Week 11 SoCon Game of the Week: Furman at Mercer

No. 14 Mercer (7-2, 5-1 SoCon) hosts No. 13 Furman (7-2, 5-1 SoCon) in what could be the Southern Conference game of the year. Furman leads the leads 10-8-2.

Furman's defense stops Mercer's offense
Source: Furman Athletics

We're getting late in the season, and Saturday is showdown Saturday on the SoCon football gridiron, as No. 13 Furman heads to No. 14 Mercer for a crucial league showdown, which will have both SoCon title and FCS playoff implications. The other matchup with major implications—both league title and of the FCS playoff variety—will take place between No. 10 Samford and No. 11 Chattanooga in the Scenic City.

The Paladins could take a major step towards a 20th FCS playoff appearance and remain in the running for an unprecedented 15th Southern Conference title with a fifth-straight road win, which would mark the longest road winning streak, stretching from 1989 and into the 1990 season, which eventually came to an end with a 10-7 loss to the Marshall Thundering Herd in Huntington, WV during that season.

Furman has won three of their last four games against ranked foes under Clay Hendrix, including winning two of those this season. The Paladins are the only team in the Southern Conference with wins over two ranked foes this season.

The Paladins have knocked off both No. 18 East Tennessee State (W, 27-14) and No. 7 Chattanooga (W, 24-20). Furman’s lone loss this season came against league-leading and No. 10 Samford (L, 34-27) in what was the second Southern Conference game of the season for the Paladins.

Mercer finds itself in a similar position as it was a year ago when the Bears came down to the final game of the regular-season at East Tennessee State with the goals of a first-ever SoCon title and inaugural FCS playoff appearance still within its grasp.

The Bears have really owned Furman under Drew Cronic, winning both meetings with Cronic at the helm in Macon. The Bears captured a 26-14 win over the 'Dins in Macon during the spring of 2021 and turned around and smothered Furman in Paladin Stadium last fall, taking a 24-3 victory, taking advantage of four Paladin turnovers en route to getting the decisive win.

All told, the Bears current head coach has spent a total of 10 seasons at Furman as an assistant coach, serving for nine seasons under Bobby Lamb as both the wide receiver's coach and recruiting coordinator, and one season (2017) under Clay Hendrix in his first season at the helm in Greenville, serving as Furman’s offensive coordinator.

As Furman proved in its 24-20 win over Chattanooga, it’s not quite the same team of the previous two years. The Paladins have been able to run the football in pretty much every game so far this season.

In fact, Saturday’s clash between the Paladins and Bears will feature the top ground attacks in the Southern Conference, and two of the top ground attacks in all of FCS football.

The Paladins currently lead the Southern Conference in total rushing yards and rank just outside the Top 10 nationally, averaging 223.9 YPG, which is 11th nationally. Mercer comes in ranked No. 2 in the SoCon and 17th nationally in rushing the football, averaging 203.9 YPG on the ground. The Paladins’ season-low rushing the football in a game this season came against No. 4 Clemson in the 35-12 road loss, as the Paladins could only muster 125 yards in the loss to the Tigers. Furman was also held to 128 yards in its 34-27 loss to Samford on the opening Saturday of October.

Furman's Offense vs Mercer's Defense

The Paladins have been a rejuvenated offense so far this season, and a large part of that transformation offensively has a lot to do with Tyler Huff’s (126-of-183 passing, 1,296 yds, 10 TDs, 5 INTs/68 rush att, 418 yds, 2 TDs) play under center, and his ability to run the football has given the Paladin offense a new dimension it hasn’t previously possessed in recent seasons.

Huff could set the single season rushing record, which was set by Furman’s Justin Hill back in 1999, when he rushed for 640 yards in leading the Paladins to an impressive 9-2 record. Huff will likely be a threat to run the football this week, as he keeps teams from focusing solely on Dominic Roberto (127 rush att, 811 yds, 8 TDs, 6.4 YPC).

For Roberto, who has been a major contributor to the Furman ground game this season, he needs just 189 rushing yards to become Furman’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2019, when Devin Wynn finished off the campaign with 1,182 yards.

