No. 2 Furman Comes From Behind Late to Claim a Share of Its 15th SoCon Title

Defensive slugfest reminiscent of '80s and '90s SoCon football battles, as both teams showcase remarkable resilience on the field.

Furman football players holding the SoCon Championship trophy
Source: Redshirt Sports

It’s been said that football is a great representation of the ups and downs of life, and how you handle those situations is often defined by the wisdom and maturity bourn out of prior heartbreaks and failures, and that could certainly be said of second-ranked Furman’s thrilling 17-14 win over No. 13 Chattanooga Saturday afternoon at Finley Stadium.

Furman has played the 2023 season with one mantra in reference to the 2022 season and being the heavy preseason SoCon gridiron favorites coming into the season after 38 of 44 players from the two-deep returned from a team that lost an FCS second-round heartbreaker at Incarnate Word last December. That mantra was “We didn’t win anything last year.”

Furman, which won its most games (10) since 2005 last fall, came up short in the SoCon regular season race, as Samford raced through the league, led by their talented signal-caller Michael Hiers to go unbeaten (8-0) en route to an impressive 10-1 regular-season to take home the title on Chattanooga’s Finley Stadium before clinching the outright crown in the regular-season crown a week later at Mercer.

The win guaranteed Furman at least a share of their 15th Southern Conference crown, as the Paladins came from behind late by using a late 9-yard scoring toss from redshirt freshman Carson Jones-to-Wayne Anderson Jr. with 2:58 remaining to give the Paladins a 17-14 lead in what was a thrilling fourth quarter.

When Furman lost veteran Huff to an apparent shoulder injury less than two minutes into the second quarter, the Paladins faced their most adversity in a high-stakes situation in the 2023 football season.

Furman, which came into the matchup with one of the most experienced mature teams in college football among its two-deep coming into the season, would now have to rely on a talented redshirt freshman to lead it to its eighth win (8-1) of the season, and remain undefeated in SoCon play (6-0) entering its final two league games. A win on Senior day against VMI next Saturday would see the Paladins win their first outright Southern Conference title in 33 years.

Jones, who was highlighted in the recruited former Paladin offensive coordinator and Maryville High School head coach, as well as current East Tennessee State head coach George Quarles, chose Furman among 20 offers during the recruiting process, which included Mercer and Gardner-Webb.

His patience paid off and his hard work during the off-season made him ready for his inevitable moment when he would be called upon to step up, and the cool and unflappable redshirt freshman met his moment of test with the readiness of a seasoned veteran.

The 13th-ranked Mocs, which remain alive to gain a share of the SoCon should the Paladins falter in both of their final league games, saw their three-game winning streak come to an end, falling to 7-3 overall and concluding Southern Conference play with a 6-2 mark. The Mocs will close out the regular-season with a trip to Tuscaloosa to take on No. 8 Alabama in a couple of weeks.

Furman’s win was its 12th-straight win in the Southern Conference, which is its longest streak in the league, spanning the 1988-90 seasons. The 6-0 start is Furman’s best start to a Southern Conference season since 1989, while the 8-1 start to a campaign marks Furman’s best start to a campaign since also since 1989.

Saturday’s contest was a defensive slugfest with a physical edge, and like many of Furman’s games of late, this game was a bit of a throwback that was reminiscent of some of those games in the SoCon back in the the late 1980s and early ‘90s, featuring a couple of outstanding defensive performances by both the Paladins and Mocs before of a crowd of 9,201 fans at Finley Stadium.

On a day when points and yards came at a premium, the Mocs ended up holding a 357-244 edge in total offense. Furman’s 244 yards of total offense were the lowest yardage total of the season, while the 357 yards of total offense for the Mocs mark the Mocs’ third-lowest total of the season, with only Mercer (351 yds) and VMI (356 yds)—both of which were road wins for UTC road wins—accounting for lower offensive outputs by the explosive Mocs.

UTC needed 70 plays to generate its 357 yards, but on only two passing plays, amassed 137 yards of its final total with the two longest passing plays from scrimmage in the Southern Conference this season.

Jones finished the day connecting on 14-of-27 passes for 139 yards, with two TDs and an INT. Furman running back Dominic Roberto rushed for 61 yards on eight carries, while the Paladin receiving efforts led by true freshman Colton Hinton Jr., who hauled in four passes for 61 yards and a score.

Senior running back and wide receiver Wayne Anderson Jr. blocked a punt and had the nine-yard scoring catch were huge on a day when a number of guys stepped on both sides of the ball for the Paladins. He directly helped contribute to 10 of Furman’s 17 points in the game, with the blocked punt leading to a 37-yard field goal from Ian Williams to start the scoring, while his scoring catch from Jones with just under three minutes left bookending the scoring for Furman in the win. Anderson also rushed for 18 yards on seven attempts, and his only catch proved to be the game-winner.

