Catamounts 'Dog' Samford: Week 2 SoCon Recap and Power Rankings

Western Carolina stuns No. 7/8 Samford, while other SoCon teams face challenges and surprises. Get the full breakdown here.

Va Lealaimatafao and Hayward McQueen Jr. combine on a tackle against Samford.
Source: Mark Haskett - Samford Athletics

Week two on the Southern Conference gridiron was one that some things became more clear concerning the league race, while some unknowns still remain in place as we head into week three.

The second week of the season in the Southern Conference would feature some intriguing non-conference clashes, as well as one game that had everyone’s attention, and that was the beginning of Southern Conference play, as Western Carolina hosted one of the league’s preseason Southern Conference favorites, in the win over the eighth-ranked Samford Bulldogs.

The other dominating feature of the second week of the college football season, seemingly throughout the country was the extreme weather, and the Southern Conference was not spared, as the most important game of the day saw a long delay.

In week one, the Catamounts were overwhelmed early on in the contest, as Arkansas came out and showed why the Razorbacks are what many believe to be a sleeper in the SEC West this fall, and when Western Carolina started to settle into the game, it would gain confidence as the game carried on in what would eventually result in a 56-13 game.

That confidence would carry over into the season home opener as well as the Southern Conference opener, which saw the Catamounts knock off the defending Southern Conference champion No. 7/8 Samford Bulldogs with a somewhat surprising final score, with the Catamounts posting what was a dominating 30-7 win. For a team that has never won a Southern Conference title, that was quite a statement to open league play.

The Catamounts and Bulldogs were forced to endure a five-and-a-half weather delay before play finally resumed in the second quarter, with Western Carolina holding a 14-7 lead in the contest.

Another intriguing clash saw Wofford travel to CAA favorite William & Mary to face off Saturday night at Zable Stadium in a game that, in many ways, turned into a defensive struggle, however, William & Mary proved to have too much firepower in what was a 23-6 win for the Tribe in what was the first meeting between the two teams since 1988.

Chattanooga and East Tennessee State re-discovered their winning ways, with the Mocs finding their defense again along the way, as Chattanooga limited Kennesaw State to its lowest rushing total in program history since it started playing football back in 2015. East Tennessee State rebounded from a loss in its season opener at FBS Jacksonville State, delivering a similar type beatdown to in-state foe Carson-Newman, as the Bucs claimed a 49-0 victory in their 2023 home opener. The Mocs had to hold off the feisty Owls after running out to a 17-0 lead, had to hold off a furious rally from Kennesaw and held on for the 27-20 win.

The SoCon’s other two ranked team—No. 6 Furman and No. 22 Mercer—were in action involved in key games. The Paladins were on the road in their home state, taking on FBS power five SEC South Carolina, while the Bears opened their 2023 home slate against the same foe they engaged to commence what was a thrilling 2022 campaign, with Morehead State paying a visit to Five Star Stadium.

The Paladins would hang around with the Gamecocks early on in the game, however, the Gamecocks were able to throw a couple of haymakers with a pair of scores inside the final minute of the opening half to open up a 13-point lead and never looked back in handing the Paladins their first loss of the 2023 season, as the Gamecocks downed Furman 47-21 to garner their first win of the season.

Mercer got a battle from the Eagles for awhile, and even trailed the game in the opening half before eventually being able to win going away, posting a 48-22 to notch its second win of the season.

Finally, the two major disappointments of the second weekend of Southern Conference football came from the league’s two military institutions, with The Citadel suffering a 56-7 home opening loss to CAA member Campbell, while VMI dropped a 21-14 contest on the road at Bucknell.

Below are brief recaps of each game, as well as a look ahead to the week three schedule and power rankings.