Roberto was held in check for the most part against the Mocs last time out, as he finished the contest with 22 yards on 10 carries against the Mocs, which accounted for his lowest total in a game this season, eclipsing his previous low for rushing yards, which was 26 yards in the 35-12 setback at Clemson.

Joining Roberto in the Paladin backfield as a running back to help off-set and complement the running style of Roberto is Devin Abrams (), who turned in a workmanlike effort in the win over Chattanooga last time out, as he finished the contest with 34 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.

Both Roberto and Abrams have proven to be effective receivers when the situation has called for it this season, as both have been effective catching the football out of the backfield this season. Abrams has hauled in nine passes for 74 yards, while Roberto has six catches for 67 yards and a score. His receiving TD against Western Carolina a couple of weeks ago was the first of his career.

The biggest reason why the Paladins have been so effective rushing the football this season has much to do with having arguably the top offensive line in the Southern Conference.

The Paladins are led along the offensive line by a pair of the top offensive tackles in the SoCon, with preseason All-America selection Anderson Tomlin at left tackle, while Pearson Toomey—a preseason first-team All-SoCon pick—mans the right tackle spot.

Among its starting quintet along the offensive front this season, the Paladins boasts a combined 116 starts, which is highlighted by a team-high 34 career starts by Evan Jumper at center. Jacob Johanning (26 starts) and Wyatt Hughes (25 starts) round out the experienced five across the offensive line for the Paladins at the left and right guard positions, respectively.

The Paladins have also been much improved at wide receiver this season. Two-time All-American Ryan Miller (53 rec, 579 yds, 9 TDs, 10.9 YPR) was a known commodity coming into the season for Furman, and he has continued his strong career catching the football as a senior this season for the Paladins.

For his career, the Jackson, Tenn., product has hauled in 132 passes for 1,963 yards and a Furman tight end record 25 TD receptions. His 25 TD catches over the course of his stellar Paladin career also ranks Miller second in program history in career TD grabs, trailing only former Paladin standout Chas Fox, who hauled in 26-career scoring passes from 1982-85. Miller has hauled in at least one scoring pass in eight of nine games this season for the Paladins.

In the win over Chattanooga a couple of weeks ago, Miller came up big, hauling in four passes for 64 yards and a score to lead the Paladin receiving corps.

The Paladins made a key acquisition via the transfer portal at one of the wideout spots, bringing in James Madison transfer Kyndel Dean (34 rec, 312 yds, 0 TDs, 9.2 YPR), who has added an element to the Paladin receiving corps this season, which they have lacked in previous seasons.

Also helping key the turnaround at wide receiver this season has been sophomore Joshua Harris (30 rec, 338 yds, 2 TDs, 11.3 YPR), who was a SoCon All-Freshman selection last season, and had a key role in Furman’s win over Chattanooga last time out. In that contest, Harris caught three passes for 62 yards, which included a 41-yard reception that set up a key Paladin score in the first half of that contest.

Rounding out the major options at wide receiver heading into Saturday night’s game in Macon is Wayne Anderson Jr., who made the transition from running back to wide receiver during the spring for the Paladins.

Anderson, who might be the fastest player on the offensive side of the ball, has a pair of key receiving TDs for the Paladins this season, which have come against East Tennessee State in a key SoCon road win, as well as hauling in one TD in the season-opening, 52-0, win over North Greenville.

In addition to what the Paladins have done rushing the football this season, they have been pretty solid offensively in all categories this season and is a big reason why Furman has put itself in position to win both a SoCon title and qualify for the 2022 FCS playoffs.

The Paladins enter Saturday night’s clash with the Bears ranking 27th in total offense (425.9 YPG) and 38th in scoring offense (275.0 YPG).

The Paladins will be taking on one of the top defensive units in the SoCon and in the FCS for the second time in a three-week span. Mercer comes into the titanic Southern Conference tilt against the Paladins ranking first in the Southern Conference and eighth nationally in total defense, surrendering just 290.9 YPG and second in the SoCon and 12th nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 18.9 PPG.

