Saturday, September 21, 2019

Paladins put it all together, rout Mercer

Furman's Corey Watkins races for an 83-yard touchdown during the
Paladins' 45-10 win over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Even at 1-2 entering Saturday, the thought for Furman's football team had to be what if it all came together. That is, what if the 15th-ranked Paladins could run like they did against Charleston Southern, pass like they did at Georgia State and defend like they did at Virginia Tech. It all happened Saturday at Paladin Stadium and it resulted in a 45-10 win over Mercer.

Furman piled up 600 yards of total offense and held the previously No. 1-ranked offense in the Southern Conference to 283 total yards to win its SoCon opener for the first time since 2015. Saturday marked the first time a game in this series was decided by more than seven points and was Mercer's most lopsided loss to an FCS team ever.

"It's good to be 1-0 in the Southern Conference. I'm really pleased with how we started the game," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We did some really good things and played a ton of kids."

Perhaps the most impressive part of the 35-point win was what the Paladins overcame to get it. After having just one fumble on offense this season, Furman (2-2, 1-0) fumbled four times Saturday and lost two of those. The Paladins had 102 yards worth of penalties after entering Saturday with a total of 94 for the season. Without injured tailback Wayne Anderson Jr. and fullback Carson Maples, Furman rushed for 410 yards.

"At times we were a little bit sloppy, so we've got some correctable mistakes," Hendrix said. "It's always great to learn when you get a win."

After close losses to FBS teams each of the past two weeks, the Paladins came out breathing fire Saturday. Devin Wynn ran for 26 yards on the first play of the game. On the second, Darren Grainger threw a perfect bomb to Thomas Gordon for a 47-yard gain to the Mercer six-yard line. Two plays later, Corey Watkins scored from a yard out and Furman led 7-0 less than two minutes into the game.

The next drive was a more traditional Furman effort as the 12-play, 77-yard march took 6:10 and was capped when Devin Abrams twisted his way into the end zone for a three-yard touchdown.

Mercer cut the lead in half after a 14-play, 71-yard touchdown drive in which the Paladins suffered quite a few missed initial tackles. Furman answered on its ensuing possession when Grainger found tight end Ryan Miller all alone down the sideline for an easy 41-yard touchdown. The Paladins drove 85 yards on 11 plays on their next possession as Dominic Roberto's two-yard touchdown helped push the lead to 21 with 1:10 left in the half.

The Bears (2-2, 1-1) rapidly moved down the field in the final minute before Bryan Okeh came up with an interception on the final play of the half. However, a roughing the passer penalty wiped out the pick and Mercer used an untimed down to kick a 35-yard field goal, cutting the lead to 28-10 at the half.

Given how Furman has performed in the third quarter this season and with the Bears getting the ball to start the second half, there may have been pause about just how in control the Paladins were. Each of Furman's first three opponents scored touchdowns on their first drives of the second half as the Paladins were outscored in the third, 42-16, for the season.

It became evident pretty quickly that there was no need for concern on Saturday. Mercer got one first down on its opening possession of the second half, but that was it. On Furman's first offensive play following the punt, Devin Abrams rumbled 69 yards to the Bears' 19. Three plays later, Grainger ran for a four yard touchdown to make it 35-10.

Mercer went three-and-out on its next possession and the next two ended on interceptions by DiMarcus Clay and Okeh, respectively. Meanwhile, Grayson Atkins extended his school record to 14 consecutive made field goals and Watkins took an option pitch 83 yards for a touchdown late in the third to make it a 17-0 third quarter and wrap up the scoring for the game.

"We hadn't been real good in the third quarter this year, and I couldn't be more pleased with how we came out (of halftime Saturday)," Hendrix said. "That was big. Even with the mistakes, it was good to play a complete football game on both sides of the ball and in the kicking game.
"I wasn't worried about them catching Corey when he popped out there."

Grainger, who left after three quarters, was 9-of-16 passing for 190 yards and no interceptions. He also officially had 52 yards rushing on 13 attempts, as he lost 37 due mostly to a 14-yard loss on a sack and a 20-yard loss on a fumble. Wynn led Furman with 99 yards on 13 carries. Watkins had 97 on five attempts and Abrams had 85 on six rushes.

The 410 yards are the most on the ground for the Paladins since rushing for 436 yards against Chattanooga in 2003. The 600 total yard output is the most for Furman since putting up 609 against ETSU in 2017.

"The running back group is really deep. In practice, I'm being pushed by Wayne behind me and I have Devin Wynn in front of me, so it's a grind every day to be better," said Watkins, who appears fully recovered from a turf toe injury that sidelined him earlier this year. "I love being in this offense. It puts so much on a defense's mind."

Mercer quarterback Robert Riddle, who entered Saturday leading the SoCon in passing a 273 yards per game and leading the country in touchdown passes with 11, was held to 149 yards on 18-of-34 passing with one touchdown and two interceptions. After being sacked on twice all season, he was sacked twice on Saturday as well.

"Coach Hendrix challenged all of us this week to elevate our game," said Okeh, who tied Braden Gilby for the team-high with six tackles Saturday. "We saw who their key guys were and we just worked hard all week to make sure we were in the right spot at the right time. I think we did a better job of executing this week than any other this season, especially in the second half."

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