Western Carolina 30, No. 7/8 Samford 7

In a game that brought back memories of Western Carolina’s 2005 Southern Conference opener, which saw the Catamounts take down No. 2 and preseason Southern Conference and league defending champion Furman, 41-21, under the lights before a capacity crowd at EJ Whitmire Stadium, Saturday’s 30-7 win over No. 7/8 Samford started with sunny skies, however, ended under the lights following a five-and-a-half hour lightning delay, however, at the end of the game, lightning had struck in the form of a resounding Catamount win to open up league play, as Western Carolina claimed a 30-7 win over the Bulldogs.

For Western Carolina, it marked the first time since the Catamounts have knocked off back-to-back ranked FCS foes since 1992 and ’93, when the Catamounts did so in contiguous seasons by claiming wins over No. 2 Marshall and No. 23 Marshall, respectively. The 1992 campaign would see the Catamounts claim a 38-30 win over No. 2 Marshall on Halloween of 1992 and then in 1993, the Catamounts would post a key homecoming win over Furman, downing the 23rd-ranked Paladins, 23-20.

The win by the Catamounts to open the home portion of the schedule also marked Western Carolina’s fourth-straight against Southern Conference competition, while snapping what had been an eight-game winning streak against league competition for Samford, dating back to the 2021 SoCon and regular-season finale in what was a loss to Furman.

After seeing its share of struggles at the quarterback position in the season opener against Arkansas, things went a lot better for Cole Gonzales and the Catamount offense inside the friendly confines on Saturday, as he passed for 262 yards and a pair of scores, and led a Catamount offense that rolled up a 546-361 advantage in total offense en route to the win.

It appeared Western Carolina had squandered a golden opportunity early in the game, as the Catamounts drove all the way down to the Bulldogs 7-yard line, however, 14-play drive, the Catamounts were stopped short on 4th-and-goal, and thus, had to give the ball over to the Bulldogs offense, which of course is led by Southern Conference preseason Player of the Year selection and Walter Payton Award candidate quarterback Michael Hiers.

He would help the Bulldogs engineer what was a seven-play, 97-yard drive midway through the opening quarter, allowing the defending champs to take an early 7-0 lead. It was Hiers that picked up where he left off last week en route to garnering SoCon Offensive Player of the Week honors, as he connected with tight end Michael Vice for an 8-yard scoring strike to give the Bulldogs the early 7-0 lead.

It would be all Catamounts the rest of the way, as they would score 30 unanswered points to close out the game and the seven points by the Bulldogs would mark the lowest point total in a Southern Conference game by Samford since scoring just six points since the 2010 season.

On Western Carolina’s ensuing drive following what proved to be the lone score of the day for the Bulldogs, the Catamounts moved the football swiftly down the field once again , moving it 76 yards in 10 plays before the Catamounts scored their first touchdown of the 2023 season before what was a raucous Catamount crowd on-hand for the home opener, as Gonzales connected with AJ Columbo out in the flat, and he made a couple of Bulldog defenders miss on the tackle, and Columbo scampered to pay dirt for what was a 21-yard pitch and catch to make it a 7-7 contest.

On Samford next possession, the Catamounts were able to force Samford to punt the ball away, and with the ball back in its possession, Western Carolina would take the lead for good when Gonzales hit Censere Lee on a 6-yard scoring pass early in the second half, making it a 14-7 with 13:42 remaining in the half.

Samford was moving the ball, and Hiers picked up 16-yard run up the middle, however, Catamount linebacker Va Lealaimatafao leveled Hiers and the ball popped free, and the Catamounts had forced a turnover after Jayelin Davis pounced on top of the pigskin, and surprisingly, it would be the game’s lone turnover. Hiers stayed down for treatment and had to be helped to the sidelines. The delay was just long enough to allow a severe thunderstorm to hover in the mountains of Western North Carolina and the mountains of East Tennessee over the next several hours. In Cullowhee, it would turn out to be a 5.5-hour weather delay in total.

With The game, which stopped a little after 3:30, wouldn’t resume again until 9 p.m. It was reminiscent of the East Tennessee State vs. Western Carolina game in the spring of 2021 just a couple of years ago. The Catamounts would conclude the opening half with a pair of Richard McCollum field goals to extend their lead to 13, at 20-7, as the two teams headed to the locker room for halftime. A short 18-yard field goal by McCollum late in the third quarter gave the Catamounts a 23-7 advantage, and would prove to be the only points of the frame.

