Sunday, October 22, 2023

Roberto, defense help Furman dump Catamounts

Furman's Dominic Roberto drags Western Carolina defenders during his 154-yard
rushing day in the Paladins' 29-17 win Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

CULLOWHEE, N.C. - There were a lot of "firsts" during Furman's showdown at Western Carolina Saturday, but one thing remained a constant - Dominic Roberto's dominance of the Catamounts. Roberto ran a career-high 31 times for 154 yards and a touchdown as the No. 3/4-ranked Paladins defeated No. 14/8 Western Carolina, 29-17, before a crowd of 10,736 at E.J. Whitmire Stadium.

In handing the Catamounts their first FCS loss this season, Furman (6-1) is alone in first place in the Southern Conference at 4-0. Running and defense paved the way for that Saturday. Against a Western defense that ranked second in the SoCon in run defense allowing 122 yards per game entering Saturday, the Paladins ran for 334 and averaged 7.0 yards per carry.

On the other side of the ball, a Catamount offense that was leading the country in total yards (531.8 per game) was held to 353. Their previous low output in FCS play was 546 yards against Samford. Western's 17 points were also well below its per game average of 41.7.

"Other than the people in that (locker) room, much of the folks we had here in the stands and a few others out there too, I'm not sure many people thought we could get it done," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We believed it and it just really took everybody - great job defense, great job offense. ... I'm just so proud of our team.

"We've talked about it from the start - toughness, execution and discipline. I thought for the most part we did a really good job of all of that."

Playing in Furman's first top 10 matchup since the 2005 FCS playoffs in a hostile road environment, Paladins captain Tyler Huff was unfazed from the start. After stopping Western on the opening drive of the game, Furman was faced with a 3rd-and-7 on its third play when Huff scrambled for nine yards. The Paladins had eight more plays on the drive, but no third downs. It ended on a beautiful run fake to the right as Huff came back to his left and found Mason Pline all alone in the end zone for a 10-yard score.

That play was the only hint of trepidation by Huff all day, simply because he didn't want to screw it up. That's how open Pline was and how much time he had to throw. He carefully lobbed the ball to the end zone for the score.

"My only thought was to throw it high enough so nobody could jump and tip it because he was just sitting there hanging out by himself," Huff said.

Western's ensuing drive ended on another failed fourth down thanks to a pass breakup by Micah Robinson. Furman proceeded to march 66 yards on five plays - only facing one second down along the way. That drive was capped when Huff faked a handoff left, rolled to his right and hit Colton Hinton in the middle of the end zone for a 16-yard score.

That helped Furman take a 13-0 lead after one quarter as Furman became the first team to hold the Catamounts scoreless over the opening 15 minutes. Western got on the board early in the second quarter, but Furman answered in 89 seconds. After Wayne Anderson broke off a 54-yard run to the 18-yard line, a pair of nine-yard runs by Roberto over the next two plays pushed the lead back to 13 at 20-7.

After Western cut the lead to 20-14 later in the second quarter, it appeared that Furman had answered again. Huff hit Hinton in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown with three seconds left but the score was wiped out by a holding penalty.

On a rough day for Furman special teams, Ian Williams' 50-yard field goal as time expired sailed wide right and the Paladins took a 20-14 lead into the half. Furman opened the second half with a 15-play drive that shaved 7:32 off the clock, but it also ended with no points. A bad snap on a 32-yard field goal led to a kick that traveled about five yards and was caught by Western's Ed Jones, who returned to the Catamounts' 22.

Western drove into Furman's red zone threatening to take its first lead of the game before Cally Chizik came up with an interception at the one-yard line. It was Western quarterback Cole Gonzales' first interception in SoCon play and just his third this season. The Paladins got the ball to the 22 before having to punt. After Ryan Leavy's shanked punt went for one yard earlier Saturday, Williams came on for this punt but it traveled just 13 yards before floating out of bounds at the Furman 35.

The Catamounts could not take advantage though as Furman's defense rose up for perhaps its best series of the day. Braden Gilby hurried a first down screen pass that sailed incomplete. On second down, Xavier Stephens dropped Branson Adams for a three-yard loss. On third down, Alex Maier opened the fourth quarter with a sack for a loss of seven that forced Western's lone punt. It was the second sack of the day for the Paladins. Entering Saturday, the Catamounts had only allowed three sacks all season, including none in SoCon play.

