Sunday, October 16, 2022

Roberto runs wild, Furman hangs on for win

Dominic Roberto rushed for 252 yards and had three touchdowns in Furman's
47-40 win over Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

In 117 seasons of football, Furman allowed more yards than it ever has Saturday as Western Carolina finished with a total of 691.

Fortunately for the Paladins, it wasn't 696.

The Catamounts final play of the game somehow wasn't a throw to the end zone. Instead, Censere Lee made a leaping 21-yard catch but was tackled immediately by Ivan Yates at the five-yard line and Furman held on for a 47-40 win before a crowd of 9,617 at Paladin Stadium. On a day in which Dominic Roberto ran for 252 yards, the Paladins withstood a 20-0 run fourth quarter run by Western to improve to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the Southern Conference.

"It was a really similar game to a year ago when we didn't get it done, so I'm thrilled with the win. We're going to celebrate wins around here," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "When we go back to work tomorrow, there's certainly things we have to do better. I'm obviously disappointed in what seems to be a little bit of a trend of 'what can we do to beat ourselves?' Obviously, the big plays and deep balls. It's just all fixable stuff."

After rushing for a total of 300 yards over Furman's first five games this season, Roberto seemed to get back to his "second half of the 2021 season" form last Saturday at The Citadel with 133 yards and two touchdowns. On this Saturday, he picked up from where he left off last season against the Catamounts when he ran for 196 yards and four touchdowns.

Following a blocked field goal by Matt Sochovka that ended Western's opening drive, Furman's first drive started with a defensive holding flag. On the Paladins' first official play on offense, Roberto took a handoff to his right and raced untouched for a 62-yard touchdown. It's the third consecutive game that Furman scored a touchdown on its opening possession.

Late in the first quarter, Tyler Huff faked a handoff to Roberto before firing a perfect pass to Roberto on a wheel route for a 20-yard touchdown pass as the Paladins regained the lead at 14-7.

"You could put any back in that situation and they'd catch the ball and score," Roberto said. "That's just what we bring to the table as a running back group."

Entering Saturday, only one FCS team had lost more turnovers than the Catamounts this season and no team had forced more than the Paladins. After a turnover-free opening quarter, that trend showed up on the first play of the second quarter when Furman's Hugh Ryan intercepted Carlos Davis' pass at midfield and returned it to the Western 11-yard line. Four plays later, Roberto scored his third touchdown from a yard out.

With less than six minutes left in the opening half, the Paladins pushed the lead to 27-10 when Huff found Ryan Miller for a 13-yard touchdown. The Catamounts answered quickly when Davis hit David White on a 75-yard touchdown.

After Furman saw its six-game streak of scoring on its final possession of the first half snapped last week in Charleston, it appeared the Paladins were set to start a new one. But after a third-and-two handoff up the middle to Devin Abrams - who was the lone running back in a shotgun set - gained just one yard, Roberto was ruled short after a measurement following his fourth-and-one direct snap to him in the wildcat formation.

"That was disappointing, because I thought we had a chance to score there," Hendrix said. "I'm interested to see that spot. I couldn't even get them to review it."

Bad spot or not, it's troubling that a Furman team that ran for 426 yards Saturday could not clearly get two in two tries. With just 1:38 left in the half, Western drove to the Paladins' three-yard line after Davis' 18-yard run. On third-and-goal at the four, Furman's Jack Barton made a huge stop when he dropped Davis for a six-yard loss. The Catamounts cut the lead to 27-20 at the half on a field goal as time expired.

After Western took all the momentum into halftime, Wayne Anderson snatched it right back when he returned the second-half kickoff 97 yards untouched for a touchdown. It's the first kick return for a touchdown for Furman since Dejuan Bell also had a 97-yard return, also at home, also against the Catamounts four years ago.

"I kind of knew during the first return that it was going to be one of those days (for a big return)," Anderson said. "We just set it up with the first two, to come back to the left side. We kind of knew that most of their players were going to go to the right. Credit to everybody today, because it's kind of been like 'one block away' all year."