The Catamounts put the final nail in Western Carolina’s coffin when it moved the ball 71 yards in 10 plays, with the drive having been capped by a Desmond Reid 2-yard scoring run with just over two minutes remaining.

Western Carolina’s win is maybe the biggest the program has experienced since that 2005, 41-21, win over No. 2 Furman in its SoCon opener in that campaign. Reid was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Week after he rushed for 170 yards and a score on 27 carries, as the Catamounts out-gained Samford, 284-46, on the ground. The 170 yards by Reid were a career-high.

As far as the Bulldogs offense was concerned, despite the big hit he sustained early in the second quarter, Hiers would finish the game, finishing the game by connecting on 21-of-34 passes for 315 yards and Samford’s only score of the day, which came an early 8-yard scoring toss to tight end Michael Vice. Hiers’ favorite target in the game was all-conference wideout Chandler Smith, who finished the contest with six catches for 46 yards.

The story was WCU’s defense, which limited the Bulldogs to just 361 yards of total offense, and the seven points scored by Samford turned out to be its lowest total in a SoCon game since Wofford limited the Bulldogs to a mere three points in what was a 10-3 Wofford victory.

Both the Catamounts and Bulldogs will return to the gridiron next Saturday, with the Catamounts heading to Eastern Kentucky for a 6 p.m. EST kickoff at Roy Kidd Stadium, while Samford heads to Auburn for a 7:30 p.m. EST game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Drayton warned us

When The Citadel had coach Maurice Drayton told us the Bulldogs weren’t good in the preseason, he wasn’t lying. In fact, few of us were expecting the product, which the Bulldogs have put on the field this season.

The Bulldogs might have struggled offensively last season, and those issues seem to have not only not improved, but might have actually gotten even a little worse.

In Saturday night’s home opener at Johnson Hagood Stadium, thee Bulldogs were soundly beaten, 56-7, by the Campbell Camels in a game that was never close. The win by the Camels was their second in successive seasons over The Citadel, and marked one of two wins by the CAA over the SoCon on Saturday.

The Bulldogs have now been outscored 86-7 in their opening two games of the 2023 season, which includes getting out-gained 1,086-544 in total offense through the first two games of the campaign.

The Bulldogs fell behind 21-0 to the Camels before they knew what exactly had hit them. Hajj-Malik Williams posted a 14-yard scoring pass and a 10-yard scoring run to account for the first two scores of the day, and then Lamagea McDowell would end up putting the Camels ahead 21-0 on an 8-yard scoring run before the Bulldogs really knew what had hit them.

Following the flurry by the Camels, the Bulldogs would score their first and only points of the season when quarterback Dustin Fletcher connected with wideout Tyson Trottier for a 75-yard touchdown with 5:19 left in the opening quarter. It would have been okay for the Bulldog faithful to head for the exits at that point.

The onslaught by Campbell would continue, as they would tack on 35 unanswered points to close out the contest, posting a pair of passes from Hajj-Malik Williams that covered 18 and 12 yards, respectively. Hajj Malik Williams added a 3-yard scoring run in the second quarter, which would be followed by Chris McKay’s 4-yard scamper in the third, and Taj Goode’s matching 4-yard scoring run with 3:24 remaining to close out the game, allowing the Camels to head back to Buies Creek with their first win of the 2023 season.

All told, Bulldog quarterbacks finished the afternoon combining to connect on 14-of-21 passes for 184 yards with a touchdown and an INT. Fletcher, who connected on 11-of-15 passes for 134 yards and The Citadel’s lone score, also added 20 rushing yards on three attempts.

All told, the Bulldogs finished with a total of 148 rushing yards on the day, led by Hayden Johnson’s 44 yards on seven attempts, while Cooper Wallace added 31 yards on 12 attempts.

