Rod Johnson Mercer

The Citadel's Rod Johnson (2) celebrates with teammate Grant Drakeford during the Bulldogs' 38-31 win at Mercer on Saturday. Provided/Citadel Athletics

MACON, Ga. — In The Citadel's huddle just before Mercer's final kickoff, Bulldogs special-teams coordinator J.P. Gunter had some final words for Rod Johnson.

"If you can get it clean and feel confident, let's go," Gunter told the Bulldogs' slotback and kick returner.

Johnson followed the instructions to a T, fielding a kickoff at his own 6-yard line and racing 94 yards for the game-winning touchdown with 57 seconds left in a dramatic 38-31 win at Mercer on Saturday night.

It was The Citadel's first kickoff return for a TD since Scooter Johnson went 91 yards for a score against VMI in 2002.

Johnson, a junior from Ninety Six, had returned two kickoffs for just 12 yards prior to his game-winner. He made a mental mistake when he stepped out of bounds at his own 4-yard line on a kickoff return late in the first half. And Mercer kicker Cole Fisher had sent three of his six kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks.

But on the final kick, Fisher floated the ball short of the end zone to force a Citadel return. Under a new NCAA rule, Johnson could have signaled for a fair catch to give the Bulldogs the ball at their own 25.

"All night, the kicker had been kicking it great and putting us in a bind," Gunter said. "To be honest, we caught it clean and returned it. We weren't trying to overthink it."

Said Johnson, "I honestly didn't expect them to kick it to me. I expected them to kick it in the end zone, and then I trusted the Lord and the ability he gave me."

The Lord, and Gunner Covey.

Covey, Dijon Profit and Jordan Williams made the key blocks to spring Johnson into the clear.

"I saw an open seam, and there was only one guy left to make the tackle," Johnson said. "He ducked in and I went out, and then the only guy left was the kicker. I tried to turn on some speed and got around him."

And coach Brent Thompson missed the whole thing.

"To tell you the truth, I didn't seen any of it," he said.

Mercer coach Bobby Lamb did.

"As for special teams, we led the nation in kickoff return coverage last season," he said. "But [The Citadel] made blocks to return that final kick for a touchdown and win the game."

• Lamb praised The Citadel's defense, which led the Bears to 32 net rushing yards and sacked the quarterback five times.

“Offensively, we couldn’t rush the ball very well," Lamb said. "When you can’t run the ball, it puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback."

The Citadel ran 69 plays to 66 for The Citadel, and had the ball for 32:36 compared with 27:23 for Mercer. The Bulldogs were 6 of 14 on third down and 4 of 5 on fourth down.

"I thought defensively, we couldn’t get [The Citadel] off the field," Lamb said. "They are really good on the offensive line; they do what they do and they live for third-and-two or fourth-and-one [situations]."

• Citadel cornerback Khafari Buffalo suffered an injury on his interception in the fourth quarter and did not return to the game ... Bandit Sean-Thomas Faulkner, a redshirt freshman, made his debut after missing the first two games with injury.

Reach Jeff Hartsell at 843-937-5596. Follow on Twitter @Jeff_fromthePC