Will The real Citadel football team please stand up?
Is it the one that surrendered 28 unanswered points to Mercer in the first half?
Or the one that twice stormed back to within one possession in the second half?
Bulldogs coach Brent Thompson is hoping for option No. 2 after his team's rally came up short in a 42-28 loss to Mercer in the first spring football game in Citadel history, at Five Star Stadium in Macon, Ga., on Feb. 27.
"I think it's the second-half team," said Thompson, whose squad is 0-5 in the pandemic season of 2020-21 and 0-1 in the Southern Conference's spring season. "I told the guys at the end of the game that what they showed inside of them was what I was most concerned about.
"You can fix mistakes, but you can't always build heart and determination into a football team, and we showed some heart in the second half."
Quarterback Jaylan Adams ran for 144 yards and a touchdown in his first Citadel start, and hit 9 of 15 passes for 75 yards and a TD with an interception. Slotback Cooper Wallace added 125 yards on eight carries, including a 73-yard TD scamper, and The Citadel outgained Mercer 413-354.
But a woeful first half was too much to overcome.
Mercer's freshman QB, Carter Peevy, threw for 208 yards and three TDs, including a 75-yard catch-and-run by 240-pound tight end Drake Starks on the first play from scrimmage. The Bears (1-4, 1-1) added a 25-yard scoop-and-score TD by Yahsyn McKee on a fumbled option pitch from Adams to Wallace as new coach Drew Cronic's team jumped to an easy 28-0 lead at the half.
"It was a mess," said Thompson, whose team had only 81 yards by halftime. "I mean, I was embarrassed out there in the first half, and I let the players know that.
"I usually don't walk into a locker room and let them know how I feel all the time, but I thought it was necessary and I wanted to see how they responded. And they did respond."
Mercer had already played one spring game, a 31-14 loss to Wofford last week, while the Bulldogs were playing for the first time since a 14-9 loss at Army on Oct. 10, 2020.
"The issue in the first half was speed of the game," said Thompson, whose team has lost seven straight games going back to the 6-6 season of 2019. "We got punched in the face on the first play. When you have limited numbers on the roster, you don't have the opportunity to scrimmage or go live as much as you'd like. They had the chance to play a game last week and figure out how much faster the game is played live than in practice."
With linebacker Brian Horn making a sack and deflecting a pass on consecutive third downs, The Citadel defense racked up three straight three-and-outs to start the second half.
The offense responded in kind, scoring three straight touchdowns on a 4-yard pass from Adams to Raleigh Webb, a 73-yard run by Wallace and a 6-yard TD from slotback Nkem Njoku. That cut Mercer's lead to a manageable 28-20 with 12:14 still to play.
A transfer receiver from the University of Georgia then made a key play, as Mercer's Ty James blew past two defenders to catch a 33-yard TD pass from Peevy for a 35-20 lead with 8:26 left.
The Citadel secondary sorely missed All-SoCon safety Chris Beverly, who has withdrawn from school to deal with a COVID-related family situation, and starting safety Sean-Thomas Faulkner, who has graduated to begin his career. The Bulldogs also were without five players who opted out and six who are suspended; the suspended players will not be back for next week's home opener against Chattanooga.
"Chris would love to be here and playing with his teammates," Thompson said. "Between him and Faulkner, that's two guys who have played a lot of football for us."
Even so, the Bulldogs had one last chance.
Adams ran for 26 yards to set up his own 1-yard TD plunge, and then ran for a 2-point conversion to make it 35-28 with 2:11 left. The Bulldogs tried an onside kick, but Mercer's Ethan Dirrim picked the ball out of the air and raced 45 yards for the clinching TD.
Adams and Wallace botched two pitches for turnovers, and Mercer's Michael Campbell picked off an Adams pass.
"Jaylin probably had a D- in the first half, but then a C+ or B- in the second half," Thompson said. "Once he settled in and saw what the defense was giving him, he did a nice job. Eventually it will all click for him, and when it does he'll as dynamic a quarterback as we've seen since Ben Dupree."
It was a surprising day as the SoCon kicked off spring football with Chattanooga scoring a 24-13 upset of No. 11 Wofford and VMI knocking off No. 10 Furman 14-13. Samford torched Western Carolina 55-27.
"COVID football," Thompson said. "Anything can happen."
• Brian Horn and freshman defensive end Carson Hatchett led the Bulldogs with nine tackles each, and All-America linebacker Willie Eubanks III had eight ... WR Raleigh Webb was targeted seven times and caught four balls for 35 yards and a score, and ran four times for 11 yards ... PK Colby Kintner missed an extra point and a 38-yard field goal, while Matt Campbell punted four times for a 42.8-yard average.