Finally, the Bears have been stellar as a defense at stopping the run for the entirety of the season, ranking second in the SoCon and 15th nationally, allowing just 108.8 YPG on the ground.

The Bears are mostly multiple on the defensive side of the football but utilize a 4-2-5 defensive scheme for the most part, with a few wrinkles, but mostly basic on the defensive side of the football.

Leading the Bears along the defensive front this Saturday will be preseason all-conference defensive end Solomon Zubairu (30 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 QBHs, 1 PBU) as well as nose guard Chris Hill (17 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 2 PBUs, 1 QBH, 1 FF) and defensive tackle Savio Frazier (28 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 QBH).

Zubairu, like both Devonnsha Maxwell and Ben Brewton of Chattanooga, will be among the best defensive linemen they will face off against this season. Zubairu turned in an outstanding performance against the Paladins back in the spring of 2021, as he was solid in the 26-14 win over the Paladins, posting five tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, and 1.5 sacks, helping spearhead a Mercer defensive effort, which limited the Paladins to just 243 yards of total offense, which included just 105 yards on the ground on a day which saw the 'Dins average just 2.0 yards-per-rush.

In the 24-3 win last fall at Paladin Stadium, Zubairu posted two tackles on a day, which saw the Bears keep the Paladins out of the end zone and limited the Paladins to less than 300 yards of total offense (292 yds) for a second-straight meeting, including holding the Paladins to less than 100 yds rushing (92 yds) in last season’s 21-point win in Greenville.

The 91 yards the Bears held the Paladins to in last season’s 21-point win in Greenville marked a season-low for the Paladins, and a yard better than the 92 rushing yards the Paladins were held to on the ground offensively a week earlier in a 45-7 loss to NC State a week earlier than Mercer’s win in Greenville in 2021.

Chris Hill is turning in another solid season at nose tackle for the Bears this season, having started all nine games for Mercer coming into Saturday’s clash in Greenville. Hill and Frazier both turned in solid performances in Greenville a year ago, as both notched four tackles, with Frazier recording one tackle behind the line of scrimmage in the win.

Set to start as the edge rusher/outside linebacker Christian Hansen (30 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 QBHs, 1 FR), joining what might be the top linebacker in the Southern Conference, in Isaac Dowling (82 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 1.0 sack, 1 FF), who leads the Mercer defense and is a Buck Buchanan Award candidate heading into Saturday’s showdown.

Dowling led the Bears defense with 11 tackles in Mercer’s win in Greenville last fall. His 82 tackles to this point this season rank him third overall in total tackles in the Southern Conference this season.

Dowling is part of a veteran linebacking unit for the Bears, which as the other half of that veteran duo includes Ken Standley (59 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU, 1 FF), who helps Dowling solidify the spine of the Mercer defense and is a big reason why the Bears have been so consistent against the run game-in and game-out under the direction of head coach Drew Cronic.

The secondary has been solid throughout the season for the Bears and are a big reason why Mercer leads the SoCon and leads the nation in INTs (17), which includes returning two of those for TDs so far this season. Mercer picked off Furman QBs Hamp Sisson (3) and Jace Wilson (1) four times last season.

The Bears will utilize a nickel package in their secondary with regularity, with the trio of safeties set to start Saturday’s contest against the 'Dins being preseason STATS Perform All-American Lance Wise (40 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs) at rover, while Richey Coffey (34 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 3 QBHs) is set to start at the bandit position, and Myles Redding (47 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBUs) rounding out the starting safeties at the free safety spot.

The two starters at the respective cornerback spots are TJ Moore (27 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 3 INTs, 1 PBU, 1 FR) and Michael Campbell (36 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 3 PBUs). The Bears also have solid depth at cornerback, with both Cam Sims (23 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 PBUs) and Corey Barnes (3 tackles, 2 QBHs) both being solid understudies at the respective corner spots. Both Michael Campbell and Richie Coffey ended up picking off passes for the Bears against the Paladins last season.

