Furman 29, Western Carolina 17
Much had been made about Western Carolina's "cat-like" quickness and stealth offensive prowess, however, little was made of Furman's staunch defense during the lead up to the 51st renewal of the Battle for Purple Supremacy.
In what was the second Top 10 matchup between the two, and the first one in four decades, the Paladins held a Catamount offense averaging 41.4 PPG and 531.8 YPG to goals of 17 points and 353 total yards, as No.3/4 Furman posted a 29-17 win over No. 8/14 Western Carolina in front 10.736 fans on-hand Saturday afternoon inside EJ Whitmire Stadium.
The win sees the Paladins improve to 6-1 overall and 4-0 in Southern Conference play, taking sole possession of first place in the league standings. The loss sees the Catamounts have their eight-game winning streak snapped against FCS competition, including also their streak of six-straight wins against SoCon foes, as the Catamounts dropped to 5-2 overall and 3-1 in league action.
The regular-season Top 10 matchup was Furman's first since 2004, when it knocked off No. 2 Georgia Southern, 29-27, in Greenville. The road win over the eighth-ranked Catamounts also marked Furman's highest-ranked regular-season road win since Oct. 15, 1988, when Furman ended No. 3 App State's 20-game unbeaten run in SoCon play, with a 24-9 win in Boone.
The talk from most pundits during the week was centered around Furman not having the offense that would be able to play from two scores behind, however, and the game having the potential to get away from Furman. That narrative never had a chance because quite simply, the Furman defense never gave it a chance to play.
It was a Paladin defense, which held Incarnate Word's explosive offense to just 13 second half points in the FCS postseason last December, and one that sacked Samford quarterback Michael Hiers nine times last week, which is the most in an FCS high for the season. The Paladins haven't allowed 30 points in a game to an FCS opponent this season and have held 11 of their past 14 opponents to 30 or less.
Not to be overshadowed was the Furman offense, which out-gained Western Carolina 508-353 in total output, rushed for 334 yards on 48 attempts, with Dominic Roberto leading the way with a season-high 154 yards and a touchdown on 31 attempts. The 31 rushing attempts for Roberto marks a career-high.
In Roberto's last three games against the Catamounts, he rushed for 602 yards and seven TDs on 80 carries vs. Western Carolina in his standout Paladin career, averaging an impressive 7.5 YPC in his career vs. the Catamounts. His rushing performance Saturday moves Roberto past former Paladin standout Jerome Felton (2004-07) on the school's all-time rushing ledger, as Roberto now has 2,662 rushing yards in his Paladin career.
Furman quarterback Tyler Huff was strong again in victory for Furman, finishing 13-of-22 passing for 174 yards and a pair of scores, while rushing for 89 yards and a score on just six rush attempts.
Huff's 53-yard jaunt for a score with under a minute left sealed Furman's road win over a Top 10 foe for the first time since 2002 (Nov. 16, 2002 No. 9 Furman 23, No. 10 Wofford 21). All told, Huff finished his afternoon with 263 yards of total offense and three touchdown responsibilities, helping lead an offense that did not turn the ball over.
Rounding out the strong rushing efforts for the Paladins was senior Wayne Anderson Jr., who rushed for 85 yards on eight attempts. He also caught two passes for nine yards.
The senior signal-caller's favorite target in the win was 6-7 tight end Mason Pline, who hauled in four passes for 88 yards and a score. Ben Ferguson caught two passes for 24 yards, while Hinton had two catches for 22 yards and TD.
Furman's defensive efforts were led by Evan DiMaggio, who finished with 10 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, and a pair of sacks, while Hugh Ryan and Cally Chizik contributed INTs to the Paladin cause, with the duo also contributing eight and four tackles, respectively.
The Paladin defense finished with a total of three sacks against a Western Carolina team that had only surrendered three sacks the entire season coming into the matchup. Furman registered more sacks against WCU than any opponent to-date this season, and the Paladins have now posted 12 sacks in its past two games.
Western Carolina, which hadn't been held to less than 500 yards of total offense against an FCS opponent since its 2022 regular-season finale against Chattanooga (316 total yds), finished with 353 on Saturday, with a majority of that coming via the arm of Cole Gonzales, who finished the contest by completing 21-of-35 passes for 269 yards, with two TDs and two INTs.
The Catamounts were only able to muster 84 rushing yards on 24 attempts. The Catamounts, who are led by the nation's second-leading rusher, Desmond Reid (859 rushing yards), had to rely on Branson Adams (13 rush att, 61 yds) for most of the afternoon, with Reid apparently limited due to an injury.
Reid also left WCU's dramatic 52-50 overtime win at Chattanooga early with an apparent lower body injury. He rushed for 211 yards for the Catamounts, including TD runs of 70 and 58 yards, in that particular win. Reid finished with two rushes for 10 yards against Furman, while hauling in one pass for 39 yards. He didn't return to the game after the second offensive series for WCU.
Gonzales' top targets in the WCU passing attack were both Censere Lee and David White Jr. Lee hauled in six passes for 73 yards, while White Jr. caught six balls for 73 yards and a score. AJ Colombo also hauled in a pair of passes for 27 yards and a touchdown.
Defensively, the Catamounts were led by linebacker Va Lealaimatafao, who posted a career and game-high 17 tackles.
How It Happened
Furman’s defense starting to impose its will and dictate how the 2023 Battle of Purple Supremacy from the opening series of the afternoon, holding the Catamounts twice on 4th down attempts on their first two series of the afternoon, giving the Paladins excellent field position and the Paladins converted both into touchdowns.
