While Samford (8-3, 6-2 Southern Conference) likely wrapped up an FCS playoff bid, it now becomes a nervous waiting game for Furman (7-4, 6-2) ahead of the playoff selection show Sunday at 11 a.m. on ESPNU. The Paladins are banking on a resume that shows three FCS losses by a combined 10 points, all of which came against likely playoff-bound teams in Wofford, Elon and Samford.
"It's out of our control, but I know this: I think we're easily one of the best 24 teams in the country," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Based on who we've played and how we've played, I think it's deserved, but I'm sure there's a lot of people who think the same thing.
"This bunch and how far they've come - that probably makes it even tougher to have a chance and not pull it off tonight."
After Jordan Weaver's career-long 46-yard field goal gave Samford a 26-17 lead with 12:55 left, Furman responded with its only scoring drive of the second half. The problem was that it took 16 plays and 7:37 off the clock and the Paladins had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins to cut the lead to six with 5:18 left.
Samford got two first downs on its ensuing possession before Furman came up with a third-down stop and called its final timeout. After a touchback on the Bulldogs' punt, the Paladins had 80 yards to go in 1:12 for the potential win. On the third play of the drive, Samford senior Shaheed Salmon made a diving interception with 46 seconds left to wrap up the win. It was just the fourth interception this season for Furman quarterback P.J. Blazejowski.
The Paladins' offense had steamrolled opponents during the winning streak with an average of 42.3 points per game. During that time, Furman had been running the ball right down the throat of opposing defenses with fullbacks Antonio Wilcox and Kealand Dirks. But on Saturday, Samford held Dirks to 39 yards on 14 carries and Wilcox to 17 yards on eight carries.
Darius Morehead broke free on some option pitches to lead Furman with 86 yards, but he had only 19 in the second half as the Bulldogs tightened things up against the option.
"I don't think we played our best or coached our best football, but give them credit. They were better than us tonight," Hendrix said. "I thought we got exposed a couple of times. We've still got a little ways to go, physically. They pushed us around a little on both sides of the ball."
While each team finished with 411 yards of total offense, Furman rolled up 291 in the first half but felt like it should've had more than 17 points. The Paladins opened the game with a 75-yard drive capped by a a three-yard touchdown run by Wilcox. That marked the 11th consecutive visit to the red zone with a touchdown for the Paladins.
Samford answered with a 15-play, 78-yard touchdown drive in which it converted two fourth downs. The last came when Roland Adams took a direct snap and fought his way into the end zone from a yard out as the Bulldogs tied the game 7-7.
Furman's ensuing possession once again went deep into Samford territory. On fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, it appeared that Wilcox's entire upper body got in the end zone, but he was ruled short of the goal line.
"In the first half, we left 11 points on the field. On the one we didn't get in, we'd love to have replay but it shouldn't have been that close. We've got to get it in there," Hendrix said. "Then it just seemed like we were backed up the whole second half."
On Samford's next play, the Bulldogs threw a screen pass in the end zone that should've went for a safety but Adams bounced off a tackler and made it just past the goal line. That turned out to be the first play of a 13-play, 99-yard scoring drive. Devlin Hodges' eight-yard touchdown pass to Clarke Miller helped the Bulldogs take a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
The teams traded field goals as Samford pushed its lead to 17-10 with 1:23 left in the half. Rather than settling for taking a seven-point deficit into halftime, Furman rolled the dice and came up with a seven. Blazejowski rolled to his right, turned and threw back across the field to Andy Schumpert along the left sideline. Schumpert rumbled 55 yards to the Samford 20-yard line. On 4th-and-goal at the one-yard line, Dirks powered his way into the end zone with 25 seconds left in the half.
That momentum didn't carry over to the second half though. The Bulldogs raced down the field on the opening drive which took just 1:53 for them to take the lead. Hodges hit a wide-open Kelvin McKnight for a 29-yard touchdown, but the extra point sailed wide left and Samford led 23-17. Going into a stiff wind in the third quarter, the Bulldogs outgained the Paladins 154-65 and shut them out in a quarter that they had scored 105 combined points in entering Saturday.
While he was wide open on that touchdown, McKnight made some terrific catches against tight defense all night. He finished with 10 receptions for 179 yards, while Hodges threw for 305 yards on 25-of-37 passing.
The loss overshadowed a great performance by Thomas Gordon, who had five catches for 123 yards. Blazejowski finished with 229 yards on 11-of-20 passing.
"I'm so blessed to have these guys on my team. They do a good job of getting open and making the grab," Blazejowski said. "Hopefully I'll get another shot to throw them a few balls."