Sunday, November 5, 2023

Gutsy effort earns Furman its 15th SoCon title

Luke Clark hoists the 2023 Southern Conference championship trophy after
Furman's 17-14 win at Chattanooga Saturday. Photos courtesy of Furman

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Championship teams often show what makes them champions by overcoming different types of adversity faced over the course of a season. They don't always have to show that ability in the course of just one game, much less a game with a championship on the line.

But that's precisely what No. 2-ranked Furman was tasked with Saturday at No. 13 Chattanooga. With a Southern Conference title on the line, the Paladins lost arguably their top player on each side of the ball by early in the second quarter. While they fought hard throughout, it just seemed that it wasn't going to be the Paladins' day. Then Furman displayed another trait of championship teams - the guts and determination to do whatever it takes to win.

With 1:44 left in the game, backup quarterback Carson Jones threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Wayne Anderson to give the Paladins a lead. As it did over and over on Saturday, Furman's defense came up with one more stop to seal a 17-14 win. The Paladins (8-1, 6-0 SoCon) clinched at least a share of its record 15th conference championship and the league's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

"Our kids just hung in there and kept believing," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "You talk about a gut-check. I don't know if I've seen a tougher gut-check than that one. It took everybody and we just found a way to get it done.

"Carson got better as the game went along. We really believe in him. I think (starting quarterback) Tyler (Huff) would be the first one to tell you that (Carson) brings something to the table. It's tough anytime to lose your quarterback, but to lose him against that defense is really something."

Carson Jones (5) is congratulated by Tyler Huff after
throwing the game-winning touchdown Saturday.

Midway through the first quarter, Furman leading tackler Hugh Ryan was ejected for targeting. On the second play of the second quarter, Huff was sacked on third down. There didn't seem to be any indication that Huff was hurt on the play, but he never returned due to an injured right shoulder.

So for essentially the final three quarters, the Paladins played without No. 6 on offense and No. 6 on defense. As the game wore along, fans had to wonder if 6 was also a number that would never be going up on the Furman side of the scoreboard.

The Paladins had four plays of double-digit yards in the first half, the longest of which was an 18-yard run by Dominic Roberto. Chattanooga (7-3, 6-2) had a 219-89 advantage in total offense in the first half, but only a 7-3 lead as Furman's defense came up with key stops. The lone touchdown of the first half came when UTC's Javin Whatley got behind the safeties for a 67-yard touchdown pass from UCLA transfer Chase Artopoeus.

Furman's lone points came on a 37-yard field goal by Ian Williams on the play after Huff was sacked. That was set up by one of the best punt blocks you'll ever see. Anderson darted to the line of scrimmage without going offsides and went untouched to the punt for an easy block. That set the Paladins up at the Chattanooga 25.

There's not a lot of games where you have the guy that caught the winning touchdown pass also help create points with a blocked punt. But not a lot of guys play football like Anderson, who would likely still be returning punts if he weren't so good at blocking them.

"I was beating myself up all week because I didn't block one last week when I had the opportunity to," said Anderson. "I was able to get a good jump and kind of read it. I kind of knew he was going to be questionable about blocking me because I was playing off at first. ... You win by three points, so that was kind of a difference maker."

Furman's drive after the field goal started with 7:56 left in the second quarter. After Roberto had runs of 18 and 12 to open the possession, the Paladins had just two more first downs until the final play of the third quarter. 

During that stretch, Furman suffered its first lost turnover since the first quarter of the Samford game on Oct. 14. Jones was hit as he threw and the ball was picked off by the Mocs' Kam Brown at the Furman 46. The Paladins' defense answered the bell as Bryce Stanfield's sack on third down forced a punt.

While Chattanooga had to punt, the interception did flip field position. That is until Travis Blackshear flipped it back. On third-and-nine from the Furman 25, the Mocs tried a wide receiver pass. Whatley's throw into double coverage took an odd bounce and was snatched by Blackshear in the middle of the end zone. With some players kind of standing around unsure where the ball ended up, Blackshear took off and returned the interception to the Paladins' 46.

"The receiver tried to jump over (safety) Jack (Rhodes) and he tossed the ball up. I happened to be in the right spot at the right time," said Blackshear, who played sparingly Saturday and with a cast on part of his left hand and wrist after having minor surgery prior to last week's ETSU game. "I just want to thank the trainers for making this happen. I told them how much I wanted to play in this game and asked them to do whatever they could."

Furman's Travis Blackshear dons the turnover
crown after his interception Saturday.

With the Mocs still a bit stunned by the interception, Furman took a deep shot and Jones hit Kyndel Dean for a 27-yard gain on that final play of the third quarter. Three plays later on third-and-10, Jones found Colton Hinton for a 27-yard touchdown and Furman took a 10-7 lead.

