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Head coach Roger Hughes and the Hatters face Mercer on Saturday.
Hatters Close Season Saturday at Mercer
Courtesy: Stetson University  
Release:  11/21/2013
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Stetson’s first football season in nearly 60 years concludes on Saturday when the Hatters visit fellow first-year program and Pioneer Football League foe Mercer at 4 p.m. in Macon, Ga.

Both teams will be looking to end their respective seasons with a victory. Stetson enters the finale at 2-8 overall and 1-6 in PFL play after last week’s 45-24 loss at Jacksonville. The game could have had a much different result.

The Hatters forced five turnovers, returned a blocked punt for a touchdown and rallied to tie the score at 24-24 late in the third quarter before it all came apart. But despite the result, head coach Roger Hughes was pleased with how the Hatters performed.

“JU is a more experienced team, much bigger and more athletic than we are,” said Hughes. “We knew we were going to have our work cut out for us. Even though we lost I’m proud of how we fought back.”

The Hatters trailed 24-10 early in the third quarter before a Dre Long touchdown run and a blocked punt and return for touchdown by PFL Special Teams Player of the Week Ryan Powers knotted the game at 24-all with 3:09 left in the third.

Stetson appeared to seize momentum after Adam Vinson intercepted a pass on Jacksonville’s next drive. The Hatters moved down inside the JU 30-yard line after a 44 yard reception by Mike Yonker, but on the next play quarterback Ryan Tentler missed an option pitch to Long and the fumble was scooped up by JU’s Charlie Jimenez, who raced 60 yards for a touchdown as time expired in the quarter. That play changed the game and spelled doom for the Hatters.

“The best thing that happened for us last Saturday is the way our kids fought back,” said Hughes. “We got down two scores and found a way to get back in it. We were driving to take the momentum and then we have the only miscue of the day when we fumbled. Unfortunately it was returned for a touchdown. It kind of went downhill from there.”

But Hughes, as he often does, found reasons to praise the Hatters as well.

“I’m really proud of how our kids played,” he said. “We actually improved during the game. There’s no consolation prizes, no substitute for winning, but we walked off that field a better team.”

This week the Hatters will need to carry that improvement into their matchup with fellow PFL newcomer Mercer. The Bears, in their first season of football since 1943, are 9-2 overall and 5-2 in PFL play. If not for a loss last week at Marist, the Bears would still be in the hunt for the conference regular-season title and automatic post-season berth.

While both programs are in their infancy, the Bears are forging a different path than the Hatters. Mercer will spend only one season at the non-scholarship level before moving to the scholarship Southern Conference next year.

“What Mercer has been able to accomplish is really a credit to Coach Bobby Lamb and his staff,” said Hughes. “They’ve taken advantage of a lot of the same opportunities early in the season that we had and couldn’t capitalize on. So you have to tip your cap to them.”

Despite the imminent change in affiliation, Hughes is looking forward to building a rivalry with the Bears.

“Coach Lamb and I have talked about trying to make this a rivalry,” said Hughes. “Even though they’re going to the SoCon we’ve asked to continue the playing relationship, and we have three more games scheduled (beginning in 2015).

“We want to make this a rivalry. We want to play at the highest level we can within the rules of the PFL. If we’re playing against scholarship-type teams it’s going to give our kids a chance to see what it’s like. If we’re lucky enough to someday get to the playoffs, those are the kinds of teams we’ll face if we want to contend nationally, and we definitely want to do that.”

The Bears burst out of the gates by winning their first four games. With the PFL’s third-ranked scoring offense at 38 points per game, and the fifth-best scoring defense (allowing 24.8 points), Mercer will have an added boost on Saturday as the school celebrates Homecoming.

Mercer is led offensively by freshman quarterback John Russ, who guides a Mercer offense which averages nearly 450 yards per game. Russ has passed for over 1,800 yards and 20 touchdowns, while rushing for 768 yards and 11 more scores.

“Offensively it all starts with their quarterback,” said Hughes. “He’s a great runner. I wouldn’t say he’s a great passer but he’s very efficient in that area.”

Mercer also owns a strong running back tandem. Payton Usher and JaTarii Donald have combined for over 1,500 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground. As a team Stetson has rushed for 1,124 yards.

“They have two very good running backs we’ll have to contend with,” said Hughes. “We have to get them to turn it over. We did a great job of that last week in Jacksonville. We have to get short fields in order to have a chance to score quickly.”

Hughes likes the Bears defense as well.

“They’re very sound, very disciplined,” he said. “They’ll be playing with a lot of emotion because it’s Homecoming. They’ll be ready to go.”

The Hatters will need to get more of what they saw from the offense the last two games. Against Davidson and JU, the Hatters gained over 900 yards. But the defense also forced six turnovers and recorded six sacks.

“I want us to play error-free football,” said Hughes. “We can’t afford to have any turnovers or any silly penalties. If we play sound fundamental football, we can come close to an error-free game. We can’t have any turnovers, we need to play great in the kicking game and we’ll be there in the fourth quarter. That’s all I can ask.”

Hughes admitted that his first season as head coach has flown by. When asked recently what his emotions would be as the Hatters played their final game of this first season back, he thought for a while.

“I’ve had seasons where things don’t go as planned and it feels like the year drags on forever,” he said. “It hasn’t been that way this season. Part of that is because of some things that happened along the way that you can’t make up. The first game took two days; we have a rain delay at Butler. Some of these kids took their first plane ride ever. Teaching them how to act on the road and how to prepare for a game; what to do on a Friday night before a game. The fun part for us is, as we’ve seen improvement each week, for the kids to start understanding that, ‘Hey these guys know what they’re talking about’ ”.

“I can’t believe it’s the last game, frankly. There is so much to do but so many things we’re blessed to be a part of and that we’ve accomplished even though the record doesn’t show it.”

He continued, “The thing that has really meant a lot to me is that when coaches come down here from other programs, more established programs, and tell us were doing things right. It’s one thing for those not familiar with the process to say it, but it means so much more when guys who have dedicated their lives to this profession come in and give you that kind of compliment.”

Stetson Football