SoCon's Football Drama: Underdogs Rise, Favorites Stumble

Explore SoCon's 2023 football drama: underdogs rise, favorites stumble. Uncover shocking upsets & pivotal moments shaping this unforgettable season.

Ryan Ingram 2023 action vs Furman
Source: Wofford Athletics - Mark Olencki

If you’ve been watching SoCon football this season, there have been some crazy outcomes. However, if ever the league needed its best team to win on a big stage, it was Saturday. Furman was a team playing in that rivalry game, and the one team that could care least about the league’s national profile or respect level Saturday was Wofford

Wofford wasn’t willing to comply. A one-win Terrier team against a one-loss Paladin team, including one that came in 9-0 against FCS competition, should have given the league and the Paladins more than enough to secure a top four seed for the FCS playoff, and perhaps even the No. 2 seed.

It was the 97th renewal of a rivalry that began in 1889 and it was the Terriers’ first win in the series since 2019–a day when a 24-7 win at Gibbs Stadium helped secure a share of the regular-season SoCon crown.

It was the type of upset that, while it probably won’t cost the Paladins a top eight seed, represents a major blown opportunity at garnering the respect it has struggled so hard to regain since the departures of App State and Georgia Southern.

The other action around the league was nearly as shocking, with VMI’s 27-24 win over No. 18 Western Carolina now suddenly leaving the Catamounts on the outside looking in when it comes to the FCS postseason.

The Catamounts lost, 27-24, at VMI to end the season at 7-4 overall and 5-3 in league play.

After being ranked as high as No. 8 nationally, the Catamounts lost three of their final five games to close the season. The Catamounts had won 25 of those previous 29 meetings with VMI coming into today.

The Catamounts, which had welcomed back a healthy Desmond Reid into the fold, lost Cole Gonzales to an injury.

No. 21 Mercer, which finished out the season with an 8-3 mark with a 28-21 win over Samford last week, likely saw its chances at a seed increase with WCU’s loss at VMI.

No. 13 Chattanooga was likely on the outside looking in coming into Saturday, and saw its chances increase as well, despite dropping a predictable 66-10 contest at No. 8 Alabama. The Mocs finished second in the league with a 6-2 record, while finishing the regular-season with a 7-4 overall record.

Finally, Samford and East Tennessee State found their way into the win column on the final weekend of the regular-season, with the Bulldogs claiming a 27-17 win over UT-Martin, while the Bucs sent The Citadel into the off-season without a win in what was the conclusion to a tough first season with what was a 35-23 win by the Bucs in Johnson City.


Wofford 19, No. 2 Furman 13

Wofford went winless through the first nine games of its 2023 schedule, however, when it reached the Palmetto State version of its 2023 slate, the Terriers were unbeatable.

After going on the road and coming a way with an 11-3 win at The Citadel last Saturday, the Terriers saved their best act of the 2023 for their final one, as Wofford claimed a 19-13 win over No. 2 Furman on Senior Day at Gibbs Stadium.

The win sees Wofford finish the season with a 2-9 overall mark and a 2-6 ledger in league play, while regular-season outright SoCon champion Furman falls to 9-2 and 7-1 in league play.

The Paladins, who had their school-record-tying 13-game SoCon winning streak snapped, were part of one of the biggest upsets in league history.

The upset by Wofford would rank up there among the biggest gridiron upsets in Southern Conference history, rivaling VMI’s 1994 stunner at Appalachian State, as the Keydets kept the Mountaineers from winning a share of the SoCon crown and automatic bid to the FCS playoffs, handing the 10th-ranked team in the nation a 26-23 setback on its home field in a contest decided in overtime.

VMI had come into the contest against App State 0-10 overall and much like Wofford in 2023 in the regular-season finale, were playing with nothing to lose.

Two weeks ago, the Terriers had lost 21 of their past 26 football games and were headed for a winless season going into another long off-season.

Two weeks removed from that dark forecast, the Terriers have now secured back-to-back wins together since knocking off The Citadel (W, 31-16) and East Tennessee State (W, 48-41) in consecutive weeks in late October last season.

It marked the highest ranked foe Wofford has defeated since knocking off No. 1 Appalachian State (W, 42-31) on Sept. 22, 2007.

The Paladins held their fifth-straight foe to less than 20 points, and ended up sacking Wofford signal-caller Amari Odom three times, while picking him off once.

Odom completed 9-of-18 passes for 92 yards and was intercepted once, while Jones finished the day 18-of-38 passing for 99 yards and an INT.

Leading Furman’s ground attack was Myion Hicks, who finished with 70 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries.

Wofford’s ground attack was paced by Ryan Ingram’s 111 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries.

How It Happened

Furman won the toss and deferred until the second half, giving the Terriers the football first.

