GREENVILLE, S.C.—Tyler Huff connected on 20-of-24 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 82 yards on 11 carries to lead a balanced ground attack that rolled up 222 yards, as No. 8 Furman disposed of No. 21 Mercer, 38-14, in the Southern Conference opener for both teams Saturday afternoon at Paladin Stadium.
Huff finished the day accounting for 250 yards of total offense. In each of the past two weeks combined, Huff has connected on 44-of-56 passes for 405 yards, with one TD and no INTs. On the ground, Huff has rushed it 30 times for 161 yards and four scores over the past couple of Saturdays.
With the win, Furman improves to 3-1 overall and 1-0 in the SoCon, while Mercer fell to 2-2 overall and 0-1 in league play. The Paladins improved to 15-4 in its last 19 games and the Paladins have now won 15 of their past 17 games against FCS foes. The Paladins also improved to 6-2 against their last eight ranked FCS opponents.
It was also Furman’s second-straight win over Mercer, having defeated the Bears 23-13 in Macon last season. Saturday’s contest between the Bears and Paladins also marked the second-straight game in which both teams came into the matchup ranked in both the STATS FCS poll as well as the AFCA Coaches Poll.
Furman was pretty dominant for most of the day on the defensive side of the football. Outside of scoring drives of 74 and 75 yards, which took place on back-to-back scoring drives at the end of the first half and the opening drive of the second half, the Bears could only muster 118 yards of total offense. For the first time since the opener against Tennessee Tech, the Paladins were able to generate some significant pressure with their defensive front, sacking Mercer quarterback Carter Peevy three times in the game.
All told, Furman held an advantage of 387-267 in total offense, including a 233-170 edge in rushing yards. Peevy finished the contest completing 11-of-16 passes for 123 yards and a touchdown, while rushing for 66 yards and a touchdown on 13 attempts, leading Bears’ rushing efforts.
Ten different receivers caught a pass for the Paladins, led by Joshua Harris, who hauled in five passes for 48 yards, while Mason Pline hauled in four passes for 30 yards, including a 10-yard scoring catch early in the fourth quarter.
The Bears were led by All-American wideout Ty James, who hauled in four passes for 83 yards, which included a 26-yard scoring grab just before the half. Devron Harper had three catches for 37 yards.
Furman was led defensively by Braden Gilby, who posted 11 tackles and a sack, while Matt Sochovka, Bryce Stanfield and Jack Barton accounted for Furman’s other two quarterback takedowns in the contest, with Barton and Stanfield combining for one of those Peevy takedowns.
Travis Blackshear posted three tackles and a pair of pass breakups. Barton also recorded his fifth blocked kick and Furman’s 11th in the past couple of seasons in the win.
Mercer was paced in the contest by Lance Wise’s 12 stops, while linebacker Isaac Dowling added nine tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss.
How It Happened
There’s always a bit of edge when Furman takes on Mercer. This particular rivalry seems to be gaining some steam, especially since the Bears have been knocking at the door of both the FCS playoffs and a SoCon title each of the past two seasons.
“I’ll start by saying how much of a personal game Mercer is for the DLine,” Furman defensive end Jack Barton said in reply to a question. “We’ve all kind of played Mercer and sometimes it didn’t go the way we wanted it to go and so we wanted to make sure them boys felt us today,” Barton added.
While head coach Clay Hendrix acknowledged the Paladins had some things to get fixed during the off-week, he was pleased with his team’s overall performance against a good opponent to open league play.
“I thought we certainly played a complete game,”head coach Clay Hendrix said. “It wasn’t a perfect game but a complete game.”
Jack Barton was again a key reason why the Paladins set the tone defensively. He also was a big part of providing a huge play in the special teams department in Saturday’s win.
It was Barton’s block of a Devin Folser field goal attempt late in the opening half of last season’s clash, which saw the Paladins win 23-13, that helped turn the game in Furman’s favor for good, as the Paladins laid down a marker in Macon. Barton’s comments about failures against the Bears earlier in his career came with plenty of credibility.
It wasn’t too long ago that the Paladins suffered back-to-back defeats to Mercer, dropping a 26-14 contest in the COVID-19 spring season of 2021. The ensuing fall saw Furman fail to generate next to nothing offensively, as the Paladins fell 24-6 at home. Mercer’s program has clearly been elevated under fourth-year head coach Drew Cronic. Furman had to elevate its game on both sides of the football accordingly, and it has.
Barton and the Paladin defense followed up a performance that saw Furman’s defensive unit hold Mercer to season lows for rushing yards (53) and points (13), while sacking then Mercer QB Fred Payton five times, which was nearly double the number of times he had been sacked in the previous eight games combined.
The last time Carter Peevy started against Furman back in the spring of 2021, he passed for a then Mercer program record 406 yards and a pair of TDs, while running for another in what was a 26-14 win in Macon on that rare spring meeting back on April 3, 2021.
In 2023, Peevy was solid in the contest, but his numbers and Mercer’s offense as a whole were modest in comparison to the last meeting.
The opening quarter for Furman was much like it was last week at Kennesaw State, with the Paladin offense struggling to find much of a rhythm, as the Bears’ defense kept the Paladin offense in-check, forcing a pair of punts, while the Paladin defense was equally as strong forcing a punt, and Jack Barton recorded his fifth blocked kick in the past two seasons after the Bears drove into the Paladin red zone, keeping the game scoreless.