The first came after the Catamounts had advanced the ball to the Furman 39, but after an incompletion on fourth down. The Paladins would use a 10-yard scoring pass from Tyler Huff to Mason Pline for a 10-yard score to make it 6-0.
Following a missed PAT and an offsides penalty on WCU. Huff’s pass intended for Anderson in the corner of the end zone fell incomplete, leaving the Furman lead at six with 8:20 remaining in the opening quarter.
On WCU’s ensuing possession in the opening quarter, the Catamounts drove the ball into Furman territory once again, and once again were turned away on a 4th-and-8 play, as Micah Robinson broke up a Cole Gonzales pass intended for Censere Lee, and the Paladins took over possession at their own 44 and it took only five plays for the Paladins to move the ball 66 yards, with the drive culminating with a 16-yard scoring catch in the corner of the end zone from true freshman Colton Hinton on a perfect pitch from Huff, giving the Paladins a 13-0 lead with 3:19 remaining in the opening quarter.
Western Carolina would get on the board early in the second quarter, as the Catamounts put together an impressive 13-play, 75-yard drive, which was capped by the first of Gonzales' two scoring strikes, as he connected with AJ Colombo for a nine-yard scoring strike, giving WCU life and following Richard McCollum's PAT, got the Purple and Gold to within six, at 13-7, with just under 13 minutes remaining in the opening half of play.
The Furman offense would provide an immediate answer, however, as the Paladins needed little time to restore its 13-point advantage. Huff started the drive with a short three-yard pass to Wayne Anderson Jr., and then on second down at the Furman 28, Huff handed it to Anderson and he in-turn carried it for his longest carry of the season and longest play of the day for the Paladin offense, scampering 54 yards to the WCU 18, setting the ‘Dins up in the Catamount red zone.
A pair of nine-yard rumbles by Roberto had the Paladins to the painted area for the third time in the game, as the Paladins assumed a 20-7 lead following Axel Lepvreau’s PAT with 11:25 left in the half.
The Furman defense got a big stop on WCU’s next possession, getting another stop on fourth down and the Paladin offense took over at their own 33. The Paladins would move it all to the WCU 33, however, Huff was tackled for a five-yard loss on third down and the Paladins would be forced to punt from the WCU 38.
Ryan Leavy’s shanked punt netted a yard, giving the Catamounts good field position at their own 37. Gonzales and the Catamounts would take full advantage, driving 63 yards in seven plays to get within six, as Gonzales tossed his second scoring pass of the game, with a 17-yard scoring strike to David White, Jr., making it a 20-14 with 2:18 left in the half following McCollum’s PAT.
It appeared Furman was going to tack on points just before the half, as the Paladins moved the ball into the WCU red zone once again with relative ease. The key play in the drive was a beautiful 28-yard toss by Huff to his 6-7 tight end Pline, who brought it down in traffic and he endured a big hit by a Catamount defensive back, but was able to hang on to the football securely and that would get the Paladins to the WCU with 16 seconds remaining in the half.
Two plays later, it appeared Huff had given the Paladins a two-score lead once again heading to the half, as he tossed a perfect ball into the end zone to Hinton for a 22-yard TD, however, the scoring play would be nullified due to a holding penalty and Furman would be forced to settle for a long field goal attempt. Ian Williams’ 50-yard attempt was no good and the Paladins went to the break with a six-point lead.
With the ball to open the second half, the Paladins again put together a good drive, but again would see the drive bog down, and after WCU declined to accept a holding penalty against the Paladins on a 3rd-and-9 incompletion from Huff, Furman was forced to turn to its special teams again. Once again, Furman experienced some rare struggles in the kicking game, with the problem this time being the hold, and Axel Lepvreau’s 32-yard attempt barely got off the ground and Ed Jones IV picked up the loose ball and returned it 13 yards to give the Catamounts the early momentum in the second half.
WCU would drive all the way to the Furman 18, and on a 2nd-and-9 play, Gonzales would toss the ball to the corner of the end zone for wideout AJ Colombo, however, the ball was picked off by Cally Chizik, as he picked it off and went out at the Furman 1-yard line. The Paladin offense would move the ball out just enough so the Paladins could get the punt off out from the shadow of his own goalposts. Ian Williams punted it just 13 yards, as for the second time on the day, the Paladins had shanked a punt to give WCU excellent field position.
Furman’s defense, however, would hold strong and an Alex Maier sack would force the Catamounts to punt for the first time all afternoon.
The Paladin offense would take over the football with 14:06 left in the game and would bleed just over six minutes off the clock before Furman would be forced to settle for a 39-yard field goal by Ian Williams, giving the Paladins a two-score advantage, at 23-14, with 7:54 remaining.
The Catamounts would make things a bit more interesting when McCollum connected on a 43-yard field goal with 5:13 left to get the Catamounts back to within six, at 23-17.
On Furman’s next possession, Huff would decide the game once and for all on “Heroes Day” at EJ Whitmire Stadium.
On a day that was set apart to honor Vietnam War Veterans, it was second Lieutenant (ROTC commissioned through the US Army Reserves) and Furman senior quarterback Tyler Huff that carried out a perfectly executed 53-yard scoring keeper on a 3rd-and-9 play that rendered Furman’s seventh mission of the season an overwhelming success.
The winning play saw Huff pull the ball out from Roberto at the very last second before sprinting through a massive hole in the Catamount defense on the right side and ran for 53 yards untouched to the end zone for the final points of the game with just 54 seconds remaining. Furman’s two-point conversion attempt was no good, leaving the final margin, 29-17.