Saturday, October 29, 2022

Huff, Paladins take down No. 7 Chattanooga

Devin Abrams runs for a touchdown as Tyler Huff (6) celebrates during Furman's
24-20 win over No. 7 Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

In one of the biggest games Furman has hosted in years, the Paladins weren't perfect Saturday. They lost the turnover battle, dropped a snap on a field goal, didn't score for the final 29-plus minutes of the game, and had an 11-yard punt at a critical point in the fourth quarter.

What they did do was shut down Chattanooga's running game, made another huge play on special teams and got a terrific effort from quarterback Tyler Huff. That all added up to a 24-20 win over the seventh-ranked Mocs. With the win, No. 24 Furman (7-2, 5-1 Southern Conference) became the first FCS team to defeat Chattanooga (6-2, 4-1) this season.

"It's a great, great win for a program against a really good football team," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I don't think a lot of people thought we could win, but we had a lot of confidence coming in. I thought our kids played that way all day.

"It took everybody. The defense came up with some big stops and the offense was able to score points against a team where points are hard to come by."

Running the ball and stopping the run are often the biggest keys to a game and that was the case Saturday, but that came with a twist. A showdown between the top two running backs in SoCon play didn't materialize. Chattanooga's Ailym Ford, who was averaging 140.5 yards rushing per game in league play, didn't make the trip following a physical game against Mercer last week. Furman's Dominic Roberto, who was averaging 124.4 yards against SoCon foes, was held to 22 yards on 10 carries.

The difference was Huff. Looking fully recovered from a dislocated elbow suffered five weeks earlier, Huff rushed for 132 yards on 20 carries. It's the most rushing yards Chattanooga has allowed to one individual since last October. Furman's 185 yards rushing are the most allowed by the Mocs this season.

Meanwhile, Furman's defense limited Ford's backup, Gino Appleberry to 56 yards on 22 carries. Chattanooga's 84 yards rushing as a team were its fewest in a game since the shortened spring season in 2021.

"I knew it wasn't going to come down to our back vs. their back. I told them in the team meeting last night that 'No. 6 (Huff) is going to get some carries tomorrow,' and boy am I glad he's on our team," Hendrix said. "He exemplifies our entire team."

Huff's running success helped open things up in the passing game and vice versa. He made the most of those opportunities as he completed 16-of-25 passes for 203 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

"If my front's (offensive line) not playing well, nothing else really matters and they balled out today," Huff said.

The biggest sequence in the game was sandwiched around halftime. After Devin Abrams scored from five yards out to give Furman a 14-10 lead with 6:46 left in the first half, the Paladins got the ball back with 3:12 left. Furman drove from its own 16 to the Chattanooga 19, but had to settle for a 30-yard field goal by Alex Lepvreau as time expired to take a 17-10 lead at the break.

Whatever good feeling Chattanooga had about forcing a field goal to end the first half quickly faded in the second. Kendall Thomas returned the second-half kickoff 26 yards to the Furman 40. On the first snap, Huff scrambled for a 30-yard gain. On the next one, he hit Ryan Miller for a 30-yard touchdown and Furman led 24-10 just 45 seconds into the second half.

"I probably threw it a little too far across the field, but Ryan made a great catch, broke two tackles and scored," Huff said. "To have three plays - a return and two offensive - to go score, I think that took the wind out of them."

The Mocs got a field goal late in the third quarter and a touchdown early in the fourth, but Furman's defense stood tall the rest of the way.

After that touchdown cut the lead to 24-20, Chattanooga's next drive began at Furman's 48 thanks to a leaping interception by the Mocs' All-American linebacker Ty Boeck. On fourth-and-one at the Paladins' seven-yard line, Chattanooga's 24-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Jack Barton. It's the third consecutive game that Furman has had a blocked kick or punt.

A Furman fourth down fiasco that resulted in an 11-yard punt started the Mocs next possession at the Paladins' 40-yard line with 3:13 left. Chattanooga's third-down pass was batted down by Barton. It's fourth-down pass was broken up by Cally Chizik.

"Those guys up front played good all day. Chattanooga wants to run the football and our line and linebackers have done a great job all year against the run," said Furman safety Hugh Ryan, who had an interception for the third consecutive game Saturday and also made seven tackles. "They stopped the run today and also got their hands on passes and just made some awesome plays. When they get their hands up in the passing lanes that only helps us in the backfield."

Furman's final possession began with 2:26 left, but Chattanooga still had all three timeouts. On third-and-nine, the Paladins made a gutsy call that saw Huff throw a perfect pass to Kyndel Dean along the left sideline for a gain of 17. The Mocs had no timeouts, but were still alive when Furman faced third-and-eight with 51 seconds left. Abrams put the final nail in the coffin though when he rumbled down the left sideline for 12 yards and Furman just needed one kneel down to seal the win.

"We made the call to give Tyler a chance to run it or throw it and man, what a great throw. Then Devin making that kind of run is a fun way to end it," Hendrix said. "We got a bunch that fights. They're smart, they're tough and they play well together.

"That's how you have games like this. That's how you go beat teams that are probably a lot more talented."

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