Thursday, December 8, 2022

Furman's season ends in heartbreaking loss

Bryce McCormick (31) had 10 tackles and a fumble recovery in Furman's
41-38 loss at Incarnate Word Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

SAN ANTONIO - Furman's defense did something to Incarnate Ward's offense that had not been done in three years Saturday. After getting pushed around for most of the first half, the 11th-ranked Paladins came up with a critically important fourth-down stop on the fifth-ranked Cardinals' final possession of the first half. That started a run in which the highest-scoring offense in the FCS - averaging 53 points a game - did not find the end zone for eight consecutive drives.

Unfortunately for Furman, it couldn't make it nine.

UIW's star quarterback, Lindsey Scott, fired a 32-yard touchdown pass to Kole Wilson with 1:56 left to give the Cardinals the lead. Elliott Davison then ended the Paladins' last possession with a lunging interception in mid-air as UIW pulled out a 41-38 win in round two of the FCS playoffs. Scott's touchdown was his fifth of the day and 62nd (55 passing, seven rushing) of the season. That broke the FCS record for season touchdown responsibility and broke Furman's heart.

"We're certainly bitterly disappointed that we didn't get a win today, but I'd like to congratulate Incarnate Word. They've got a heck of a football team and I knew that. Nothing surprised me about anything about them today," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We certainly didn't play our best football, but I don't know if I've ever been prouder of a group for just hanging in there fighting. That's kind of how we've been all year.

"We've got a bunch that fights and competes, but they played better than we did. They made a couple of more plays than we did and that was really the difference in the game."

A Furman (10-3) team going for a school-record sixth consecutive road win could not have asked for a better start when Cally Chizik picked off Scott's pass on the fourth play of the game and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.

Scott was unfazed, showing the composure and maturity you'd expect from a 24-year-old. After marching the Cardinals to the Furman 21-yard line, Scott made one of the most incredible throws ever. Bryce McCormick got to Scott, forcing him to throw as he was falling back to the ground at at least a 120-degree angle. While it took a little bit to get there, it was a spiral right to Darion Chafin for a touchdown.

That was the first of four touchdown passes in the opening half for Scott, who had 312 yards passing and 76 rushing by halftime. Meanwhile, Furman's offense managed just 139 yards in the opening half. The only thing keeping the Paladins in it was Chizik, who intercepted another Scott pass late in the first quarter and returned it 33 yards to the five-yard line. That led to a one-yard touchdown run by Dominic Roberto.

UIW led 28-17 and was looking for more with a 15-play, 76-yard drive on its last possession of the first half. But on fourth-and-one at the Furman three-yard line, Scott threw to Taylor Grimes who was immediately stopped for no gain by McCormick with 50 seconds left.

After stopping the Cardinals for no points on that drive, the Paladins allowed just two field goals on UIW's first seven possessions of the second half. The last time the Cardinals went eight consecutive drives without a touchdown was in a 31-24 loss at Stephen F. Austin on Nov. 9, 2019.

"It was really a lot of self-inflicted stuff in the first half and we just knew we had to get back to playing our game. After that fourth-down stop right before halftime, we were like 'okay, we can do what we do. We've been doing it all year.' " Furman defensive tackle and captain Matt Sochovka said. "But unfortunately, when we needed a stop at the end we didn't get it."

While Furman's defense played like it had over the second half of the season in the second half Saturday, the offense eventually came to life. It's first three drives after halftime ended on an interception and two punts, but the Paladins finally got a sustained drive for a touchdown late in the third quarter.

Not coincidentally, that happened when quarterback Tyler Huff finally started running. On a third-and-nine play at the UIW 37, Huff scrambled for a 20-yard gain. Huff, whose running ability has been a critical part of Furman's success all season, had just four yards rushing on three attempts prior to that carry. Four plays later, Huff ran for an 11-yard touchdown on fourth down as Furman sliced the lead to 31-24 going to the fourth quarter.

