FCS fourth-ranked Furman sacked SoCon preseason Player of the Year and talented signal-caller Michael Hiers eight times and recorded a total of nine QB takedowns, as the Paladin defense limited the ‘Hatch Attack’ to just 337 yards and 21 points, while the offense utilized a ground attack that totaled 211 yards en route to a 27-21 Southern Conference win over Samford on a beautiful, sun-splashed Homecoming Saturday afternoon at the newly named Pete Hanna Stadium.
The win sees the Paladins improve to 5-1 overall and 3-0 in SoCon play, while Samford fell to 3-4 overall and 2-3 in Southern Conference action. The loss, in effect, ended all hopes of returning to the FCS playoffs for a second-straight year. The win by the Paladins, meanwhile, sets up a Top 10 showdown between Furman and Western Carolina for the first time in the regular-season history, and will mark the first time both teams were ranked headed into the matchup since 2006 (No. 3 Furman vs. No. 22 Western Carolina). The Catamounts are ranked just inside the Sports Network Top 25 at No. 9 last week and were off this week. Kickoff for next Saturday’s “Battle of Purple Supremacy”is set for 2:30 p.m. EST at EJ Whitmire Stadium.
Dating back to last season, Furman has now won 10-consecutive Southern Conference games. It’s the longest winning streak in Southern Conference play for the Paladins since winning 13-straight league games in a row in 1988, ’89 and 1990. Furman has now posted road wins in six-straight Southern Conference games, dating back to a 43-42 loss to Western Carolina on Nov. 1, 2021. It also marks the second-straight season in which the Paladins have posted road wins over the SoCon’s reigning champion, having claimed what was a 27-14 win over 2021 champion East Tennessee State last season in Johnson City.
Furman’s total of nine sacks in the contest were one off the school record, which was set way back in 1997 in the regular-season finale at Chattanooga in what was a 43-21 road win, as SoCon Defensive Player of the Year and senior defensive end Bryan Dailer had a SoCon record seven quarterback takedowns. The Paladins’ nine sacks is tied for second-most in program history, which the Paladins recorded back during 2001 Division I-AA playoffs (now FCS playoffs). Prior to Saturday’s nine sacks vs. Samford, the Paladins had totaled just six in their previous five games entering Saturday’s mid-season
The 337 yards of total offense were the fewest allowed by a Samford FCS foe this season. Cally Chizik, who spent much of his childhood growing up in Auburn, AL, as the son of former Auburn national championship-winning head coach Gene Chizik, posted a team-high 13 tackles, while Furman spread its nine sacks among nine players—Jack Barton (2.5 sacks), Evan DiMaggio (2.0 sacks), Dan Scianna (1.0 sack), Bryce Stanfield (1.0 sack), Jeremiah Jackson (1.0 sack), and Xavier Stephens (0.5 sack).
"We sacked him five times a year ago, so I thought there'd be opportunities. We let them hurt us running the ball last year. I don't think they hurt us running at all today…We'd always like to get our hands on a few more balls, but to not turn them over once and hold them to 21 is a testament to how the defense played,” Furman head coach Clay Hendrix said.
Offensively, the Paladins were led by quarterback Tyler Huff, who accounted for 284 yards of total offense, as he finished the game completing 19-of-28 passes for 205 yards, with two touchdowns and an INT, while finishing the contest with 79 rushing yards on 17 attempts.
The Paladins’ ground efforts were led by running back Dominic Roberto, who rushed for a season-high 128 yards and a touchdown on 18 rush attempts. The Paladins also totaled a season-high 416 yards, out-gaining the Bulldogs 416-337 on the day.
Samford quarterback Michael Hiers, who came into the contest as the nation’s passing leader, finished the contest 36-of-48 passes for 291 yards and a pair of scores without an INT. His favorite targets in the passing game were Chandler Smith and Brennan Watkins, who both hauled in seven passes in the loss. Watkins, a talented freshman wideout, finished the contest with seven receptions for 77 yards and two scores, while Smith’s seven catches went for 44 yards.
Due in large part to its nine sacks in the contest, the Paladins limited the Bulldogs to just 46 yards on the ground. The leading ground-gainer for Samford in the contest was Smith, who gained 38 yards on a pair of reverses, including 22-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Defensively, the Bulldogs were led by linebacker Noah Martin posted 13 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks and forced a fumble. The Bulldogs will return to Southern Conference action next Saturday, facing VMI (3-3, 2-1 SoCon), with kickoff for that contest set for 1 p.m.
The Furman Defense and a look to next week
Much is made about college football’s great offenses in our day and age, and you don’t need to look far to find them. Furman’s defense knows it all too well. They’ve faced some good ones over the past couple of seasons, including Samford’s tempo, Western Carolina’s speed and balance, and Incarnate Word’s Lindsey Scott Jr., who was almost a one-man nightmare of offense himself. The Paladins have learned a thing or two, and though it hasn’t been pretty at times, the reason the Paladins have claimed 10-straight wins in the SoCon is thanks in large part to its physical nature on the defensive side.