The touchdown after the pick pushed Furman's advantage in points off turnovers this season to 69-7, including 62-0 against FBS opponents. Oddly enough, it's a 48-0 advantage against teams from Tennessee as the Paladins have scored off turnovers against Tennessee Tech, ETSU and Chattanooga.

"Travis had a pin put in his thumb a week ago! He really didn't practice (this week)," Hendrix said. "He ran around a little bit and we got him officially cleared yesterday."

Following the touchdown, Furman forced a three-and-out which featured a sack by Jeremiah Jackson and another that Luke Clark and Stanfield combined for. The way the defense was playing, there had to be a feeling that the Paladins could escape with a 10-7 victory.

Then came the Mocs' next possession, which dramatically shifted the game back to "it's just not Furman's day" status. On the first play from Chattanooga's 30, the Paladins once again got pressure on Artopoeus when Jack Barton hit him as he threw it. The wounded duck fluttered right to Chattanooga leading receiver Jamoi Mayes about seven yards downfield and he outraced everyone down the right sideline for a 70-yard touchdown. Mayes deserves a ton of credit for making an unexpected catch and a fantastic run afterwards, but the play itself was pure luck.

Furman managed to get one first down before its next drive ended, but that turned out to be a key when Ryan Leavy's 47-yard punt was downed at the UTC seven-yard line. After the Paladins forced a three-and-out, they got the ball back at the 50 with 4:42 left to play.

Jones found Hinton for a gain of 10 on the first play. On third-and-eight, he threw to Mason Pline for 14 yards to the UTC 24. Luck evened out on the next play when the Mocs dropped an interception in the end zone. On third-and-10, Jones connected with Ben Ferguson for 12 to the 12. Two plays later following a Chattanooga timeout, Jones hit Anderson on the right side. A UTC defender grabbed Anderson around the three, but he was able to dive into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

"I dropped a couple (of passes) last week ... so I was just happy Coach (Justin) Roper felt like he could call a play for me there," Anderson said. "I knew right when I broke that I had the opportunity to score. I just had to get there."

Furman's Wayne Anderson heads to the end zone
with the game-winning touchdown Saturday.

On Chattanooga's ensuing possession, they took a couple of early deep shots. One of which was knocked out of Whatley's hands by Blackshear. On third-and-three from the UTC 43, Braden Gilby drilled Artopoeus and his pass was incomplete. Ahead of fourth down, the Mocs called their last timeout with 53 seconds left.

Coming out of the timeout, they went to the wide receiver pass trick play again. Whatley didn't throw it this time as he couldn't find anyone open. As he took off on a run, Ivan Yates charged at him. Whatley leaped over Yates before he was drilled in mid-air by Cally Chizik sending the ball flying out of bounds for no gain.

A hard-hitting tackle for no gain was a fitting end to Saturday's championship win. Furman had five sacks Saturday, while allowing three. In six SoCon games, the Paladins have made 22 sacks and allowed seven.

"We've been training for this all offseason. To finally see it come to fruition is unimaginable," said Jeremiah  Jackson, who had two of Furman's five sacks. "We have arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country, FCS or FBS. He just puts us in position to make plays and we've got ballplayers."

Jones completed 14-of-27 passes for 139 yards along with the two touchdowns and one interception. Over that last play of the third quarter and the entire fourth, Furman had just two yards rushing, but Jones had 127 passing. Fellow freshman Hinton finished with 61 yards on eight receptions.

"They have one of the best defenses in our conference for sure, but Coach Roper said we're going to do what we planned to do this week no matter who's in at QB," Jones said. "That allowed me to go out and sling it. Guys just kept boosting me up and giving me a lot of confidence.

"Our defense today was special. Every time we came off the field on third down, we knew they were going to get a stop for us."

While one goal is complete, there's still business to take care of for Furman. The Paladins will host an improved VMI squad next Saturday at 1 p.m. in hopes of winning the SoCon outright before wrapping up the regular season at Wofford. If they win next week, then the goal is an undefeated SoCon season and earning the highest seed it can for the FCS playoffs.

But preparation for the Keydets begins Sunday. On a beautiful, cloudless afternoon in the Scenic City Saturday, the visiting locker room was the scene of a jubilant celebration. Victory cigars were passed out, while players and coaches posed for pictures with the SoCon championship trophy.

"I told them last night that this team has a chance to do something that not many teams have done," Hendrix said. "We began playing football here in 1889 and there's only 14 conference champions on that (old locker room) wall. There's 15 now and nobody can take that away."

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