"We practiced getting pressure on them all week. I really just credit the guys up front getting me open and being able to run through the gap," said Evan DiMaggio, who had two of Furman's three sacks. "We always have confidence, but after getting nine or 10 sacks last week (at Samford) that gave us even more."

Furman's ensuing possession ate up 6:12 off the clock and ended on Williams' 39-yard field goal with 7:54 that finally gave the Paladins a two-score lead again at 23-14. Western answered, but had to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Richard McCollum.

Now leading 23-17, Furman's offense looked to retire as much of the remaining 5:05 as possible. Western did have three timeouts and it had to know what was coming, but it still couldn't stop it. Roberto ran for seven yards and then six for a first down. Then he ran for three, six and three and another first down before Western called its first timeout with 1:57 left.

"I feels like you're fighting with oxygen," Roberto said with a laugh as he described trying to run the clock out. "We prepare for that stuff in the summertime with (Strength Coach Andre) Bernardi. Pushing through that tiredness and fatigue to get that next first down was all that was in my mind."

Roberto's next two runs netted just one yard, leaving Furman with a 3rd-and-9. Western was gifted a free timeout when the Paladins were flagged for a chop block on the second run, despite the fact that Roberto was tackled immediately after the handoff. The Catamounts had no choice but to decline the penalty to bring up third down with 1:05 left. Perhaps its a "last two minutes" rule that changes how the clock operates after a declined penalty, but for whatever reason the clock did not start until the third down play was snapped.

A few seconds later, none of that mattered. After those seven consecutive handoffs to Roberto to start the drive, Huff faked the handoff to Roberto. With the linemen joining Roberto running left, Huff went right and could've run back to Greenville. His 53-yard score pushed the lead to 29-17 with 54 seconds left.

"For a split second I thought, 'I should probably just go down,' but then I got selfish," Huff said with a smile. "But we ended it the right way, so it was good."

As it turns out, the offense's No. 6 going for six got the defense's No. 6 a pick. Western's ensuing drive ended when Gonzales tried to throw the ball away, but didn't throw it far enough as Hugh Ryan raced up along the sideline and snagged an interception with 15 seconds left.

Furman had a 21:07 to 8:53 advantage in time of possession in the second half and became the first team all season to keep the Catamounts out of the end zone after halftime. DiMaggio had a team-high 10 tackles, including eight solo stops, while Ryan had eight tackles to lead the superb defensive effort.

"I can't say I thought we'd do that (holding Western to three points in the second half) because they certainly are good. Games are all about matchups. I don't put a whole lot of stock in who's done what and by what score," Hendrix said. "I just think we're a solid football team in every phase. We can run it. We can throw it. We've been really good on special teams, but we weren't really good today. And then defensively, we can get after a passer which we did.

"I just watched our guys (defensive linemen) get pulled down and I'm really, really frustrated with that, but they just kept working. They were just effort sacks. They didn't give up on something. "

Roberto's 154-yard effort gives him 603 yards over his last three games against the Catamounts.

"I've had my best games against them, but that's a great group of players over there," Roberto said. "I'll always love the competitive nature. They're always talking trash, but that keeps the game entertaining."

Along with Roberto's big day on the ground, Huff had 89 yards on six carries while Anderson ran eight times for 85 yards. Huff was 13-of-22 passing for 174 yards with no interceptions as the Paladins didn't sniff a lost turnover. Out of the 48 running plays, 13 receptions and four returns, there was never a loose Furman ball on the ground. Huff's favorite target Saturday was Pline, who had four catches for 88 yards.

Western standout running back Desmond Reid, who entered as the leading rusher in the FCS, ran two times for 10 yards and caught a 39-yard pass before leaving with a lingering injury. In relief of Reid, Adams ran 13 times for 61 yards. Gonzales finished with 269 yards on 21-of-35 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions.  

The Paladins ran their SoCon winning streak to 10 consecutive games while snapping Western's streak of eight consecutive wins over FCS teams. Furman, which leads the series 36-13-2, has still never lost back-to-back games in Cullowhee.

The Paladins next host East Tennessee State for homecoming Saturday at 2 p.m.

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