Mercer's Offense vs Furman's Defense

Offensively, Mercer is blessed with playmakers in the big-play department, and likely has more of them than any other team in the Southern Conference. But it all starts with a player to put them in position to make those big plays, and the quarterback that has been arguably the best in the Southern Conference this season—Fred Payton (158-of-234 passing, 2,242 yds, 28 TDs, 7 INTs/39 rush att, 136 rush yds)—has helped lead a Bears offense, which currently ranks second in the SoCon and ranks 12th nationally in total offense (463.0 YPG), while helping the Bears lead the SoCon and rank fifth nationally in scoring offense (40.3 PPG).

Payton, a transfer from Coastal Carolina, can make all the throws, and at one point this season, he had tossed 22 TD passes to only one INT. He didn’t throw an INT until week seven against East Tennessee State in a 55-33 home win, and since that game, he has tossed the ball to the opposition seven times in games against Chattanooga (4 INTs) and VMI (3 INTs).

Payton enters the week 11 clash against the Paladins leading the SoCon in passing efficiency (181.5) and touchdown passes (28), while his 2,242 passing yards ranks only behind Samford’s Michael Hiers, who has passed for 2,483 yards so far this season.

As you might expect, part of Payton’s major successes under center this season comes because of having two of the best weapons at wide receiver in the Southern Conference to throw to, in both Ty James (37 rec, 739 yds, 10 TDs, 20.0 YPR) and Deveron Harper (52 rec, 670 yds, 10 TDs, 12.9 YPR).

This receiving duo has been among the top tandems in all of FCS football this season, having combined to haul in 89 passes for 1,409 yards and have combined to haul in 20 of the Bears’ 28 scoring passes from Payton so far this season.

Both James and Harper have terrorized opposing defenses this season. James is averaging 20.0 YPR so far through nine games this season, while Harper is a threat as a runner, as well as on kickoff and punt returns, as he is the reigning Southern Conference special team’s player of the Month.

Harper is also a threat in the ground game for the Bears, as he has rushed for 162 yards and another four scores on 19 carries this season. Harper and James are both Walter Payton Award candidates and are among the most dynamic receiving tandems in all of FCS football.

In terms of kickoff return average so far this season, the Bears rank second overall in the Southern Conference in kickoff return average behind only Furman so far this season, averaging 22.3 yards-per-return.

Yet another target in the passing game for the Bears is tight end Drake Starks (10 rec, 112 yds, 4 TDs, 11.2 YPR), who comes into the contest as one of the best receiving tight ends in the SoCon this season. Starks has been especially utilized by the Mercer coaching staff in the red zone this season, as his four receiving TDs rank him third on the team in TD catches behind only Harper and James.

James, a transfer from the University of Georgia, has 256 yards receiving and a pair of TDs on 11-career receptions against the Paladins in his career. That’s an average of a whopping 23.7 yards-per-catch in his career against the ‘Dins.

The running game is powered James Madison transfer Austin Douglas (58 rush att, 403 yds, 5 TDs, 6.9 YPR) and Al Wooten (108 rush att, 419 yds, 2 TDs, 3.9 YPC) at the two B-back positions, while Brandon Marshall (43 rush att, 305 yds, 3 TDs, 7.1 YPC), who can make plays both as a rushing threat, as well as being a downfield receiving option, will man the A-back position for the Bears.

As a receiving threat this season, Marshall has nine catches for 153 yards and a touchdown through nine games for the Bears this season. He did plenty of damage as a receiving threat in a 55-33 win over East Tennessee State earlier this season, with three catches for 110 yards.

Mercer’s offensive line is anchored by one of the top left tackles in the Southern Conference, in redshirt junior John Thomas. Thomas teams with sophomore Ni Mansell on the left side of the Bears offensive line, while redshirt junior right tackle Nate Howard and redshirt freshman right guard Tyzen Wilkerson will comprise the right side of the offensive front.

Center Riley Adcock rounds out the starters along the offensive front, which leads the league in sacks surrendered so far through the first nine games this season, having yielded a total of only five quarterback takedowns.

