midway through the fourth quarter on Aidan Bright's 1-yard touchdown around right end.
"There's a couple positives to take away from that," Lockard said. "First is the score. We didn't give up. Young teams have a tendency to fall flat on their face and walk out with their heads down, but we didn't. We responded in the second half. You could see it we played with emotion in the second half. It was good emotion and enthusiasm, but you have to do that right off the bat.
"I honestly believe if we started the game off doing the kind of things we were doing in the second half ... I'm not saying we would've won or would've changed the outcome, but we would've walked out of here with more positives than we did."
NOTES: Haines and Donnie Palmer each led Mercer with 8 yards rushing, while Haines hauled in Wiley's lone completion for 38 yards. ... West Middlesex held a 14-3 advantage in first downs and converted 5-of-9 third downs. ... Chris Smith and Colby Johnson each had interceptions for the Reds. ... Ian Smith led WM with 86 yards rushing on 17 attempts, while Johnson (45) and Tate (38) provided solid rushing performances.