For the second-straight year against the Bulldogs, Campbell got a superb performance out of Hajj-Malik Williams under center, as he connected on 25-of-32 passes for 353 yards and three scores, leading a Camels offense that generated a total of 613 yards in the game, out-gaining the Bulldogs 613-332 in total yards.

The Bulldogs return to the gridiron this Saturday, as they will head to the Scenic City to begin Southern Conference play against Chattanooga. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m. EST at Finley Stadium and has been selected as part of the league’s regional television package as the SoCon’s designated "Game of the Week" and will be broadcasts on SoCon affiliate networks that encompass the league’s regional footprint throughout the southeast.

No. 4 William & Mary 23, Wofford 6

Wofford continued on its tough road trek to begin the 2023 season and the official Shawn Watson era, and with that tough start to the season, as with its Palmetto State rival to the south, the struggles continued offensively for the Terriers, who fell on the road with a 23-6 loss to FCS fourth-ranked William & Mary Saturday evening at Walter Zable Stadium.

The Terriers have been outscored 68-13 through their first couple of contests of the 2023 season, and have generated just 282 yards of total offense through the first two games of the campaign. That has led to quite a disparity in total yards (873-282) and total first downs (50-16) in the first couple of games of the 2023 campaign, however, unlike their Low Country rivals to the South, there is more a of a feeling of positivity surrounding the Terrier football program than that of The Citadel’s, and Wofford should get a shot of confidence this Saturday when it opens the home slate against in-state rival Presbyterian at Gibbs Stadium.

In Saturday night’s loss, the Tribe scored first and would take a 20-6 lead into the halftime locker room. William & Mary preseason All-American running back Bronson Yoder would get the Tribe on the board first, finding the end zone on a 2-yard plunge, capping a 10-play, 81-yard drive to give the Tribe a 7-0 lead following Caden Bonffski’s PAT with 8:28 remaining in the opening quarter.

Wofford answered with the first of what would turn out to be a pair of field goals on the day, when Bridger Jones split the uprights from 44 yards out to make it a 7-3 game with exactly 4:00 remaining in the opening frame.

It was actually the Wofford defense, which has been stellar at times through the first two games of the season, that gave the Terriers the opportunity to get on the board, with the opportunity to potentially tie the football game, rather than have to settle for a field goal. Wofford linebacker Eli Purcell sacked William & Mary quarterback Darius Wilson on a third down play, forcing the Tribe to punt it away deep in their own end, and after a short punt was returned 12 yards by Wofford’s Amir Annoor, it would set up the first opportunity for points for Wofford in great field position.

The Tribe would extend their lead to 10-3 early in the second quarter, as a defensive slugfest was beginning to take shape in Williamsburg, and points of any sort were paramount. With the second quarter less than four minutes old, Tribe kicker Caden Bonoffski connected on a 40-yard field, as the Terrier defense did its job once again, despite excellent initial field position for the Tribe.

Wofford would inch a little closer in the contest with Bridger Jones converting his second field goal of the season when he connected on a 29-yard field goal with 5:04 remaining in the half, making it a 10-6 game.

However, the Tribe would respond as you might imagine a veteran team, which entered the 2023 campaign as a Top 5 ranked team and a team favored to win its conference might, as William & Mary would score the final 10 points of the half to take all the momentum into the halftime locker room, and most importantly, increasing their lead to two touchdowns in a game were points would come at a premium.

The first of those 10 points came via William & Mary’s second touchdown of the game, as Wilson connected with wideout T.J. Wilson on a 2-yard scoring strike to make it a 17-6 Tribe lead with just under three minutes remaining in the first half. The Tribe had been impressive in getting points, using five plays to cover 82 yards to offer a swift response to Jones’ field goal for the Terriers, which had cut the Tribe’s lead to just four. The Tribe would add a 42-yard field goal from Bonoffski with just two seconds left in the half, taking a 20-6 lead to the break.

There wouldn’t be much in the way of offense for either team in the second half, and the only points of the final 30 minutes of football came with 6:52 remaining, as Bonoffski connected on his third field goal of the game, concluding the scoring with a 30-yard field goal to set the final margin at 17 for the fourth-ranked team in the FCS.

