Monday, December 4, 2023

Defense leads Furman past Mocs and to Montana

Travis Blackshear intercepts a pass during Furman's 26-7 win
over Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the second consecutive game, Furman's defense limited the opposition to less than 50 yards of total offense in the second half Saturday. If the Paladins could only win one of those games, picking the one in the FCS playoffs was the right decision.

After allowing 81 yards, four first downs and seven points on Chattanooga's opening drive, Furman allowed 119 yards, five first downs and zero points the rest of the day as the Paladins defeated the Mocs, 26-7. Seventh-seeded Furman (10-2) advances to play at second-seeded Montana (11-1) in the FCS quarterfinals at 9 p.m. Friday on ESPN2. It will be the Paladins first quarterfinal appearance since 2005.

While the Southern Conference's best defense did it's thing Saturday, Furman's healthier offense had a balanced day with 192 yards passing and 191 yards rushing. The Paladins welcomed back to the starting lineup their two leading rushers Saturday in running back Dominic Roberto and quarterback Tyler Huff. Sophomore running back Grant Robinson, who had not played since being injured in the South Carolina game three months ago, also returned and played a key role in the victory.

"I can't say enough about our staff and the job they did preparing our guys. ... Certainly, getting some guys healthy was big," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We ran the ball well and were really solid offensively. With the exception of some third downs in the first half, our defense played really, really well. And we were really solid in the kicking game.

"That's how we have to win games. We're not going to out-talent a lot of people. We have to grind to find a way to win games and that was one of those kinds of games today."

In Furman's shocking regular season finale in which Wofford won despite a 49-yard second half, the Terriers became the second Paladins' opponent to score on their opening possession this season and the first FCS team to score on Furman's defense following a turnover. So it was a little eerie when Chattanooga did both by the midpoint of the first quarter.

A day in which Paladin Stadium's beautiful view of Paris Mountain was completely hidden by fog got off to an unusual start as Furman received the opening kickoff for the first time since September. The Paladins had won seven consecutive coin tosses and nine overall before UTC won Saturday's and deferred to the second half.

Wayne Anderson got the home crowd off to a roaring start with a 40-yard return to the Furman 41. Huff looked fully healed as he scampered for 16 yards on a third-and-four play to the Chattanooga 37. On the next play, Huff made a beautiful throw to the end zone where a lunging Kyndel Dean could not haul the pass in. On the next play, the Mocs' Clay Fields made a leaping interception over the middle at the UTC 19.

Chattanooga (8-5) converted all three third downs on its ensuing possession, including Reggie Davis' 11-yard touchdown run on third-and-two.

Furman drove inside Mocs' territory again on its second drive but on fourth-and-seven from the 38, the punting unit came on. Punting inside an opponents' 40 is like nails on a chalkboard for some of us, but Ryan Leavy's perfect kick was fielded beautifully by Travis Blackshear at the UTC one-yard line. After one controversial third-down conversion, the Mocs had to punt from their own 14 and Furman took over at its own 40.

The decision to punt paid off when Furman marched 60 yards on 10 plays for a score. The Paladins didn't face a third down until third-and-goal at the one. With 260-pound defensive end Jeremiah Jackson leading the way as a fullback, Roberto bulled his way into the end zone for the touchdown.

While Furman's defense was in the process of transitioning to complete shut down mode, the Paladins' offense missed a couple of chances to take a big lead before halftime. On the second play of Furman's next drive, Myion Hicks broke free out in the open for a 40-yard run before he pulled up with a hamstring injury and went out of bounds at the UTC 45. On fourth-and-one at the 36, Furman was in a bunch formation that screamed run. However, Huff faked a handoff and rolled out. He had nowhere to throw and nowhere to go and was dropped for a three-yard loss.

The Paladins drove to UTC's 26 on their next drive. On second down, Huff fired another beautiful throw to the end zone that Luke Shiflett couldn't hang on to. Furman settled for a 44-yard field goal by Ian Williams with 25 seconds left and took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

"I'd like to say that I was knocking off the rust (on the interception), but it was a bad decision and a bad throw. All the guys around me just patted me on the back and told me it we'd be alright and that they trust me," Huff said. "I haven't won much in my life, so winning a playoff game is huge. I'm just thankful and blessed to be a part of this team and we're excited to go play in the quarterfinals." 

The teams exchanged three-and-outs to start the second half. On Chattanooga's first play of its next drive, redshirt freshman Luke Schomburg - who was making his third consecutive start in place of injured starter Chase Artopoeus - made a throw to the right sideline that Blackshear read like a book. Blackshear jumped the route perfectly for the interception and just missed the fourth pick-six of his career as he returned 29 yards to the two-yard line.

"We knew they had a young quarterback back there that they were trying to protect with the type of personnel they had in. I was just able to make a play on that one," Blackshear said. "It (defensive success) really just started in practice. Thanksgiving break was much needed and we came back ready to go. We knew we had a big challenge this week and had a great week of prep."

Roberto scored from two yards out on the next play to push the lead to 17-7. That was the first of four consecutive scoring drives for Furman as Williams made field goals of 31, 37 and 20 yards out, respectively, to push the lead to 26-7. The last score was set up when Alex Maier tipped and then intercepted a pass from UTC third-string, walk-on quarterback Matthew Clemmer. Maier returned the interception 19 yards to the Mocs' seven-yard line.

"I wish we could've stuck that one in there. ... We were up 16, so we just wanted to get it to a three-score lead," Hendrix said. "Ian was just so solid today."

Huff threw for 192 yards on 18-of-29 passing and ran seven times for 32 yards. Anderson caught five passes for 53 yards, while Shiflett had four catches for 51 yards. Roberto ran for 51 yards and the two touchdowns, but Robinson was Furman's leading rusher with 62 yards on 13 carries.

While Chattanooga played without two-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person due to an injury suffered last week in the Mocs' win at Austin Peay, it still has a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Saturday was still a battle of the top two defenses in the SoCon and a rematch of a defensive slugfest in the regular season in which Furman needed a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to pull out a 17-14 win.

"You watch Grant move around and you can tell he brings a little something. That was a big bonus for us. With Dom, I think we got what we got out of him today and we tried to just be smart with him later in the game," Hendrix said. "Wayne and Myion certainly add to that mix as well. Myion's been dealing with that hamstring a little bit. When he popped that run, I think he did the right thing getting out of bounds before making it even worse.

"It was a pretty complete win in all three phases and Tyler was a huge part of that too. ... He made a couple of great throws and kept some plays alive (with his feet). A big key for us was going 9-of-17 on third down. I don't think many teams have been able to do that against that defense."

Chattanooga had eight total yards in the third quarter and 34 in the fourth. It didn't have a first down in the second half until it was 26-7 with 9:42 left to play. After converting six of their first eight third downs, the Mocs went 0-for-6 on third down the rest of the way. Furman had an 11-minute advantage in time of possession, including 20:56 to 9:04 in the second half.

"It's awesome (to reach the FCS quarterfinals). I think it's just a credit to the group of guys we got to come back from last year," Furman all-American offensive guard Jacob Johanning said. "That feeling in San Antonio (after a second round loss at Incarnate Word) a year ago stuck around and it's been the motivating factor for this season.

"We're going to fight to keep everybody together for one week at a time."

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