The Terriers would open the game by putting up points on their opening drive, as Bridger Jones connected on a 46-yard field goal to give the Terriers a 3-0 lead with 10:21 remaining in the opening quarter. The play concluded an eight-play, 46-yard drive

The Paladins would tie the game late in the quarter after Xavier Stephens sacked Terrier starting quarterback Amarri Odom and the loose ball was recovered by Matt Sochovka at the Wofford 10.

After reaching the four on a six-yard pass on third down, the Paladins had to settle for a 22-yard Ian Williams field goal to tie the game with 4:39 left in the opening quarter.

The Paladins defense would force its third turnover of the opening half when Luke Clark applied a big hit on Wofford running back Ryan Ingram, forcing the ball free and the ball would be recovered by Jack Barton.

The Paladins netted a first down, however, before having to settle for a field goal, as Williams connected on his 10th-straight field goal to give the Paladins a 6-3 lead with remaining in the opening half of play.

Wofford was the lone team to find the end zone in the opening half and it would come on a 4th-and-2 play at its own 47.

The Paladins had most their defense aligned along the line of scrimmage in an effort to prevent Wofford from reaching the yard to gain, however, Terrier running back Ryan Ingram eluded one tackle and was off to the races, finishing it off 53 yards later in the end zone to give the Terriers a 10-6 advantage.

Furman would have one more chance at the end of half, but Ian Williams’ 32-yard field goal attempt would bang off the right upright and was no good to make to keep the deficit for the Paladins. That would remain the score as the two teams entered the halftime locker room with a surprising scoreline.

The surprises would continue early in the third quarter, as on a 4th-and-1 play a missed exchange led to a 64-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Wofford’s Maximus Pulley to provide even more shock to the system for those watching around the nation, giving the Terriers a 16-6 lead. A missed Bridger Jones PAT left the margin at 10.

The Paladins would see the Terriers tack on a late 42-yard field goal by Jones to make it a 19-6 contest with lead with 50 seconds left in the third. Jones’ second field goal of the game came as a result of a Carson Jones INT, which gave the Terriers the football inside Furman territory.

Early in the fourth quarter it would be the Paladins that would begin to make things interesting and when Myion Hicks ran the ball in from 11 yards out to get the Paladins to within six, at 19-13, with a scoring run to seemingly give Paladins all the momentum with 12:07 remaining in the game. The Hicks TD run concluded what was a seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive by the Paladins.

Furman’s defense, which has been outstanding all season, was once again elite Saturday and again provided a prime opportunity to salvage the win.

The Paladins finished the contest holding a 188-184 advantage in total offense, with the Terriers holding a slight 92-89 advantage in rushing yards.

VMI 27, No. 14 Western Carolina 24

With a chance to put itself into a prime position to receive its first NCAA FCS playoff invitation since 1983, No. 14 Western Carolina couldn’t clear the final hurdle, as Hunter Rice rushed for four touchdowns to lead VMI to a 27-24 win to close out its first season under head coach Danny Rocco.

Rice would finish with 138 yards and four scores, becoming the first Keydet to rush for four TDs in a game since 2019, as the Keydets defeated their first ranked foe since 2021.

The win sees the Keydets close out the 2023 season with a 5-6 record overall and a 4-4 record in SoCon action. Western Carolina finishes the 2023 season 7-4 overall and 5-3 in SoCon action.

The Keydets got out to a 27-10 lead before having to hold on for dear life to close out the season with a home win.

VMI got on the board less than a minute into the second quarter when Rice rumbled in from a yard out to make it a 7-0 game, concluding what was a nine-play, 79-yard scoring drive.

The Catamounts stormed back to assume a 10-7 lead when Richard McCollum added a 41-yard field goal and running back Desmond Reid, who was seeing his first action since a mid-season loss to Furman back on Oct. 22, scored on a 7-yard scoring run with 2:29 remaining in the opening half, and that’s how things would remain as the two teams entered the halftime locker room.

Western Carolina’s lead came despite losing the SoCon’s most-efficient passer, Cole Gonzales, to an upper-body injury. Brody Palhegyi would come in relief and would play the remainder of the game.

Things would take a turn in favor of the Keydets in the third quarter with a pair of Rice scoring runs, posting a seven-yard scamper with just under five minutes remaining in the frame to give the Keydets their first lead since early in the second quarter, however, the PAT was no good leaving the margin at three, at 13-10.

The key play in the drive was a 36-yard connection from quarterback Collin Ironside to tight end Aiden Twombly, which was part of a career-high 133-yard receiving effort.

The Keydet defense forced WCU into a quick three-and-out and with the ball back, it wouldn’t take Rice long to finish off another scoring run, as he scampered 63 yards for a touchdown and a 20-10 Keydet lead with just over four minutes left in the third quarter.