Wilson led a Tribe offense that would amass 382 yards of total offense on the day, completing 12-of-24 passes for 185 yards and a touchdown, while finishing with 14 rushing yards on nine attempts. Malachi Imoh led a balanced ground attack for the Green and Gold, finishing with 90 yards on only 10 rush attempts (9.0 YPC), while Yoder finished with 88 yards and 1 TD on 17 attempts. The Tribe ended up out-gaining the Terriers, 382-156, marking the second-straight game the Terriers have failed to reach 200 yards of total offense.

The Terriers were led by quarterback Bryce Corriston, who was making his second start under center for Wofford, and he finished the day completing 8-of-17 passes for 53 yards, while Ryan Ingram led the Terriers’ efforts on the ground, with 58 yards on 12 rush attempts. The Terriers were 1-of-13 on third down conversions in the contest, and combined with the opening season, 45-7, loss at Pitt, are just 2-of-22 on the penultimate down for the season.

Wofford returns to Spartanburg for its home opener this Saturday, hosting Pioneer Football League foe Presbyterian (1-1), with kickoff slated for 6 p.m. at Gibbs Stadium.

Quick Hitters

South Carolina 47, Furman 21

South Carolina took control of the game late in the opening half, as Spencer Rattler completed 25-of-27 passes for 352 yards and three scores, as the Gamecocks downed FCS sixth-ranked Furman (1-1), 47-21, before an announed sellout crowd of better than 78,000 on-hand at Williams-Brice Stadium for the home opener. Furman will close out non-conference play Saturday, heading to Kennesaw State (1-1) to take on the Owls in only the second-ever meeting between the two programs and first since a 52-42 Kennesaw State win at Paladin Stadium back in 2016. Kickoff for Furman’s non-conference finale is set for 5 p.m. EST at Fifth-Third Bank Stadium.

Chattanooga 27, Kennesaw State 20

Following a season opener which saw Chattanooga’s normally stout defensive unit surrender 517 yards and 41 points to North Alabama in a 14-point road setback, the Mocs defense returned to form just in time for their home opener against Kennesaw State, limiting the Owls to its lowest rushing total (102 yds) since starting the program from scratch in 2015. Chattanooga will open Southern Conference play this Saturday, welcoming The Citadel (0-2) to Finley Stadium for a 6 p.m. contest Saturday evening in a game designated by the league as the Nexstar “SoCon Game of the Week”.

Bucknell 21, VMI 13

VMI’s defense would keep it in the contest for much of the afternoon, trailing Bucknell just 7-0 through three quarters, however, the Keydets would eventually tire in the final quarter on a warm early September Saturday afternoon, and the Bison would add a pair of touchdowns over that final 15 minutes to even its record a 21-13 win at Memorial Stadium. The Keydets, who would score all 13 of its points in the final quarter as well, actually tied the game just under five minutes into the final frame, using a trick play, as tight end Aidan Twobly connected with quarterback Colin Ironside for a 27-yard score to tie the game, 7-7, with 10:08 left in the game. However, the Bison hit back with a 7-yard scoring pass from quarterback Charlie Kreinbucher-to-wideout-Ralph Rucker and a 1-yard scoring plunge from Rashawn Baker with 3:26 remaining to take a 21-7 lead, essentially sinking VMI’s hopes of improving to 2-0 to start the Danny Rocco era.

No. 20 Mercer 48, Morehead State 22

The 20th ranked Mercer Bears football team opened up its 2023 home slate in style, becoming the first team in the Southern Conference to reach two wins this season, downing Pioneer Football League member Morehead State, 48-22, Saturday night at Five Star Stadium. It was big night for the Mercer offense, which rolled up 451 yards of total output, while the Bears defense held the Eagles to just 306 yards, including just 98 yards in the second half. The Bears points outburst was highlighted by the first big outing of the season by hauling in five passes for 146 yards and a touchdown, while Devron Harper hauled in six balls for 100 yards, while also getting involved on special teams, as he returned a punt 53 yards for a score in the final quarter of play. The 2-1 Bears will now enjoy an off-week before heading to Furman in a couple of weeks to start Southern Conference play.

