|Furman's Thomas Gordon had 10 catches for 148 yards in the Paladins'
60-21 win over VMI Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
The victory keeps Furman (7-3, 6-1) in first place in the Southern Conference, a half-game ahead of Wofford. It also sets up a showdown with the Terriers next Saturday in Spartanburg for the SoCon championship. A win by the Paladins would give them sole ownership of the title.
"It was just a great team win. I was really proud of our defense and how they played in the second half," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "It's nice to be down to one (SoCon game left) to focus on and obviously it's a huge one against a really good team.
"It's the third year in a row we will be playing for the conference championship in our last (conference) game of the season and that's where we want to be."
Making the first start of his collegiate career, Furman redshirt freshman Hamp Sisson looked like a veteran. In two-and-a-half quarters of work, he completed 17-of-22 passes for 277 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. He also rushed for 39 yards on six carries and outdueled the SoCon's leading passer in VMI's Reece Udinski.
Udinski, who ranked No. 10 in the FCS at 292.3 yards per game entering Saturday, was held to 213 yards on 23-of-34 passing. He was also intercepted twice giving him three for the season. Udinski had thrown an FCS-record 368 consecutive passes without an interception before his first last week against Western Carolina. The 213-yard effort was Udinski's lowest against an FCS team this season. Only Marshall (192 yards) held him to fewer.
"You've got to give Hamp a lot of credit. That's his first collegiate start and he really hasn't played much before last week. I just can't say enough about him," Hendrix said. "They were daring us to throw it."
The game wasn't void of drama for 60 minutes like the final score might suggest. Although the way Furman started, it looked like it could have been. For the first time since ETSU on Sept. 28, the Paladins didn't allow an opponent to score on their first possession as they forced a three-and-out. Meanwhile Furman scored on its first two possessions to take a 15-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Just when it looked like it was going to be one of those traditional Paladin beatdowns of VMI, the version of the Keydets that have given opponents fits this season showed up. VMI scored on three consecutive possessions, the last of which cut Furman's lead to 22-21 with 3:36 left in the first half. Out of the Keydets' 381 total yards of offense Saturday, 224 came on those three possessions.
For the third week in a row, Furman made a response with its two-minute offense. On Saturday, it made two. After a 43-yard run by Devin Abrams set the Paladins up at the VMI 22, Sisson threw a two-yard touchdown pass to Devin Wynn with 1:06 left.
VMI went for more points on its ensuing possession but on its second play, Udinski's pass was picked off by Darius Kearse who returned it 13 yards to the Furman 49. On 3rd-and-18, Sisson found Wayne Anderson over the middle for a 20-yard gain to the VMI 39 and Furman called timeout with eight seconds left.
After a nine-yard pass to senior Thomas Gordon got the ball a little closer, Grayson Atkins drilled a 48-yard field goal as time expired in the half and Furman took a 32-21 lead into the locker room.
That field goal was Furman's seventh different score with 1:20 or less in the first half this season.
"That was huge. ... We were trying to milk it down (on the touchdown), but left them a little time. Then we got the pick. Then it was about as good as you can draw it up," Hendrix said. "The thing about it is you get Grayson there now and it's like, 'Oh he will go knock a 48-yarder through. That's a chip shot.'
"I've been coaching a long time, but I don't remember (scoring on a two-minute drive before half) three weeks in a row. With two different quarterbacks as well."
Furman carried that momentum from the end of the first half into the second. The Paladins took the opening kickoff and and marched 80 yards on 12 plays and shaved 5:48 off the clock. Dominic Roberto's one-yard touchdown run capped the drive, which was highlighted by a 41-yard throw from Sisson to Gordon on third-and-10.
Just as it did to start the game, Furman's defense forced a three-and-out on VMI's first possession of the second half. Two plays later, Sisson hit Abrams in stride on a 71-yard touchdown to help push the lead to 46-21 and the rout was on. After a career-high 118-yard rushing day at Chattanooga last Saturday, Abrams had 115 all-purpose yards Saturday on just four touches.
"We had seen other teams hit them with that play (that Abrams scored on). We had a couple of different ways of running that and on the third time, we finally hit it," Sisson said. "I felt pretty comfortable. The coaches have done a great job throughout the year of preparing two quarterbacks and getting us a lot of reps in practice. That helped me feel prepared.
"Having great skill players around makes the job easier for whoever's in there."
Furman leading rusher Devin Wynn, who kept finding the end zone despite being rather contained by VMI's constant eight- and nine-man fronts, broke free on a 59-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. That final carry gave him 102 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
VMI's Alex Ramsey, who ranked third in the country in rushing entering Saturday, had 132 yards and two touchdowns, but only 20 yards on six carries after halftime.
Gordon finished with 148 yards on a career-high 10 catches. Seven of those receptions came in the first half as he and Sisson got in a steady rhythm early including a 10-yard completion on the first play of the game. Gordon moved past Isaac West and Adam Mims into second-place on Furman's all-time receiving yards list with 2,448.
"I just felt like if we came out hot, there was nothing that was going to stop. That first drives of both halves were key," Gordon said. "It's a fun offense to play in."
The Paladins finished with 338 yards passing and 298 rushing for a total of 636 yards, it's second-highest total of the season. The 60-point output was the most in a game since a 62-21 win over Presbyterian in 2011.