|Backup quarterback Hamp Sisson directed five touchdown drives Saturday|
to spark Furman to a 35-20 win at Chattanooga. Photo courtesy of Furman
The victory puts the Paladins alone in first place atop the Southern Conference standings, a half-game ahead of Wofford. In handing Chattanooga (4-5, 3-2) its second league loss, Furman (6-3, 5-1) and Wofford are the only teams with one SoCon loss.
"We took a few gut shots there early and our defense hung in there," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I felt like we were moving the ball if we could just get a little spark going, particularly in the passing game and Hamp certainly provided that.
"I was proud of our kids for hanging in there and finding a way. It was exactly the kind of game I thought it would be. ... I told the guys this week that they've been with us three years and every conference game has mattered. Every game we've played in November has mattered. Not many people can say that."
After the Paladins' first three drives ended on a Darren Grainger fumble, a Grainger interception and a punt, Sisson was called on midway through the second quarter with Furman trailing 9-0. The deficit would've been greater had Furman not forced and recovered a fumble deep in its own territory following the Paladins' second turnover.
On Sisson's first snap, Dominic Roberto took a handoff and popped off a 20-yard run. Furman's longest play of the day at that point got it in Chattanooga territory for the first time. On third-and-six at the 34, Sisson's first pass was a screen to Abrams for a 10-yard gain. The Paladins had two other successful third downs on the drive, including Abrams' touchdown run on third-and-goal.
After stopping the Mocs on third down near midfield, Furman called timeout to stop the clock with 1:31 left. Following the punt, Sisson directed a perfect two-minute drill as the Paladins went 80 yards on 10 plays in just 60 seconds. It was capped on Furman's lone third down of the drive when Sisson kept on an option for an eight-yard score. That gave the Paladins a 14-9 lead with 26 seconds left.
"He was so decisive on that option play. He's really athletic," Hendrix said. "He took care of the ball and the situation wasn't too big for him."
It appeared Chattanooga would be content with running out the clock, but star freshman running back Ailym Ford turned a simple handoff into a 57-yard run to the Furman 18. The Paladins avoided disaster as the Mocs caught a pass in the end zone but was out of bounds. Chattanooga settled for a 32-yard field goal by Victor Ulmo on the final play of the half to cut the lead to 14-12.
After that momentum swung a bit toward the Mocs before halftime, they opened the second half by driving to the Furman 24-yard line. On fourth-and-six, Chattanooga lofted a pass to the end zone for Ford but Donavan Perryman broke it up. It was a particularly great play by Perryman as Tiano rolled to his right and waited a while before finally throwing it. Perryman never bit on rushing Tiano and never lost sight of Ford.
While Furman's ensuing drive was one of only two directed by Sisson that didn't end in a touchdown, it's ending may have been the biggest play of the game. Grayson Atkins booted a 62-yard punt that was downed at the Chattanooga two-yard line. After Ford was stopped for a loss of one yard, Tiano threw a pair of long incompletions. The last one was broken up on a great play by Quandarius Weems, who ripped the ball out of the hands of the receiver.
"Quan made a couple of big plays on some deep balls. He just battled," Hendrix said. "I'm so proud of him and our defense."
Backed up at it's own goal line, Chattanooga's short punt set up Furman at the Mocs' 32-yard line. Longtime Paladin followers may have had a sense for what was coming next. On the next play, Sisson went deep for the first time and hit a wide open Ryan Miller down the right sideline for a touchdown to push the lead to 21-12 with 6:05 left in the third quarter.
"That was a great play called by our coaches and great execution. We had been setting that play up pretty much throughout the game to that point," Sisson said. "We had ran a run play with that similar action by the tight end. ... The secondary bit on that motion and Ryan Miller was able to get behind the defensive backs.
"You always have to prepare like you're the starter no matter what, so that you're ready when your time comes. ... It was a great team win. I'm proud of how our guys battled through adversity, came back and sealed this really big win on the road."
That prior Chattanooga possession was the first of three consecutive three-and-outs forced by Furman's defense. One of those came when Ford, who rushed for 145 yards in the first half but only 34 in the second, was stood up by Elijah McKoy and Bryan Okeh for no gain on third-and-one.
Devin Wynn's one-yard touchdown run extended Furman's lead to 28-12 early in the fourth quarter. UTC answered with a 15-play, 75-yard touchdown drive capped by a two-point conversion to make it a one-score game. But that drive took 6:51 off the clock and left only 5:57 to play.
With all three of its timeouts, the Mocs kicked deep and the Paladins made them pay for that decision. More specifically, Abrams made them pay. It looked like it could be a three-and-out, but on fourth-and-one from its own 35, Abrams carried for a two-yard gain. Furman faced another fourth down later. This time with two yards to go and 15 seconds left. Abrams appeared to be stopped at the line of scrimmage, but - with a helpful shove in the back from Sisson - he broke away for a 31-yard touchdown.
"We know in the fourth quarter you need to run out the clock and run the ball. It's all about trust really. I trust my teammates, they trust me and we trust the game plan," Abrams said. "When Hamp came and pushed me through, that's just an example of working hard and going that extra little bit. Everybody has the same goal and we all work for that goal."
Abrams, who carried on eight of Furman's last nine offensive plays, had 82 yards on 10 rushes in the fourth quarter. Along with Abrams' 118 yards for the game, Wynn rushed for 73 while Sisson had 52 yards on six carries. Sisson completed 9-of-14 passes for 99 yards with no interceptions.
"We wanted to get the fullback more involved today. Devin Wynn had a couple of snaps at fullback too. Between those two guys, it's hard not to want to give them the ball," Hendrix said. "Hamp's hung in there and worked and worked, got the opportunity today and made the most of it.
"I don't know if there's two more liked or respected guys on our team than those two quarterbacks (Sisson and Grainger)."