Furman vs Mercer Recap

The Southern Conference game of the week definitely put on a show for Mercer’s homecoming. Furman got their fifth straight win in their 23-13 win over Mercer.

Mercer’s offense lined up against Furman’s defense
Source: Furman Athletics

Saturday's opening invocation, rare as it might seem, offered up prayers to the 'Most High' for a Mercer Bears homecoming victory in its key Southern Conference tilt against Furman, however, as peculiar as that may sound, it’s in fact the truth.

The old adage most of us have heard growing up in church is that you shouldn’t seek out the favor of the Almighty in matters as trivial as a football game.

God’s for both teams. He always has been. Mercer’s worthiness as a SoCon foe didn’t need the help of prayers, as they have proven themselves as a good FCS football program throughout the 2022 season—playoff worthy. The more suitable prayers might be for the FCS playoff selection committee now, and not the outcome of any game. Mercer likely needs to win its final game at Samford to avoid a similar heartbreak as that which they experienced in Johnson City last season.

Furman's defense was a worthy adversary all day, competently dealing with Mercer's powerful clockwork orange offense.

The Paladins were buoyed by an offense and defense that only seemingly got stronger as the game wore on. The statistical data bears that out

While Tyler Huff posted another winning performance under center on offense, it was Furman wide receiver Joshua Harris, who hauled in five passes for a career-high 146 yards, including a 56-yard scoring catch in the third quarter, which helped No. 13 Paladins 23-13 win over No. 11 Mercer on a Homecoming Saturday at Five Star Stadium.

The win also marked Furman’s fifth-straight win, as well as the fifth-straight road win. The five wins in a row on the road account for the longest road winning streak for Furman’s football program since a combined five-game winning streak between both the 1989 and ’90 seasons, respectively. Furman’s eight regular season wins marks the first time the Paladins have accomplished that feat since 2019 and just the second time since 2006.

With the win, the Paladins improve to 8-2 overall and 6-1 in Southern Conference play. Mercer falls to 7-3 overall and 5-2 in Southern Conference action. Both the Paladins and Bears will close out league play next Saturday, with Furman hosting Wofford in Greenville, while Mercer will be on the road to take on 2022 SoCon champion Samford. With its seventh Division I win, including its third against ranked opposition, Furman all but assured itself of a 2022 bid to the 24-team playoff field later this month.

Not to be outdone was the performance by the Furman defense, which put forth arguably its most complete performance of the season, holding a Mercer offense, which came into the game averaging 40.0 PPG to just 13.0 PPG. The Paladins finished the night holding a 460-316 advantage in total offense, and limited a ground attack by the Bears, which averaged 203 YPG on the ground coming in to a total of 57 rushing yards for the game.

Huff had yet another big day leading the Paladin offense to a win, accounting for 369 yards of total offense, which included 293 passing yards and another 76 yards on the ground. He showed plenty of moxie for the Paladins this season, with plenty of athleticism to go with that moxie.

The Ocala, FL, native connected on 19-of-31 passes for 293 yards with a TD and an INT, while rushing for 76 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. His 7-yard scoring run late in the opening half, coupled with Furman’s seventh blocked kick of the season, allowed the Paladins to take a vital 10-7 lead into the halftime locker room.

In addition to Huff and Harris, Paladin All-American tight end Ryan Miller again turned in a solid Saturday afternoon in a Paladin uniform, as he hauled in four passes for 42 yards, while Dominic Roberto showed what he could do as a receiving threat out of the Furman backfield, hauling in three passes for 65 yards. He added an additional 69 yards rushing on 16 attempts.

Though the Paladin defense failed to come up with a forced turnover in the contest, they managed to keep Bears talented quarterback Fred Payton out of his comfort zone for much of the evening, as he completed 29-of-41 passes for 263 yards, with two TDs and no INTs, but was sacked a season-high five times. Coming into Saturday’s contest, Payton had been sacked a league low six times all season.

Leading the Furman defense in Saturday’s road win was linebacker Braden Gilby, who finished with 11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and a sack. Reigning SoCon Defensive Player of the Month Hugh Ryan added eight tackles and a tackle-for-loss, while Jalen Miller added an identical eight tackles and a tackle-for-loss.

Mercer’s Devron Harper had an outstanding afternoon catching the football, and became the major big play option for the Bears after fellow talented wideout Ty James was ejected in the first half of the game for targeting after delivering a hit on Furman punt returner Cally Chizik late in the opening half of play. Harper finished the day by hauling in 14 passes for 192 yards.

How It Happened

From the outset of Saturday’s contest, it was evident that the 2022 meeting between Furman and Mercer had major league title and FCS playoff implications at stake, and a physical football game would take shape from the opening kickoff, and one that would be dominated by the two defenses for the majority of the afternoon.

Late in the opening quarter, Furman would break through in the second quarter and get the first points of the contest when Ian Williams came on to knock through what would be the first of his three field goals in the contest, as his 44-yard field goal gave Furman the early 3-0 lead with just 2:05 remaining in the opening quarter, capping what was a six-play, 58-yard drive.

Mercer would answer a little over four minutes into the second quarter, as the Bears showed signs of awakening from its hibernation. Mercer used 10 plays to cover 60 yards, with All-SoCon wide receiver and Walter Payton Award Ty James capping the drive with a 3-yard scoring catch from a nicely thrown pass from quarterback Fred Payton, as he put the ball where only James could catch it. The Bears led 7-3 with 10:54 left in the half.

