In many ways, Saturday’s Southern Conference opener between Furman and Mercer was one of missed opportunities on one side, and on the other, opportunities seized. But at the end of Saturday’s SoCon opener, Mercer’s 24-3 win was decisive and thorough.
Furman dropped to 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the SoCon, while Mercer improved to 2-1 and 1-0 in league play.
Furman’s offense looked good at times, but bad at others, and on defense, it was the Paladins’ poorest overall performance of the season. Most of the bad snowballed in the opening half, which saw the Bears take an 18-point lead (21-3) into the halftime locker room.
It was the second-straight win over Furman for Mercer head coach Drew Cronic’s Bears, as they recorded a 26-14 win just last March at Five Star Stadium.
Cronic spent two different stints as an offensive assistant on the Furman sidelines, with the most recent stint coming in 2017 as the Paladins offensive coordinator before leaving to take the head coaching job at Lenoir-Rhyne.
Following the 2019 season, Cronic took over the head coaching job at Mercer. Since taking that post, he improved to 7-7 at the helm of the Bears’ football program, and has won seven of his last 11 games as the head coach of the Orange and Black after dropping all three games last fall.
Furman took its opening drive of the game and drove it all the way to the Mercer 36 before having to settle for a Timmy Bleekrode 46-yard field goal to take an early 3-0 lead. The Paladins had a 31-yard TD pass to Ryan Miller called back due to a holding penalty.
Mercer answered quickly on its first opening drive of the contest, driving 75 yards for a touchdown, with 35 of it coming on a Fred Payton-to-Ty James scoring strike, giving the Bears a 7-3 first quarter lead.
Late in the quarter, Furman’s defense created its first turnover of the day when senior strong safety DiMarcus Clay picked off a Payton pass tipped by intended receiver Ethan Dirrim, giving the Paladins the ball at the Mercer 36. However, on the first play of the second quarter, Mercer ended the threat by getting a Luke Ward interception.
Mercer would capitalize on Furman’s second turnover of the half, driving it 91 yards in seven plays to make it a 14-3 contest following a 10-yard scoring run by Brandon Marshall with 8:17 left in the half.
Furman had a promising drive following Mercer’s second touchdown of the day, however, the Bears’ Yashyn McKee blocked a Bleekrode 37-yard field goal attempt and Mercer took over the football with 2:41 remaining in the half.
The Bears drove the ball 80 yards in 2:31 to cap the half with a Marshall 2-yard scoring run to make it a 21-3 game.
Not much changed in the second half, as Mercer needed only a Devin Folser 45-yard field goal with 1:53 remaining in the third quarter to put the game on ice. However, it was the nine-play, 80-yard drive that seemingly took the wind out of the sails for Hendrix’s Paladins.
Furman’s offense could muster only 292 yards of total offense, despite running four more plays (69-65) than Mercer.
The one major note for Furman in the second half was a change under center. Sisson was replaced by true freshman Jace Wilson late in the third quarter. Paladin quarterbacks combined to connect on 22-of-37 throws for 201 yards with four picks and no touchdowns.
Sisson completed 16-of-25 passes for 141 yards with three INTs, while Wilson connected on 6-of-12 passes for 60 yards and an INT.
The favorite targets for Paladin signal-callers were both tight end Ryan Miller and freshman wideout Joshua Harris. Miller hauled in seven passes for 55 yards, while Harris caught five balls for 63 yards.
Senior running back Devin Wynn rushed 11 times for 39 yards, while hauling in a pair of passes for 26 yards.
Furman was led defensively by linebacker Bryce McCormick, who paced the Paladins with six tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss.
The Bears on the other hand, posted 391 yards of total offense, including a decisive 223-91 advantage on the ground. Mercer’s Payton was solid all afternoon in his second start, completing 10-of-20 passes for 168 yards, with one TD and an INT. He also rushed eight times for 37 yards.
Those numbers might seem modest to some, but his ability to convert in third-and-long–whether throwing or with his legs– seemed uncanny to those who witnessed it.
All told, Mercer was 8-of-14 in third down conversions in the contest. Furman was also an impressive 9-of-15 in that same category.
Fred Davis did a majority of the grunt work on the ground for the Bears, rushing for 94 yards on 18 carries, while Marshall finished with 66 yards and a pair of scores on 12 rush attempts. Davis also hauled in three passes for 31 yards.
The Bears leading receiver was Ty James–a player that hauled in eight passes for 179 yards and a TD last spring–continued his strong play against the Paladins with three catches for 77 yards and a score in Saturday’s Mercer win.
Defensively, Mercer was led by Isaac Dowling, who led all tacklers with 11 stops. Mercer’s four interceptions were recorded by linebacker Luke Ward, cornerbacks Michael Campbell and Yashyn McKee, and safety Richie Coffey.
Mercer returns to action next Saturday hosting Samford at Five Star Stadium, while Furman has the week off before traveling to Wofford on Oct. 9.