Stephen Mercer caught 14 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown in the Wolverines’ 20-14 victory.
GROVE CITY — When the college football schedules are released, Thiel and Grove City circle the date when they meet.
As for the importance of the game to both programs, the reason is simple. It is called playing for the Mercer County Cup.
Saturday afternoon at rainy Robert E. Thorn Field, Grove City retained possession of the cup for another year, defeating the Tomcats, 20-14, in the season finale for both teams.
The Tomcats (2-8, 1-5) stunned the Wolverines (6-4, 3-3) on the first play of the game as quarterback Willie Bova found Brendan Taylor for a 52-yard completion, setting up a 3-yard TD run by Brice Mertiff.
“When you are 2-7 going into the game, you gotta do whatever it takes to win,” said Thiel coach Jack Leipheimer. “We played to win, we didn’t play not to lose so we just went out and attacked.”
The Wolverines came back on their next two possessions as they took 16 plays to cover 60 yards for the first score before using a dozen plays to go 97 yards to make it 14-7.
Although most of the game was played close to the vest by Grove City, coach Chris Smith used a little bit of trickery for his team’s first score.
Quarterback Andrew DiDonato took the snap and pitched the ball to Stephen Mercer who rolled to his right. While Mercer was rolling right, DiDonato took off for the left corner of the end zone and Mercer rainbowed a pass to the quarterback-turned-receiver for the score.
“That is not an unusual call for us, but it wasn’t supposed to be thrown to Andrew,” explained Smith. “It was supposed to go to the tight end, but he was covered. In practice, Andrew is always yelling, ‘I’m open, I’m open’, so Steve knew he would be back there somewhere. He unloaded it to the back corner of the end zone and, low and behold, that was a welcome touchdown at that point of the game.”
After Brian Mercer scored on a 19-yard pass from DiDonato, the Wolverines turned a gamble by the Tomcats into three points with time running out in the first half.
With all three timeouts left and GCC deep in their own territory, Leipheimer decided to use two of the timeouts setting up a third-and-long.
However, that is when DiDonato crossed up the Thiel defense by lofting a 40-yard pass to Stephen Mercer that ultimately led to Craig Bicehouse’s 42-yard field on the final play of the half to increase the Grove City lead to 17-7 at halftime.
“I would play it like that again in a heartbeat,” said Leipheimer. “We had good double coverage on the kid and if we knock the ball down, we are in good shape. But instead, he [Stephen Mercer] went up and made an outstanding catch.”
That wasn’t the only big catch Mercer made during the day as he caught 14 passes for 171 yards and one score. DiDonato finished with 278 yards passing and 32 yards rushing.
“Tough kid. Very tough kid,” said Smith about Mercer who bounced back from injuries twice during the game. “He might be the best combination of student-athlete I have ever coached. He is really just a first-class kid. He kept running that curl pattern, got us some big first downs and eventually we got the field goal out of it.”
Following Bicehouse’s second field goal with 1:35 left in the game to give the Wolverines a six-point lead, Thiel marched to the GCC 17. However, with no more timeouts left and time running out, the snap on a spike attempt by Bova was mishandled and time ran out.