Things would get even better for VMI when Evan Eller picked off a Palhegyi pass and gave the Keydets excellent field position. He returned it 28 yards to the WCU 30. It would eventually lead to a 1-yard scoring plunge on the opening play of the final quarter, making it a 27-10.

The Catamounts would mount a furious rally, however, as Palhegyi tossed a 21-yard scoring strike to De’Andre Tamarez to make it a 27-17 game with 12:50 left.

After the WCU defense forced a VMI punt for a second-straight possession, the Catamounts inched even closer when Palhegyi called his own number to make it a three point game following his four-yard scoring scamper to make it a 27-24 game with nine minutes left.

VMI got the ball back, however, and though it didn’t score, it did the next best thing by running just over seven minutes off the clock and forced the Catamounts to burn a timeout.

The Keydets reached the WCU 17 but were forced to attempt a 35-yard field goal with 1:56 left, however, the kick was no good and the Catamounts took over.

Completions of 15 and five yards got the ball up to the Catamount 39, however, a key sack by VMI’s Christian Dunn and Evan Eller on third down forced WCU to burn its final timeout to come up with a play on 4th-and-15.

Palhegyi faced heavy pressure on 4th down and decided to try and gain the 15 yards with his feet, but was stopped two yards short effectively ending the threat and WCU’s 2023 playoff hopes.

ETSU closes George Quarles era with a win

George Quarles will not return as coach at ETSU it was announced shortly after the Bucs dispatched The Citadel, 35-23, at William B. Greene Stadium, however, he would go out with a win. Sheldon Arnold II highlighted the Bucs triumphant afternoon by returning a blocked field goal 99 yards for a score, as the Bucs finished the season with a 3-8 overall mark, including a 2-6 mark in league play. The Citadel finished winless, completing the first season under Maurice Drayton 0-11 overall and 0-8 in league play.

Samford plays playoff spoiler

Though Samford and Michael Hiers didn’t have an encore performance of last year’s remarkable run to the SoCon title and FCS playoffs, the Bulldogs would notch one of their best wins of the season, with a 27-17 win over No. 19 UT-Martin. Hiers finished off his Samford career in style, completing 21-of-31 passes for 205 yards, while Jay Stanton rushed for a career-best 193 yards and a touchdown to highlight Samford’s season-closing win. The Bulldogs finished the 2023 season with a 6-5 overall mark, while the Skyhawks finished up 8-3 and were left out of the FCS postseason.

FCS playoff participants and notes

SoCon teams are 112-81 all-time in the postseason (1982) and it’s the first time the league has received three invitations to the FCS postseason since 2017.

Furman (9-2, 7-1 SoCon) — Furman was the automatic bid winner as the outright SoCon champion and will be making its 20th appearance in the FCS playoffs, including their second-straight appearance, and will be the No. 7 seed in the FCS playoffs. The Paladins will take on the winner of Chattanooga-Austin Peay at Fortera Stadium in Clarksville next weekend. The 20 playoff appearances is tied for the most among current FCS programs. The Paladins hold a 20-18 record all-time in the postseason, including becoming the first private school to claim a football national title in 1988, when the Paladins defeated Georgia Southern, 17-12, in Pocatello, ID. The Paladins have made three national title appearances, with the last coming in 2001, dropping a 13-6 contest to Montana. Last year, the Paladins knocked off Elon, 31-6, at Paladin Stadium before losing a heartbreaking, 41-38, contest at eventual semifinalist Incarnate Word.

Mercer (8-3, 6-2 SoCon) — Mercer qualified for its first-ever FCS playoff after flirting with doing so each of the past two seasons. The Bears will take on the Gardner-Webb Bulldogs out of the Big South-OVC, who are coached by former Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb’s nephew Tre Lamb. Mercer and Gardner-Webb faced each other just last season, with Mercer taking a 45-14 decision in Boiling Springs last season. The winner of that matchup will travel to top overall seed and defending national champion South Dakota State, who enters the playoff field sporting a 25-game winning streak, which is the fourth-longest in NCAA Division I history (FBS or FCS).

Chattanooga (8-3, 6-2 SoCon) — Chattanooga makes the FCS playoff field for the first time since 2016 and will engage in an all-Volunteer State clash when they take on the Governors, and the playoff appearance will mark the first for the Mocs under current head coach Rusty Wright and marks the fifth in program history. UTC is 3-4 all-time in the FCS postseason. Chattanooga will be facing off against the Governors for the eighth time in series history, with the Mocs holding the 6-1 all-time series edge, however, the Governors got their first win in the series the last time these two met, with Austin Peay getting what was a 30-20 win in Chattanooga back in 2021.