Sunday, September 17, 2023

Williams' field goal lifts Paladins over Owls

Tyler Huff, left, and Fred Norman celebrate after one of Huff's four touchdowns
in Furman's 31-28 win at Kennesaw State Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

KENNESAW, Ga. - Tyler Huff did something no Furman quarterback has ever done Saturday and kicker Ian Williams did something he's personally never done. Huff put the Paladins in a position to win with four rushing touchdowns and Williams made a game-winning 19-yard field goal with 21 seconds left as No. 7-ranked Furman defeated Kennesaw State, 31-28.

The Paladins (2-1) finished with 159 yards rushing as a team, the second-highest total allowed by the FBS-transitioning Owls over their last eight games. It was a pretty remarkable sum considering that Furman had a grand total of three yards rushing on eight attempts in the first quarter. Saturday was one of those cases of passing to set up the run. Once Huff got cooking through the air, running lanes got less crowded and the offense started to click.

"I'm just really proud of our team. That last one was an awesome drive. We just kind of kept answering," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I thought we played really well defensively in the first half. ... There's a lot of stuff we've got to clean up and we will. It'll be nice to get back home and play (next Saturday)."

Huff's fourth touchdown gave the Paladins a 28-14 lead early in the fourth quarter before the Owls (1-2) rallied to tie the game. On a 3rd-and-7 play, Gabriel Benyard took a handoff up the middle 49 yards as Kennesaw pulled even at 28-28 with 3:29 left. That marked the second time that the Owls got a big play on third-and-long with a simple handoff up the gut.

Furman, which had one total yard of offense in its previous two drives following Huff's fourth score, suddenly came back to life once the game was tied. Huff completed 3-of-3 passes for 33 yards and ran three times for 25 yards on the drive. His last run came on 3rd-and-2 at the Kennesaw State three-yard line. While he picked up just a yard, he carried the ball from right hashmark to the left.

That ball placement opened the door for the right-footed Williams to kick the game-winner. Typically left-footed Axel Lepvreau handles extra points and short field goals, but with the ball on the left hash and the tight angle from being that close to the goal line it just made more sense to go to Williams. Williams admitted he was hoping the ball might end up on that side of the field.

"I missed that first one (a 46-yard attempt that sailed wide right) in the first quarter, so in the back of my head I was wanting another kick. I've been able to kick a few extra points this year so I've gotten a little bit of a rhythm for those short kicks," Williams said. "I was like 'Let's go. He's going to run it left, so I can play my draw.'

"I actually have never hit a game-winner before. I've hit game-closing field goals (to seal a win), but never a game-winner so that was fun."

Kennesaw, which had nine offensive plays of at least 20 yards Saturday, wasn't dead yet. Williams, who puts kickoffs through the back of the end zone on a routine basis, booted a line drive on this kickoff with 21 seconds left. Benyard fielded the ball at the two-yard line and returned it 35 yards to the Owls' 37 with 17 seconds showing on the clock.

If you thought it was a little unbelievable someone could run a football 35 yards and get tackled in only four seconds, have I got a story for you. As he did about seven other times in the final minute of each half, the referee asked the clock operator to "please reset the game clock" following a play. This time he asked to have it put at 19 seconds. That's right - from 21 before the 35-yard kick return to 19 after it. According to the official, the Owls have a kid fast enough to run a football 35 yards and get tackled in two seconds.

"We make the kick and then we have a line drive kick right to the returner. That wasn't what we had planned on doing," Hendrix said. "That was the one guy we didn't want returning it. I don't know how (only) two seconds run off the clock. I tried to get them to stop the game (and review it). That's impossible for that to happen." 

After the game clock foolishness commenced, the Owls had a nine-yard pass completion and got out of bounds with 14 seconds left. KSU quarterback Jonathan Murphy then took a deep shot into double coverage. Furman's Cally Chizik, who was in front of intended receiver Isaac Foster, went up and grabbed the interception. He maintained his grip on the ball while falling to the ground as Foster tried to rip it away. The two wrestled for the ball after both hit the ground, with Chizik coming out of the scrum with it. Video review confirmed the pick and Furman began to celebrate a road win against a team that's not fully FBS yet, but does currently have more scholarship players than the Paladins.

"I wasn't too concerned about the review. I was pretty confident about it. ... I was very surprised (there was any fight for the ball). I had no idea he was that close to me," Chizik said. "It was a rough game for me. I'm glad I could bounce back. All glory to God for that."

That was the first turnover of the game for either team and ended a streak of 141 consecutive passes without an interception for Murphy, dating back to the 2021 season opener.

After a scoreless first quarter, Murphy threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Benyard for a KSU touchdown early in the second quarter. On its ensuing drive, Furman answered with a 15-play, 75-yard march for a touchdown. After going 0-for-4 on third down over their first four drives, the Paladins converted 4-of-4 on this one. Huff capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

The scoring drive, which was highlighted by a diving 27-yard catch by redshirt freshman Ethan Harris, shaved 7:11 off the clock. Furman's well-rested defense then forced a three-and-out.

On the Paladins' next drive, Huff completed 3-of-3 passes for 27 yards sandwiched around a 14-yard by Dominic Roberto. It ended when Huff rumbled 28 yards for a touchdown as Furman took a 14-7 lead into halftime.

With 1:23 left in the third quarter, the Paladins pushed the lead to 21-7 on a four-yard scoring run by Huff. The big play on that drive came when Huff hit Ben Ferguson for a 40-yard gain to the Owls' eight-yard line.

That began a stretch of four consecutive scoring drives - two apiece for each team. Furman's last one in that run was a 14-yard touchdown run by Huff on a third-and-nine play that put Furman up 28-14 with 12:40 left in the game. He became first quarterback in Furman history to run for four touchdowns in a single game. It was the first four-touchdown performance by a Paladin since Roberto scored four at Western Carolina in 2021.

"I think we just came out a little sluggish, but eventually we turned it on. We started rallying behind the defense because they were playing well. Then it was vice versa. They weren't playing bad by any means, but when they gave up a couple of scores we knew we had to answer," Huff said. "A few of those big plays we hit later on, we tried early but just didn't hit. We just trusted the plays because that's what we prepared for all week."

Huff finished with 79 yards rushing on 19 carries, which includes 19 yards lost on three sacks. Roberto ran 16 times for 73 yards. Huff also completed 24-of-32 passes for 237 yards with no interceptions. A total of 10 different Paladins caught at least one pass.

Murphy finished with 306 yards on 17-of-31 passing for Kennesaw. He also had 63 yards on 15 carries. Benyard had 136 yards receiving on six catches and rushed for 65 yards on six attempts.

"There's certainly some things we've got to do better and that part certainly disappointing," Hendrix said. "But to be able to put the drive together, knock the kick through there ... and Cally came up with the big play at the end.

"We will learn from this, but we're going to enjoy the win. We celebrate wins around here. That one was a tough one to get and we knew it would be."

Furman opens Southern Conference play next Saturday, hosting Mercer at 1 p.m.

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