The win also saw Furman become the first of 24 teams to punch its ticket to the 2023 FCS playoffs, as the Paladins will look to now garner one of the top four seeds of the FCS playoffs for the first time for the program since 2005, and for a Southern Conference team, since the 2011 campaign when Georgia Southern entered the postseason as the No. 3 overall seed.

The Paladins also improved to 20-4 in its last 24 games, including improving to 9-2 against ranked FCS foes over the past couple of seasons. It marks the first time Furman has defeated two Top 15 teams on the road in the regular-season since 1984 campaign, when the Paladins won games at No. 11 Marshall (W, 38-28) and at No. 13 East Tennessee State (W, 28-16) in a regular-season.

Strangely, the Paladins didn’t qualify for the FCS playoffs during that ‘84 season, despite an 8-3 overall mark and 3-3 league ledger, which was good enough for a fourth-place finish in what was a tough league race.

But perhaps what continues to make the 2023 season for Furman is the fact, much like its basketball program brought back most of its scoring talent rather than having many guys flock to the transfer portal or look for NIL money, the Paladins collectively opted to stick it out one more year as a group, and like the hoopers last March, Furman’s football team was rewarded with tangible hardware to show for that commitment as a result. It’s a life lesson about being loyal to cause and commitment, and no matter what team you love most, that is a uniform and objective life lesson we could all likely apply to our own lives in its own way.

Furman basketball returned to the NCAA Tournament last March for the first time in 43 years. With a win next week, Furman has an opportunity to win its first outright SoCon football title in 33 years, and is off to its best start to a season in 34.

“Guys like Jalen Slawson [Furman basketball] and Mike Bothwell [Furman basketball] could have easily entered the transfer portal and could have gone somewhere and probably made some money in the NIL and all that…I actually did jump in the portal but I knew this team was something special and this place means a lot to me and that’s why I have been here for six years…The grass ain’t always greener on the other side…This is a great education and these are my brothers,” Furman senior cornerback Travis Blackshear said.

With that kind of tangible success in both sports to those who made the difficult decisions to return, it speaks to the culture not only within one sport at Furman, but multiple sports at Furman, as well as the value of the education that comes over everything else. Furman’s culture has become its own niche because what was once normal is not in college athletics anymore. It makes Furman a unique, yet refreshing outlier in that respect.

Furman will celebrate many of those seniors next Saturday on Senior Day, when it entertains VMI (4-5, 3-3 SoCon) in a 1 p.m. game at Paladin Stadium.

How It Happened

Much like last Saturday’s battle against East Tennessee State, the Paladins and Mocs engaged in a game that would see the defenses dominate the game from start to finish, however, perhaps the main difference between last week’s game between the Paladins and Bucs and Saturday’s game between Furman and UTC were big plays.

For Chattanooga, its two monster passing plays comprised most of its offense it generated against a Paladin defense that has been as good as any in the FCS over the past four weeks.

For Furman, it was one huge defensive play, which turned out to be the lone turnover it caused in the game to completely flip the momentum of the game, leading to the first of Furman’s two scoring drives on the day. The other major play made by Furman came from Wayne Anderson Jr. late in the opening quarter, as Wayne Anderon Jr. broke through the line to block a Clayton Crile punt, setting the Paladin offense up at the UTC 25.

However, after moving the football to the Mocs 14, the Paladins could advance the football no further against the stout UTC defense, settling for a 37-yard field goal from Ian Williams and a 3-0 lead with 13:34 left in the half. During the short drive, Furman starting quarterback Tyler Huff was sacked on third down SoCon preseason Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person, who came unblocked from Huff’s blindside to get a free hit on the graduate senior signal-caller on what was a nicely disguised blitz from the Mocs.

Though he gave no apparent signs of an injury when he left the game with just over 13 minute remaining in the second quarter, Huff did not return to the game. Furman would lean on Volunteer State native and Maryville High School product Carson Jones for the remainder of the afternoon. The redshirt freshman would go the rest of the way, leading the Paladins to a monster win in relief.

Chattanooga would answer just before the half, as Mocs signal-caller Chase Artopoeus found big-play wideout Javin Whatley on a post route over the middle, and after two Paladin defenders collided, Whatley and his tremendous speed did the rest, as he raced 67 yards to match longest passing touchdown of the season in the SoCon in 2023 in the process, giving the Mocs a 7-3 lead following Crile’s PAT with 3:38 remaining in the half.

Despite getting the ball to open the second half, the Paladin offense continued to struggle to find a rhythm, as Jones continued to adjust to being a quarterback in a high-stakes situation as a collegiate quarterback against a ranked Division I foe. Furman would generate no more than 13 yards on any of its offensive possessions in the third frame, and Jones was even intercepted by UTC’s Kam Brown late in the half, giving the Mocs the football just inside Furman territory at the Paladin 46 with 8:50 left in the quarter.

However, an offsides infraction and a third down sack by Bryce Stanfield—one of five quarterback takedowns in th game—would ultimately force the Mocs into a punt on a quick-kick by Artopoues on a 4th-and-18 play.

