Sunday, November 13, 2022

Furman defense answers the bell at Mercer

Braden Gilby had 12 tackles and one of the Paladins' five sacks in
Furman's 23-13 win at Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

MACON, Ga. - On the first play of the game in Furman's showdown at Mercer Saturday, linebacker Bryce McCormick blitzed up the middle and tossed Bears quarterback Fred Payton to the ground for a loss of eight yards. And just like that, the tone was set for the day.

Quarterback Tyler Huff was spectacular. Wide receiver Joshua Harris had the game of his collegiate life. Special teams units continued their remarkable season. But the biggest part of the 13th-ranked Paladins' 23-13 win at No. 14 Mercer Saturday had to be the defense.

A Mercer offense that was averaging 40.3 points per game was held to 13. A Mercer offense that was averaging 203.9 yards rushing per game was held to 50 on 30 attempts. A Mercer offense that converted 51.8 percent of its third downs converted 5-of-16 (31.6 percent). A Mercer offense that had allowed only five sacks all season allowed five on Saturday.

"They played their butts off. We had to contain the quarterback and we sacked him a number of times and hit him a bunch. ... They couldn't run the ball and we could, and I thought that would be huge," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I just couldn't be prouder of our group. When you think about what happened in the Samford game and to come back and work like they have, I can't say enough about our kids and our coaches."

Following it's third win this season against a ranked team it sure feels like the Paladins (8-2, 6-1 Southern Conference) punched their ticket to the FCS playoffs Saturday. The other half of "showdown Saturday in the SoCon" took place at Chattanooga, where Samford posted a 35-24 win to lock up the league's automatic bid to the playoffs.

Saturday marked Furman's fifth consecutive victory on the road. The Paladins last accomplished that feat in the first road game of the 1990 season after winning it's last four road trips in 1989.

What was truly remarkable about Saturday's defensive effort was how it played out for Furman. In an equally big game two weeks earlier, the defense was terrific but rarely blitzed and had no sacks in a 24-20 win over Chattanooga.

Furman and Mercer (7-3, 5-2) are two of the leading teams in the country in forcing turnovers, but there was none on Saturday. The defense found itself in situations that felt like a turnover though as the Paladins' offense went 0-for-3 on fourth down. After all those changes in possession, Furman's defense allowed only one first down. That one came on a fake punt run and the Bears punted again four plays later anyway.

"It feels great to win. It would've felt better if Samford lost, but you've just got to go out and control what you can control," said Braden Gilby, who had 12 tackles, including three tackles-for-loss and a sack. "Our front seven was really physical today.

"This team is different from any other I've been a part of. The whole team is ready to play until January if we're given the opportunity. ... The mentality of this team has changed this year. We're having fun playing because winning's fun."

Saturday's game featured a wild second quarter in which Furman defensive end Jack Barton was flagged for targeting, but had it overturned after a review. Barton staying in the game proved to be vital.

Ty James, one-half of Mercer's dynamic duo of receivers, gave the Bears a 7-3 lead early in the second quarter on his SoCon-best 11th touchdown catch this season. But late in the quarter, James was ejected for targeting for a hit on Cally Chizik on a punt return that resulted in Chizik leaving the game as well.

On Furman's ensuing drive following that play, Huff directed yet another two-minute offense score this season. After Huff scrambled for 35 yards to the Mercer seven-yard line, the Paladins faced a third-and-goal two plays later. Huff took a shotgun snap to his left, turned back to his right, pump faked a Mercer defender's soul out of his body and raced to the end zone for a touchdown.

"It was frustrating up to that point. We were driving and moving the ball, but just not finishing. We've been pretty good at the two-minute offense all year and that really lifted us," said Huff, who finished with 369 yards of total offense. "Our defense played phenomenal today. To hold an explosive team like that to 13 is amazing. Hats off to them."

Trying to avoid kicking to the other half of that dynamic receiving duo, Mercer's Devron Harper, Furman squibbed the ensuing kickoff and Mercer's possession began at its own 47 with 32 seconds left. The Bears reached the Paladins' 14-yard line, but their field goal attempt on the final play of the half was blocked by Barton as Furman took a 10-7 lead into the break. That marked the third blocked kick this season by Barton, matching Matt Sochovka for the team lead.

Given how the first half went, it felt like a two-score game could be bigger than usual on Saturday. Midway through the third quarter, Huff and Harris provided that. Huff delivered a perfect pass over the middle to a streaking Harris, who pinballed off a pair of defenders on his way to a 56-yard touchdown as Furman pushed the lead to 17-7.

"When I broke, I knew I had him beat on the outside but I saw the other defender coming over. The first thing that went through my mind was ball security, so I tucked the ball," said Harris. "Once I had it, it was like a boom-boom play. I bounced off them and from that point, it was my head down looking for the end zone."

The Paladins scored on each of its next two possessions on Ian Williams' field goals to take a commanding 23-7 lead with 9:16 left in the game. Williams went 3-for-3 on field goals Saturday and the Furman long kicker has made 9-of-11 this season.

Payton hit Travion Solomon for an 11-yard touchdown on a fourth down play with 6:04 left. But on the two-point try to make it a one-score game, Payton was stonewalled by Gilby well short of the goal line.

Mercer only had one more possession the rest of the way. It began with 3:58 left at the Bears' eight-yard line after a fantastic 49-yard punt by Ryan Leavy bounced out of bounds. After Harper's 14th reception of the day (for 192 yards) converted one fourth down, McCormick and Luke Clark combined for Furman's fifth sack on the next play. Payton's next fourth down pass was broken up by Hugh Ryan and the Paladins were able to kneel out the clock.

Huff completed 19-of-31 passes for 293 yards, while rushing 10 times for 76 yards. Harris had five receptions for a career-high 146 yards receiving. Dominic Roberto finished with 69 yards rushing on 17 attempts and also had three receptions for 65 yards.

"There some good quarterbacks in our league, but if there's a better guy than Tyler I'd like to know who he is," said Hendrix. "He's a winner. He's tough and I'm glad he's wearing purple."

Furman wraps up the regular season by hosting Wofford next Saturday at noon. A Paladin win combined with a Mercer victory at Samford would give Furman a share of the SoCon championship.

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