The Furman defense, which has been multiple this season, utilizes mostly a three-man front. The Paladins enter Saturday’s SoCon showdown ranking 51st nationally in total defense (371.3 YPG) through nine games this season, while ranking 14th nationally in scoring defense (19.4 PPG).

Furman’s defense has been at their best when turning opponents over this season, having posted 21 takeaways so far in 2022. That 21 caused turnovers this season ranks tied for third nationally along with both Mercer and Chattanooga.

The Paladins, who are led by one of the better defensive coordinators in the SoCon, in Duane Vaughn, who is now in his fourth season leading the unit, have been the personification of “bend-but-don’t-break” defense this season. It’s a unit, which other than a near collapse against Western Carolina in a 47-40 earlier this season, has been pretty good in the fourth quarter.

In fact, the Paladins are outscoring foes, 48-27, in the final frame this season. Furman surrendered 20 of those 27 fourth quarter points in the win over the Catamounts.

Leading the Paladin defensive front this season have been two of the pillars in which the unit has been reliant upon all season, in nose tackle Cameron Coleman (20 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 QBH), as well as defensive tackle Matt Sochovka (18 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 QBHs, 3 blkd kicks).

Redshirt junior Jack Barton (18 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs, 2 blkd kicks) and sophomore Bryce Stanfield (13 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU, 1 FR) have helped compensate for a season-ending injury to starting defensive end Jeremiah Jackson (5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack), which he suffered in a Furman, 24-19, win at Charleston Southern earlier this season.

Furman’s linebacking unit and secondary have spread the wealth when it comes to tackle statistics this season, with both having been solid across the board, without one real standout performer.

In the middle of the Furman defense, both senior veteran Braden Gilby (59 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 QBHs, 1 FF) and redshirt junior Bryce McCormick (52 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 PBUs, 1 QBH) have been at the heart of the defensive success for the Paladins. Both McCormick and Gilby account for the top two tacklers on the Paladin defense.

At the outside linebacker spots, the Paladins rely on bandit Luke Clark (27 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 4 QBHs) and spur Jalen Miller (28 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 1 FR, 2 FFs, 1 QBH) to come up and provide run support along the perimeter, as well as being able to add support in pass coverage in certain situations.

Furman’s secondary has been among the best in the SoCon all season and is largely responsible for the Paladins having already recorded 39 pass breakups this season, which marks the most PBUs by a Paladin defensive unit since 2005. The Paladins also have registered 14 of their 21 turnovers gained on interceptions this season. The 14 INTs this season rank second in FCS football.

Leading the secondary so far this season is safety Hugh Ryan (50 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 4 INTs, 5 PBUs, 1 FF), who was the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Month for the month of October. Ryan, who will start at free safety for the Paladins Saturday, held just one Division I football offer from Furman, and he’s made the most of his career in the Purple and White. The Dutch Fork High School product has added a winning edge to the Paladin defense over the past three seasons.

Ryan will team with hard-hitting strong safety Kam Brinson (36 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 QBH, 5 PBUs, 1 INT, 3 FRs), giving the Paladins a solid tandem of playmaking safeties.

Rounding out the starters on the defensive side of the ball are cornerbacks Travis Blackshear (32 tackles, 4.0 TFL. 1 INT, 2 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 TD) and Ivan Yates (25 tackles, 5 PBUs, 1 INT). Blackshear was a preseason All-SoCon selection, and has nine-career INTs, which includes two returned for a touchdown. Blackshear had a 41-yard INT return for a score in Furman’s 41-3 win at VMI a few weeks ago.

Who Wins?

This has the potential to be the game of the year in the Southern Conference, and Mercer hasn’t lost at home all season, while Furman hasn’t tasted a road loss to FCS competition on the road this season, playing some of its best football outside the city limits of Greenville, S.C. I think the Paladins snap their two-game losing streak in the series vs. Mercer, which is something I predicted prior to the season. I will add that the loser of this game will do no harm to its playoff hopes, however, the winner will almost certainly clinch a bid. I think both get in regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s showdown.

Furman 33, Mercer 30