Chattanooga threatened to take a two-score lead late in the quarter, as the Mocs reached the Paladin 25 with under a minute remaining in the third. It set the stage for what would turn out to be a game-changing play.

On 3rd-and-9 from the Paladin 25, the Mocs opted to go to its back of tricks, as Whatley took the pitch on a reverse and threw towards the end zone and into double coverage, with Zaire Thornton making an incredible effort to try and reach around Jack Rhodes to snag a Tyrone Prothro-like (Alabama vs.Southern Miss 1997) catch in the end zone, however, in doing so, he inadvertently tipped the ball into the air and the ball was picked off by Furman’s Travis Blackshear.

Blackshear, who was making his 47th-career start fo rthe Paladins—a program record—was only making his return to the lineup following wrist surgery just eight days earlier, inserting pins into his wrist to fuse bone together. None of that mattered in this situation, as Blackshear’s concentration was not broken and he picked the ball out of the air and then returned 46 yards near midfield, giving Furman all the momentum and completely changing the trajectory and nature of the football game. Blackshear didn’t start and was only in the game on selective series, making his game-changer that much more incredible.

It was not all that different than Cally Chizik’s interception against Western Carolina, which came at almost the exact same point in the game and in the end zone, however, the lone difference was the fact that Furman still led that game against Western Carolina, but the Catamounts were on the verge of assuming the game, which could have changed the momentum in a negative direction in that Top 10 road win.

"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… "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,”said Furman senior cornerback Travis Blackshear of his big play.

Seizing upon that momentum and calmed by the play, Furman’s offense went to work. The Paladin offense went to work, taking over at its own 46 with just 22 seconds left in the quarter. On the first play of the new offensive set of downs for Furman, Jones found Kyndel on a 27-yard pass to get the visiting crowd from Furrman on its feet.

Following an incompletion on the next play, the Paladins faced 3rd-and-10 from the UTC 27. It would then be one freshman to another, as Jones found true freshman wideout Colton Hinton Jr. on the third play of the final quarter, giving the Paladins their first plead in the game—10-7–since late in the second quarter.

After Furman sacked Artopoues twice on the Mocs next possession, it would give Jones and the Paladin offense a chance to build upon its advantage and a chance to build a two-score advantage. However, after a promising start and a first down on an eight-yard catch by Roberto and two-yard run by the redshirt junior, Jones threw a couple of incompletions, and Furman was forced to punt the ball back to the Mocs.

The Mocs would re-take the lead on the next possession, and just like some on the UTC side might call Blackshear’s pick in the end zone a “fluke occurrence”, which led to Furman retaking the lead in the contest, it would be a fluke occurence on a long pass play, according to Furman folks, that would allow the Mocs to regain the lead. That’s because, like Thornton did everything right as a receiver to effort an acrobatic scoring catch for UTC, likewise the Paladin defense would be hard done by 72-yard scoring play by the Mocs.

On what was a the first play of the ensuing drive following a Ryan Leavy 47-yard punt, Artopoues was hit as he let the ball go, causing the ball to flutter and float just long enough for the speedy Jamoi Mayes to react, and he did the rest by racing 70 yards for the score and a 14-10 Mocs lead with just under nine minutes remaining.

Furman couldn’t do anything on its ensuing offensive possession after netting one first, however, the defense would continue to do its part late in the game to give Jones and the Paladin offense every chance they could to win the football game. The Paladins forced the Mocs into a three-and-out on their next possession, and after Crile’s 37-yard punt, Furman’s offense took over at midfield. Furman would a pair of a clutch throws by Jones on third downs to put the Paladins in a position to take a late-game lead.

The first came on a 3rd-and-8 play at the UTC 38, as Jones hooked up with his big 6-7 tight end Mason Pline, who continues to make clutch catches in the Furman passing attack, setting up Furman with a first down at UTC 24. Three plays later, the Paladins would face another third down—this time a 3rd-and-10 play—and Jones found freshman wideout Ben Anderson in the flats for a 12-yard completing, giving the Paladins a first down at the UTC 12.

Two plays later and following time out, Jones found a wide open Wayne Anderson in the flat on the same side Anderson caught his pass a couple plays earlier, and Anderson did the rest, out-racing a Mocs defender the corner pylon and a Furman 17-14 lead following the Ian Williams PAT with 2:58 remaining.

The Mocs would get the ball back and have one last chance to tie or win the football game. However, as it had done all day and all season to this point, the Paladin defense would slam the door shut and allow the Paladins to carry with it the 2023 SoCon Champions Trophy back to Greenville.

Cally Chizik’s big hit on Whatley on another apparent trick, wide receiver pass, which somehow turned into an RPO after running 10 yards in the wrong direction and failed then failed to beat the Paladin defense back to the first down marker, as Cally Chizik provided the game-sealing big hit on 4th-and-3. Furman’s offense would take a knee in the victory formation and the celebrations would commence.