It wasn't exactly the same script as the other games in Furman's winning streak Saturday, but getting the "W" is all that matters. Antonio Wilcox's third touchdown of the day helped the Paladins grind out a 28-21 win over Mercer for their fifth consecutive win.
Thanks to other Southern Conference results Saturday - most notably Samford handing Wofford its first loss - Furman (5-3, 4-1) is tied for first in the standings. Wofford and Western Carolina are also 4-1 in the SoCon with four weeks left in the regular season. Samford is a half-game back at 3-1, while every other SoCon team has at least three league losses.
The Paladins have a showdown next Saturday when they travel to Western Carolina for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff.
"We probably didn't play our best football at times today, but that's what happens when you play good teams," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Whether we needed a stop or needed to move the football, I thought we did a good job of looking out for each other.
"It was a complete team win, there's no question about that."
After four straight weeks of 40-plus points and lots of offensive yardage, it was evident early on that Mercer would be present a different challenge. Thanks primarily to a 15-play, 91-yard scoring drive, the Bears held a 7-0 lead and a 153-29 advantage in total yards after one quarter Saturday.
Undaunted, the Paladins stuck with their gameplan which featured plenty of pounding the football up the middle offensively. That began to pay off in the second quarter. Wilcox fumbled a pitch, picked it up and ran six yards for a touchdown to cap a 9-play, 77-yard drive Furman's defense then forced a three-and-out before the Paladins put together a 14-play, 80-yard scoring drive. Wilcox scored from a yard out with 29 seconds left as Furman took a 14-7 lead into halftime.
A huge shift in momentum happened on the opening play of the third quarter when Kealand Dirks fumbled and Mercer's Eric Jackson recovered at Furman's 30-yard line. After the Bears converted a 3rd-and-15, C.J. Leggett scored from a yard out to tie the game 14-14.
It was the Paladins' first turnover in 230 offensive plays, dating back to the second quarter against ETSU on Sept. 30.
On Mercer's next drive, Marquise Irvin made a remarkable one-handed catch along the sideline to convert a 3rd-and-6 play. Kaelen Riley then found Irvin all alone in the end zone as the Bears took a 21-14 lead midway through the third quarter.
Furman answered with a 13-play, 89-yard drive capped by P.J. Blazejowski's 18-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Andy Schumpert to tie the game 21-21. Early in the drive, the Paladins faced 3rd-and-9 from their own 12-yard line when Blazejowski scrambled around and hit Wilcox for a 21-yard gain. Later in the drive, Furman went for it on 4th-and-2 at Mercer's 47 and Blazejowski kept on the option for three yards.
On their next drive, the Paladins went 70 yards on 14 plays, shaving seven minutes off the clock. On 4th-and-less than 1 at the Mercer 5-yard line, Furman passed on a potential go-ahead field goal. Instead Wilcox picked up the yard converting the Paladins' fourth fourth down try in as many attempts. On the next play, Wilcox twisted his way across the goal line as the ball popped free. While Mercer signaled turnover, the officials signaled touchdown and Furman led 28-21 with 4:48 left.
With no timeouts and 1:44 to go, the Bears drove from their own 15-yard line to Furman's 26. On third down, Joe Farrar came up with an interception in the end zone with three seconds left to wrap up the win.
Despite outgaining Furman 435-340, Mercer (4-4, 3-3) saw its three-game winning streak snapped.
"I think they played well and we did too," Hendrix said. "Fortunately, we made enough plays to pull it out."
The victory snapped Furman's nine-game losing streak in games decided by 10 points or less. That dates back to a 20-17 win at Samford on Oct. 31, 2015. Included in those nine, were each of the last two heartbreaking games against Mercer.
"This game meant a lot to a lot of people. We knew it was going to be a four-quarter game," said Blazejowski, who completed 16-of-19 passes for 158 yards with no interceptions. "Our goal is to win. We don't know how we're going to do it, but we're going to go try to execute.
"We didn't play our best game, but we won and that's the big thing."
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