Sunday, September 24, 2023

Team effort helps No. 8 Furman rip No. 21 Mercer

Jayquan Smith rushes for a 20-yard touchdown in Furman's
38-14 win over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Mercer cut Furman's lead to 17-14 midway through the third quarter in Saturday afternoon's Southern Conference opener, there wasn't a high probability of backup quarterback Carson Jones handing off to walk-on running backs Ben Croasdale and Tyler Reid in the Paladins' final two drives.

That's just how dominant Furman's response was.

After seeing what had been a 17-0 lead cut to three, the No. 8-ranked Paladins answered with one long drive and two quick ones to pull away for a 38-14 win in front of 9,387 fans at Paladin Stadium. A disastrous end to the first half for Furman's defense carried over to a long Mercer scoring drive to open the second half. After the 21st-ranked Bears gained 154 yards on those two possessions, they had a total of 16 yards the rest of the way.

"We've had a couple of tough football games that I think prepared us well for a game like this against a really, really good Mercer team. I'm just really proud of the preparation our staff and players did," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I thought we certainly finally played a complete game. It wasn't a perfect game, but it was a complete football game."

While the defense was fantastic outside of those two drives sandwiched around halftime, this was a complete team win in every sense of the word. Eight different Paladins ran the ball for a total of 222 yards. Nine different Paladins caught passes for a total of 165 passing yards.

Quarterback Tyler Huff nearly repeated his SoCon Player of the Week effort from last week, minus the four rushing touchdowns. Furman had four rushing touchdowns again, but they were spread out between running backs Jayquan Smith, Dominic Roberto, Wayne Anderson Jr. and Myion Hicks.

"We didn't have Dom available in the second half and when you look at Jayquan and Myion, I think they were our fourth and fifth guys (on the depth chart at running back) to start the year," Hendrix said. "We really felt like we had five guys we could count on to play well and they both stepped up big in the second half.

"It was just a good team effort all the way around. We were physical up front on both sides of the ball. We ran the ball well and were balanced throwing it. We made them defend the whole field."

Huff completed 20-of-24 passes for 168 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He was also the Paladins' leading rusher with 82 yards on 11 carries. Smith finished with 46 yards on six carries, while Roberto had 37 yards on eight attempts. Croasdale added 23 yards on three carries. An offensive line boosted by the return of All-American Jacob Johanning helped Furman average 5.4 yards per carry.

"Sitting on the sidelines was out of my control, but it was still frustrating. It was really important to get back today," Johanning said. "Since I got hurt, we had this game circled as potentially the one I could return for. So I just put all my hope into that. ... It was good to be back out there with the guys making any kind of difference I can."

With the presence of Mercer stud returner/receiver Devron Harper, special teams was going to be a key factor Saturday and Furman handily won that battle. Harper entered Saturday averaging 12.3 yards per carry, 12.1 yards per reception and 20.1 yards per punt return. Against the Paladins, Harper had two carries for four yards, three catches for 37 yards and two punt returns for two yards.

Another punt to Harper wasn't returned as it bounced off his chest and was recovered by Furman at the Mercer 13-yard line. On the next play, Anderson ran for a touchdown to push the Paladins' lead to 17-0.

Harper had two kick returns for 45 yards, but didn't have the chance at more thanks to the leg of Ian Williams. Williams, who made his only field goal attempt and all of Furman's extra points, had five of his seven kickoffs go for touchbacks. All seven reached the end zone, the first and last of which first hit the ground past the end zone. On the second one that Harper brought out, he was hammered by Justin Hartwell at the 19-yard line.

 "Coach (Tommy) Spangler does a phenomenal job with that group and they've taken on his personality," Hendrix said. "He challenges them and those guys just keep answering the bell."

The other big play on special teams came with the return of Jack Barton's block party. In a scoreless first quarter, the lone threat was snuffed out thanks to a blocked field goal by Barton. After 10 blocked kicks last season, it was the first this season for Furman. Barton had four of those blocked kicks last year, including Mercer's lone field goal attempt in the Paladins' 23-13 win in Macon.

"The field goal block, that's a unit thing. We always put our head down and know that we've got to get this down, otherwise it's three (points) on the board," said Barton, who also had four tackles including a tackle-for-loss. "We just bow our necks and try to put the guard in the backfield and blow it up. ... I got a little finger on it. I didn't really get a full mitt on it, so it almost went in but we diverted it enough."

When Anderson scored with 1:18 left in the first half, it appeared that Furman was set to take a 17-0 lead into halftime. After Mercer's first two plays of its ensuing drive netted minus-two yards, the Paladins called timeout with 30 seconds left in hopes of adding more. Instead of handing off to make Furman take another timeout, Mercer's Carter Peevy came out firing. He hit a wide open Ty James for a gain of 32. Peevy then ran for 19 yards, before finding James open again for a 26-yard touchdown with 4.9 seconds left.

Mercer got the ball to start the second half. It appeared Furman had that drive stopped near midfield, but a pass interference flag on third down extended the drive. It looked like the Paladins had it stopped again when Mercer faced a third-and-23. But Peevy scrambled for 34 yards for the first down. Three plays later on another third down, Peevy kept for an eight-yard touchdown to cut the lead to three.

There was no panic on the Furman sideline. Instead, the Paladins imposed their will the way a top 10 team should. Furman's next drive went 80 yards on 14 plays and took 7:02 off the clock. The Paladins faced just two third downs on the possession, as they kept getting chunks of yards on first down. It was capped when Hicks plunged into the end zone from a yard out.

That score came with 53 seconds left in the third quarter. Mercer had just one first down - via a pass interference penalty - the rest of the way. Braden Gilby, who earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for his play in last year's Mercer game, had another stellar performance against the Bears. He had a team-high 11 tackles, including one of Furman's three sacks.

Huff hit Mason Pline for his first touchdown as a Paladin on Furman's first drive of the fourth quarter, while Smith scampered 20 yards for a touchdown on the next to close out the scoring. Pline, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound grad transfer tight end who played in a run heavy offense at Ferris State, had four receptions for 30 yards Saturday.

"When we brought him, we saw the potential he had so we knew right away that we needed to get on the same page and get our chemistry right," Huff said. "I think we've done a good job of that through fall camp and as the season has gone along. ... I love throwing it up to the big guy because he always comes down with it. It makes my job easier." 

Furman has a bye next week before hosting The Citadel at 2 p.m. on Oct. 7.

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