In an age where giving up less than 40 points on any given Saturday is considered a win for some units around the country, the Paladins have allowed less than 30 points in 12 of its last 14 games against FCS foes, with Western Carolina (40 pts) and Incarnate Word (41 pts) during that span.
For Furman to have a chance to beat a very good Western Carolina team next Saturday in Cullowhee, it will require a similar effort as the one it had in Saturday’s midway point of the season against a similar, yet more potent offense.
Just how good is that Western Carolina offense you might ask? Among the best in NCAA Division I (FCS or FBS). In fact, the Catamounts will enter next Saturday’s clash against the Paladins averaging 531.8 YPG, which is the top unit in the FCS, and would rank third overall in NCAA Division I football behind Oregon (555.0 YPG) and Washington (543.7 YPG).
The 2023 matchup between Furman and Western Carolina, at least on paper, should deliver a solid matchup. It will pit the league’s two best teams in the trenches against one another, which should make for an incredibly physical and exciting football game next Saturday in Cullowhee.
In terms of slowing down a tempo offense, such as the one that Samford seemingly churns out year-after-year under Chris Hatcher, it’s a tough assignment. While there’s no single remedy for stopping such a unit, getting pressure on the quarterback and having a generalized plan, at least according to Furman junior defensive end Jeremiah Jackson, who spent much of the 2022 season—a season which was his first as a starter—out with a season-ending lower body injury, which he suffered in a 24-19 win at Charleston Southern last season.
In Saturday’s win, Jackson was part of a two-deep along the Paladin defensive front that kept constant pressure on Samford quarterback Michael Hiers all afternoon, and Jackson himself finished the contest with two tackles and matched his career sacks total by recording his first of the season late in the game, which proved to seal the Paladin road victory, with the Bulldogs down to their final down and deep within their own territory. He tripped Samford backup Quincy Crittentondon as he planted to throw downfield, allowing the Paladin offense to take over on downs and run out the clock.
“We prepped all week for it and we knew exactly what we had to come out here and do and we did exactly that to be honest and we expected more tp be honest with you,” Jackson said. “We knew coming in that tempo was a big part of their game and you know the tempo is basically built to get you to miss little details and you know that’s something we pride ourselves on and this group…we made sure we were in-shape for it and we pride ourselves in getting the details right when we were tired,”Jackson added.
While Western Carolina’s offense will provide more of the challenge due to its overall balance and ability to effectively run the football in all types of ways, the Paladins carry to them to Cullowhee a measure of confidence built of sacking the quarterback nine times Saturday. It was the pressure with the front three or four Saturday that Furman was able to initiate by drawing up some fancy blitz scheme. The Catamounts are more akin to the offense the Paladins faced in last season’s FCS playoffs at Incarnate Word, with a little less of a rushing threat at the quarterback spot, but every bit the arm talent.
Chunk plays and the running game
While the Paladin offense continues to find itself as a whole and probably would agree that haven’t played their best game of the season yet, especially in the passing game, however, the Paladins were able to post a season-high 416 yards through the air, and it was another solid day for the dynamic rushing tandem of Huff and running back Dominic Roberto, who were in solid form Saturday in Furman’s key road win.
At times Saturday, the Furman offensive line was opening big holes along in the Samford defensive front that it appeared that both Roberto and Huff, on at least one occasion apiece, appeared to pick the wrong hole to run through.
“It was one of those days where our offensive line really got after those guys from Samford and when your O-Line is telling you to just run the ball…you tend to listen to them and so that’s what we did and we just kept pushing,” Furman redshirt senior running back Dominic Roberto said.
“I’ve been frustrated with my own performance up until today…kind of looking inward and I knew this game that I would have some opportunities to get some of those chunk plays for us and in the second half…I think we just demoralized that team over there,” Roberto added.
The Paladins played with a physical edge for much of the afternoon on both sides of the ball, and dictated rules of engagement with line play on both sides. At times, Furman was playing so well along the offensive line, it looked as if Furman could have not thrown a pass the entire game and Samford wouldn’t have been able to stop the Paladin offense even knowing what was coming. That probably wouldn’t have been a popular opinion among Tyler Huff and his receivers, however, who pride themselves in making plays in the passing game.
How It Happened
Furman won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, giving the Bulldogs and preseason SoCon Player of the Year Michael Hiers the ball first. It took just six plays to find the end zone as Hiers connected with Brennan Watkins for a 38-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs an early 7-0 lead.
The Paladins would tie the game on the opening play of the second quarter, as Tyler Huff connected with Joshua Harris hauled in a 2-yard touchdown, tying the contest 7-7. Roberto rushed for a season-high 128 yards and a score, and combined with Huff, combined to rush for 207 of the team’s 211 rushing yards.