With 1:26 remaining in the first quarter, the Paladins took over their own eight-yard line and would embark on their most impressive drive of the afternoon so far, and 11 plays later, Ian Williams’ 31-yard field goal gave the Paladins a 3-0 lead with 11:37 left in the half.
After that, Furman would slowly get going—first through the air—and then on the ground. It appeared Mercer had matched Furman’s big play in the special teams department with a blocked punt, however, a flag against the Bears for holding on the play provided a stark change in momentum, giving the Paladins a first down and the offense new life.
The Paladins, as good teams do, turned it into points shortly thereafter when Dominic Roberto scampered nine yards untouched into the end zone to give the Paladins their first two-score advantage of the game, as Furman assumed a 10-0 lead following a Roberto 9-yard scoring jaunt with 5:16 left in the half.
The Bears then gave Furman’s offense a gift. Devron Harper fumbled a Ryan Leavy punt after signaling for a fair catch with 1:24 left in the half, and there to pounce on the loose football at the Mercer 13 yard line was Paladin senior wide receiver Luke Shiflett. It took Wayne Anderson Jr. just one hand-off from Huff to give the Paladins a comfortable 17-0 lead with 1:18 remaining in the opening frame, and seemingly all the momentum into the halftime locker room.
But just when you thought the Paladins would have the momentum heading to the half, Mercer and Peevy put together its most impressive drive of the day. The Bears needed just five plays to cover 75 yards, taking only 1:11 off the clock, with Peevy finding a streaking Ty James down the far sideline for a 26-yard scoring strike and giving the Bears new life, cutting Furman’s lead to 10 (17-7) at the break.
Fueling that momentum even more was the fact that the Bears offense would get the ball first coming out of the locker room to start the second half.
Carter Peevy’s eight-yard scamper to the end zone got the Bears back to within a field goal and concluded an 11-play, 74 yard drive with 8:02 left in the third quarter.
Huff and the Paladin offense responded much the same way they did last week playing in the Peach State against Kennesaw State after the Owls knotted the score late in the fourth quarter. The Paladins didn’t flinch, but instead turned it up a notch on both sides of the football.
The Paladins fashioned their most impressive drive of the day, putting together a 14-play, 80-yard response, which was capped by a Myion Hicks 1-yard scoring plunge with 53 seconds left in the third. Hicks, who teamed with Jay’Quan Smith for much of the game in relief of Dominic Roberto, who left the game late in the first half and did not return due to an apparent lower body injury, restored Furman’s two-score lead (24-14) with his scoring plunge. Hicks finished with 19 yards and a touchdown on six carries, as the Paladins platooned the ground game after Roberto’s departure.
For the remaining 15 minutes and change left in the game, the Paladin defense would turn up the heat. Following Mercer’s scoring drive to open the second half, the Paladin defense didn’t allow another first down the rest of the game, including stopping the Bears on three-straight fourth downs to force a turnover on downs, while limiting the Bears to just 14 yards the remainder of the game.
The back-breaker for Mercer would come shortly thereafter. With precious time now a factor and trailing by two scores, the Bears faced a 4th-and-1 at their own 48 early in the final frame. Al Wooten was stopped for no gain and the Paladins had the ball in great field position. Huff needed only five plays to get the Paladins back in the end zone.
The graduate quarterback capped the short drive by beautifully lofting 10-yard alley-oop to former Ferris State hooper Mason Pline, who could have slammed it over the goalposts on Huff’s aerial without much of a challenge from a Bears defensive back, which were an endangered species on the play. It was Pline’s first scoring catch as a Paladin, as two of Furman’s three TD passes have been caught by tight ends this season.
Furman’s final score was set up by another short field, and it came from Jay’Quan Smith—a player that is beginning to show why he was so highly-touted as a recruit coming into the program. After the Paladin defense held the Bears on another three-and-out, Furman took over the ball at the Bears 28 and needed just three plays to find pay dirt.
Huff found Anderson on a short six-yard completion, and after Smith gained two on second down, his number was called again on third and short. He responded by taking a handoff, out-racing one Bears defender before stiff-arming another en route to a 20-yard scoring run to the far corner of the end zone, giving Furman a decisive 24-point, 38-14 lead, with 8:04 left. The rookie running back finished with 46 yards and a TD on just six carries.
The Paladins out-gained the Bears 84-11 in the final quarter on only three more plays (12-9).
“Furman is better than us right now…make no mistake about it,” Mercer head coach Drew Cronic said. “But the gap wasn’t as big as that and we can close the gap and we can play ourselves into it and we’ve been kicked in the gut before in previous seasons and have put ourselves in a position to do something pretty special,” Cronic added.
It was a decisive way to put an exclamation point in Furman’s opening Southern Conference win of the 2023 season. Furman will be off next Saturday before hosting arch-rival The Citadel on Oct. 7 at Paladin Stadium. The kickoff for that contest is slated for 2 p.m. EST. Meanwhile, Mercer returns to Macon to close out September, hosting VMI in a game slated for a 4 p.m. EST kickoff at Five Star Stadium.