The Cardinals answered with a field goal on their ensuing possession. One of the Paladins' most effective plays Saturday was throwing deep and drawing a flag on UIW's secondary, which evidently had a game plan to foul on every deep throw in hopes that officials surely wouldn't call all of them. It worked a little. Earlier in the game, a flag flew when all-American tight end Ryan Miller clearly had the left shoulder of his jersey grabbed but after an officials' huddle, that flag was waved off.

There was one time when UIW defensive backs didn't make contact. That's when Joshua Harris' man slipped before he could touch him. That allowed Harris to haul in a 50-yard touchdown pass from Huff to cut the lead to 34-31 with 10:18 left. Two plays later, Braden Gilby forced a fumble that Bryce McCormick recovered at the Cardinals' 32-yard line and the visitor stands began shaking.

Huff ran for 12 yards on first down. On third-and-eight, he ran for 13 to the UIW five. Three plays later, he scored from a yard out and somehow, some way, Furman had a 38-34 lead with 6:55 left.

On UIW's ensuing possession, Scott ran for 13 yards on third-and-10. Then on third-and-11, the Cardinals' 1,000-yard rusher Marcus Cooper ran for 21 to the Furman 17. But on their next third down, Cally Chizik broke up Scott's throw to the end zone. On fourth down, Micah Robinson did the same. Furman took over at its 20-yard line and just 2:59 away from an appearance in the FCS quarterfinals.

That feeling that this thing was done only grew when Roberto rumbled for 19 yards on first down. But, there was a flag on the play. Furman All-Southern Conference first team left tackle Anderson Tomlin was flagged for holding. Roberto ran to the right so Tomlin's man turned left away from him in pursuit and flailed his arms in the air, drawing a flag from the umpire. On the offense's first snap with a lead all day, it was the lone holding penalty of the game on the Paladins.

"Brutal penalty on us on the first down. I think we win the game there if we don't get it, so I'll be able interested to see (a replay) of that one," Hendrix said. "I think it's the only call he made all day."

After the holding call backed up Furman to the 10-yard line, a false start penalty then pushed it back to the five. That was the fifth false start Saturday, an unacceptable amount for any Furman team in any game much less one on Dec. 3. Fearing a turnover or safety, the Paladins went ultra-conservative with three handoffs to Roberto. That netted no yards and only made the Cardinals use all three timeouts.

Punting from the back of his end zone, Ryan Leavy's kick was returned eight yards to the Furman 43 with 2:32 left setting the stage for Scott's final touchdown.

After UIW got the 41-38 lead, the Paladins took over at their own 25 with 1:54 left and all three timeouts. Huff hit Miller, who had missed most of the game with an injury, for 15 yards to the Cardinals' 47. He then threw to Harris, who drew UIW's 16th penalty of the game which moved the ball into Ian Williams' field goal range. On first down at the Cardinals' 32, Huff threw deep to Miller but Davison flew in from his safety position for the interception at the nine.

The Paladins still had all three timeouts with 1:17 left, but Scott ran for 15 yards on second-and-10 to seal UIW's win. Scott finished with 394 yards passing and 124 rushing. His 518 yards of total offense are the second-most ever allowed by Furman. The seventh-seeded Cardinals (11-1) finished with 613 yards of total offense on 97 plays.

"We gave up some some deep balls, which we knew we were gonna see. ... I think Scott's ability to elude people and his feet hurt us more than even his arm did. He's obviously a great player," Hendrix said. "We had probably at least three or four times where we could've had a sack, but he was able to get rid of the ball. I think a key for them was avoiding those negative plays.

"But I just couldn't be prouder of our football team and what they stand for on and off the field. Our staff's just done a phenomenal job and it's been a heck of a year. It's just certainly a disappointing way to end it."

Huff threw for 171 yards on 16-of-28 passing and he was the Paladins' leading rusher with 64 yards on nine carries. Harris had four catches for 69 yards, while Roberto - who also missed a good deal of the game with an injury - had 59 yards rushing on 15 carries. Kam Brinson led Furman's defense with 13 tackles, including 3.5 tackles-for-loss. Gilby had 11 tackles and McCormick made 10 stops.

"It was a great year. It was fun," Huff said. "I'm excited for next year, but I hate that this one ended this way."

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