Furman’s offense again followed the theme of starting slow. The Paladins went three-and-out on their opening possession of the day, and after Huff’s pass was high to Colton Hinton, which he tipped up in an effort to try and make an acrobatic catch, was picked off the carom to set up the Samford offense at midfield, but fortunately, the Paladin defense was on its game from the start.
It appeared Samford had assumed a 14-0 lead when Chandler Smith hauled in a 38-yard scoring pass from Hiers, however, the TD was nullified by a holding penalty. Granted a reprieve as a result, Hiers completed passes of nine and four yards to get the Bulldogs to a 3rd-and-12, however Evan DiMaggio came free up the middle and sacked Hiers for a loss of eight, forcing a Bulldogs punt. Adversity had been avoided by the Paladins.
Samford’s next drive saw Bulldogs get inside inside Paladin territory but then a holding penalty and a sack by Xavier Stephens would force the Bulldogs to punt. The Paladins would get the ball back with just over four minutes remaining in the opening quarter, and Huff and the Paladin offense finally got things going. It appeared the Paladins had tied the game when Huff found wideout Joshua Harris in the far corner of the end zone for a 20-yard scoring strike, however, after taking four steps out of bounds with the ball before letting go, it was determined Harris didn’t have control.
Following an incompletion on the next play, Huff found the reliable Luke Shiflett for a gain of 10 and a first down, and Roberto rushed for five and three yards to get the ball to the Samford two on a third-and-goal play, as the first quarter came to a close. Furman’s first points of the day came on the first play of the second quarter, as Huff completed a short 2-yard scoring pass to Joshua Harris in the flat, tying the game 7-7.
Samford would drive deep into Furman territory on its next possession, reaching the Paladin 30 but a false started and a combined sack by Furman’s Xavier Stephens and Jack Barton, as the pocket closed in on Hiers served as barriers to the Bulldogs putting any more points on the board, and the Bulldogs were eventually forced to punt once again,
Despite the bad starting field position following an excellent play by the Bulldogs special teams, the Paladins took their first lead of the day after driving down to the Samford five. However, following an incompletion in the end zone and a sack, which Tyler Huff had to recover his own fumble at the Furman 18, the Paladins had to settle for a 38-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead.
Samford took over possession with 3:07 remaining in the half, however, after the Paladin 45, opted to for it on 4th-and-2, however, Jay Stanton was stopped a yard short of the first down and Furman took over the football with 1:07 remaining in the half. The Paladins would drive 55 yards in nine plays, as Huff found Ben Ferguson for a one-handed scoring catch in the corner of the end zone with three seconds left in the half to give the Paladins all the momentum into the half, as the Paladins went to the locker room with a 17-7 lead.
After Furman failed to get points on its opening drive of the second half, Samford would get back within a field goal by driving 69 yards in 10 play, as Hiers found Jenkins for the second time on a TD pass, with this one coming on a 15-yard slant to make it a 17-14 game with 10:13 left in the third quarter.
The Paladins would hit back on the next drive re-take a two-score lead, as Dominic Roberto capped a seven-play, 55-yard drive with a 5-yard TD run from Roberto to give the Paladins the 24-14 lead with just under eight minutes left in the third.
Samford, however, wouldn’t go away and would certainly make things interesting in the contest down the stretch. The Bulldogs would get back within three by turning to their most effective rushing play of the afternoon—the wide receiver reverse—and Chandler Smith took the pitch on a 2nd-and-13 play, getting the Bulldogs back to within three, at 24-21, with eleven-and-a-half minutes left.
Furman offered a promising response, including a 19 and 32-yard runs by Huff and Roberto on a pair of those chunk plays, however, the drive bogged down following a pair of completions to Parks Gissinger and Bailor Hughes that would net only five yards on two plays, and then a pass interference penalty against the Paladins for a pick route forced Furman to settle for a 46-yard field goal from Axel Lepvreau, as the Paladins had to settle for an uncomfortable six-point, 27-21, lead with 7:47 left.
The Paladin defense, however, would close the deal, forcing a Samford punt on its next possession, and after Furman couldn’t generate anything offensively on its ensuing drive, the Paladins sacked Samford quarterbacks two more times, with Jack Barton getting the first and then hurrying and leveling Hiers on the next play to force him from the game. On 4th-and-26, Jackson providing the final nail in Samford’s coffin by sacking Quincy Crittendon to give the Furman offense the football at the Samford 18 with 49 seconds left. The Furman offense would then run out the remaining time on the clock.
In the Polls
Furman entered the week ranked No.4 in the AFCA coaches poll and No.5 in the STATS media poll and could rise even higher, with No. 3 Idaho getting knocked off by No. 10 Montana late last night, 23-21, in what was an epic contest at the Kibbie Dome in Moscow, ID.