East Tennessee State 42, Carson-Newman 0

Following what was a disappointing 49-3 loss at Jacksonville State to open the season, the East Tennessee State was able to able deliver a similar type beatdown to lower division Carson-Newman, despite more than a three hour weather delay Saturday at William B. Green Stadium, as ETSU claimed a 42-0 shutout win over the Eagles. The Bucs played without the services of Tyler Riddell, who was nursing a minor injury, however, the ETSU wouldn’t need him on this afternoon, thanks in large part to a pair of solid performances by ETSU backup quarterback Baron May, as well as the collective performance by the ETSU defense, which posted its first shutout since Oct. 6, 2018, when the Bucs downed Gardner-Webb, 45-0, in homecoming. The Bucs defense not only held the Eagles scoreless, but also limited their Division II visitors to just 204 yards of total offense. Also of note in the big win was the performance of graduate student Will Huzzie, who surpassed 2,000 yards receiving for his standout career at ETSU, joining former legends BJ Adigun and Cecil Moor as the only Bucs wideouts to ever accomplish the feat. ETSU returns to action next Saturday for its final non-conference game of the season, heading to Clarksville, Tenn, to take on Austin Peay (0-2) at Fortera Stadium. Kickoff for that contest is set for 7 p.m.

Week 2 Power Rankings

  1. Furman (1-1/at Kennesaw State 9/16) — Paladins did what we thought they would through the first two games, now the tricky part of their schedule begins.
  2. Western Carolina (1-1, 1-0 SoCon/at Eastern Kentucky) — The biggest movers in the standings this week was the Catamounts of WCU, shocking No. 9 Samford 30-7 in its SoCon and home opener.
  3. Mercer (2-1/Next at Furman 9/23) — The Bears finally saw their two game-breakers break the game open, as Devron Harper and Ty James both had big days both catching the football, as well as in the return game in what was a rout of visiting Morehead St.
  4. Chattanooga (1-1) — The Mocs looked like a completely different team, especially defensively in Saturday’s 27-20 win over Kennesaw State.
  5. Samford (1-1, 0-1 SoCon/Next at Auburn 9/16) — Losing 30-7 at Western Carolina is not a good look for Samford, and with a trip to Auburn on the horizon, the Bulldogs are staring 1-2 in the face and suddenly their season is in peril. I would venture to guess that possibly the weather delay had at least a little to do with letting thee score get that far out of hand.
  6. East Tennessee State (1-1/Next at Austin Peay 9/16) — Did what they were supposed to do against Gardner-Webb and will face off against its final non-conference test Saturday when the Bucs head to take on Austin Peay in Clarksville.
  7. Wofford (0-2/Next vs. Presbyterian 9/16) — The Terriers put up a good fight at fourth-ranked William & Mary, however, the offense still has a long way to go.
  8. VMI (1-1/Next at North Carolina State 9/16) — The VMI Keydets dropped a disappointing 21-13 contest at Bucknell and will finish out non-conference play in Raleigh vs. North Carolina State.
  9. The Citadel (0-2/Next at Chattanooga) — Not much good to say yet about Maurice Drayton’s Bulldogs, who head to Chattanooga to open SoCon play Saturday.

SoCon Players of the Week

Offense — RB Desmond Reid (Western Carolina)

Defense — DB Jordan Walker (Chattanooga)

Special Teams — RS Devron Harper (Mercer)

Redshirt Sports Players of the Week

Offense — RB Desmond Reid (Western Carolina)

Defense — DB Jordan Walker (Chattanooga)

Special Teams — RS Devron Harper (Mercer)

SoCon in the National Rankings Following Week 2

No. 8/8 Furman

No.14/18 Samford

No. 20/21 Mercer

RV Western Carolina