With 3:19 remaining in the half, Trey Turk‘s punt was fielded by Furman defensive back Cally Chizik, who was leveled by Mercer receiver Ty James after mishandling the punt. The ball was recovered by Mercer, however, James was flagged for targeting, which was upheld. James was disqualified from further action the remainder of the day, and due to the targeting penalty, the Bears were penalized 15 yards and fourth down was replayed, nullifying the Furman turnover.

Furman would seize the momentum for the remainder of the half, and would relinquish it for the remainder of the game. Furman’s Tyler Huff got the Paladin offense going, and just as he did against Chattanooga, it was with his legs, which later opened up the Paladin passing game.

“If there’s a better player in our league at quarterback than him and there’s some good quarterbacks in our league, but if there’s a better quarterback in our league, I’d like to know who he is. He’s a winner…He’s tough…He’s all those things you look for in a quarterback,” head coach Clay Hendrix said.

Facing a 2nd-and-10 play at the Mercer 42, Huff avoided a heavy rush from Mercer and found plenty of wide open turf to run into, scampering 35 yards all the way down to the Bears 7-yard line to set up a 1st-and-goal for the Paladin offense with time winding down in the half. On 3rd-and-goal and following a Mercer timeout, the initial pass play broke down, and Huff was improvising once again, and this time pump-faked the Mercer DB at about the 4, and that allowed Huff enough space to dive inside the corner pylon for the score to give the Paladins a 7-3 lead with just 37 seconds left in the half.

After a squibbed kick, the Bears got the ball in excellent field position deep inside Paladin territory following a return of 22 yards to the Mercer 47, the Bears drove the ball down to the Furman 14 with five seconds left. Mercer and Furman both burned timeouts, and then Devin Folser lined up for a 30-yard field goal attempt, however, the Paladins blocked their seventh kick of the season, as Jack Barton deflected the attempt and Furman maintained its three-point edge heading to the halftime locker room.

The Paladins got the ball to start the second half, but for the second time on the day, were stopped on 4th-and-1 at the Mercer 38, turning the ball over on downs.

The Bears got the ball back and were forced into a punting situation, but instead of allowing Trey Turk to set up good field position once again, the Bears opted to fake the punt, and Chris Hill rumbled five yards for a first down five yards for a first down to create a new set of downs for the Bears offense at their own 49.

Furman’s defense, however, came up big, as Braden Gilby tackled Brandon Marshall in the backfield for a three-yard loss on first down, and after Payton’s pass intended for James’ replacement Travion Solomon was incomplete on second down, Payton would be sacked by Alex Maier and Bryce Stanfield on third down, again forcing Turk on for a punt. This time, there was no fake, however, there was a notable change in momentum once again. What momentum was gained by Hill’s 5-yard gain on the initial fake punt, was quickly nullified by the Paladin defensive response.

Seizing upon that momentum, Furman’s offensive answer didn’t take long. On first down, Furman went deep, and Ryan Miller got both hands on the ball, but couldn’t come with it despite being interfered with by Mercer defensive back Richie Coffee. After the infraction was marked off, Kendall Thomas, who was in the game for an injured Devin Abrams, gained 14 yards to the Paladin 44. On the next play, Huff threw a bullet approximately 20 yards down field and between a pair of Bears defenders, who couldn’t bracket Harris on the play, and with the ball thrown slightly behind the sophomore wideout, it made for a big play opportunity for the quickly rising star on the Paladin offense.

Similar to Miller’s early second half TD catch against Chattanooga, Harris caught it, saw a defender bounce off, and then sprinted the final 30 or so yards to the end zone for the score. The only difference in Miller’s TD a couple of weeks ago against the Mocs is he didn’t have quite as far to run. The TD catch by Harris—56 yards in all—staked Furman to a 17-7 lead with 7:24 to play in the third quarter.

Mercer’s next drive would start promising enough, netting three first downs to reach the Furman 34. However, that’s where the Paladin defense once again seemingly had all the answers for an offense that has thrived in opposition territory the entire season. Payton completed a pass to Harper for a yard on first down, and on second down, saw his completion to the same player lose 10 yards, as Furman’s defense swarmed Payton, knocking his pass into the air, which was then caught by Payton for the sizable loss. That forced Turk on for another punt.

Furman would take over at its own 20, and after Thomas gained three on first down, Roberto hauled in a career-long 50-yard pass from Huff to get the Paladins to the doorstep of the red zone, at the Mercer 27. The Paladins eventually saw the drive stall, and had to settle for a 36-yard Ian Williams field goal and a 20-7 lead with just under a minute remaining in the third quarter.

After holding Mercer to a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, the Paladins would increase their lead to 16 points when Williams connected on a second-straight 36-yard effort to increase Furman’s lead to 23-7 with just 9:16 remaining in the game.

Mercer would make things interesting on its next possession, using a 52-yard pass from Payton-to-Harper to get the Bears to the Paladin 12. It took Mercer three plays, however, on 4th-and-9, Payton found Solomon for the score bringing the Bears to within 10 following the failed two-point run.

Furman’s offense did enough to chew up some of the 5:58 remaining on its next possession, and then eventually forced Mercer to turn it over on downs on the ensuing possession, with Gilby and Ryan providing the coverage on the final pass by Payton. Furman was able to close out the game in the victory formation.

“Our coaches challenged us to watch the film from the past two games with them {Mercer} the last two years and they said we were not the aggressor the past two years, and from the jump we we’re like we’re going to be the aggressor, and coach Vaughn said he was going to call it aggressive and that’s how we played and we knew if we could stop the run, we could make them one-dimensional just throwing the ball, which they’ve done well this year, but we trust our guys on the back end,” senior defensive lineman Matt Sochovka said.