Late in the third quarter, Furman was pinned at its own six-yard line to start a drive. Roberto popped a 32-yard run on the first play, and rumbled 48 on the next. That set up another play action touchdown pass when Huff connected with Miller on a 14-yard score as Furman pushed its lead to 44-20.

Entering Saturday, the third quarter was the only one in which Furman had not outscored its opponent. But after that 17-0 showing, that's no longer the case. In addition to being shut out that quarter, Western also lost its starting quarterback when Davis took a hard hit from Braden Gilby on a third-down incompletion just two-and-a-half minutes into the half. Davis, who had not been running much since suffering a shoulder injury at Georgia Tech on Sept. 10, departed with 209 yards on 18-of-27 passing and 104 yards rushing on 11 attempts.

"He was a totally different guy today than he'd been in a month. He never wanted to run (during that time), but today he was committed to that and we didn't have an answer for him," Hendrix said. "We weren't pressuring him and we weren't tackling him either."

So with a 24-point lead, Western's backup quarterback in and going to the quarter that Furman has dominated this season, there had to be a pretty comfortable feeling for the Paladins. But that didn't last as visions of last year's game when the Catamounts rallied from a 42-31 deficit for a 43-42 win likely crept in.

Western became the first opponent to score against Furman in the fourth quarter this season when T.J. Jones had a nine-yard touchdown run with 12:42 left. The Paladins' ensuing possession ended on a punt after a one-yard run by Kendall Thomas on third-and-10. On the Catamounts' second play of its next drive, freshman Cole Gonzales threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Censere Lee as Western cut the lead to 44-34 with 7:54 left.

The Catamounts (3-4, 1-3) still really had no answer for Furman's rushing attack, so the Paladins went to it on their next possession with nothing but handoffs to Roberto and Abrams. After nine turnovers the previous three games, Furman didn't suffer one Saturday until Roberto had the ball knocked loose and the Catamounts recovered at their own 31. While it obviously wasn't the result the Paladins wanted, they did shave five-and-a-half minutes off the clock and still had a 10-point lead with 2:26 left.

Well, eight seconds later it was no longer a two-score game. That's how long it took for Gonzales and Lee to connect on a 69-yard touchdown pass which basically looked just like the last one - single coverage with no safety in sight. Sochovka had yet another blocked kick on the PAT and Furman led 44-40 with 2:18 left.

"The other guy came in and did a good job, but we just let him throw it down the field over our heads. That's certainly disappointing, but our kids hung in there," Hendrix said. "I thought special teams might have been the difference in the game."

Western's onside kick took one bounce right to Travis Blackshear, who returned it to the Catamounts' 25. After Western used its last timeout, Huff inexplicably threw the ball away on a busted play on third-and-five stopping the clock again. Ian Williams' 37-yard field goal doinked off the left upright, but went through to extend the lead to 47-40 with 1:07 left.

The Catamounts got 19 yards on a third-and-20 play, then 14 on fourth-and-one before a pass interference penalty on Furman set up Western at the 26-yard line for the final play of the game. In his five possessions on the field, Gonzales finished with 253 yards on 12-of-16 passing.

"On both sides of the ball, we've got guys that are trying hard. We've just got to play smarter," Hendrix said. "This will be a great tape to learn from. ... They're a pretty talented group and I knew there'd be some tough matchups, but control what you can control. Do your job and if we do that, we're okay. We didn't do that enough today."

Western's total yardage broke the previous record by a Furman opponent set by LSU (672 yards) in 2013. Of the top 10 on that list of opponents' total yards, the Paladins' only other win came in a 40-35 victory at Chattanooga (618 yards) in 1999.

Roberto's 252-yard rushing day in the third-highest single game total in school history. Only Louis Ivory (301 against Georgia Southern in 2000) and Mike Glenn (261 against Presbyterian in 1980) had more. Abrams finished with 92 yards on 19 carries, while Huff ran eight times for 63 yards.

"It's always satisfying to get the ball and see three different holes to pick from," Roberto said "Credit to our offensive line because I wasn't getting touched until the second or third level most of the time."

Furman travels to VMI next Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff.

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