SoCon Football 2022: Week 1 recaps and power rankings

Samford knocked off No. 8 Kennesaw State to open the season/photo courtesy of Samford athletics

Samford 27, No. 8 Kennesaw State 17

Without question, the most impressive win of the opening weekend in Southern Conference football belongs to the Samford Bulldogs, who posted a 27-17 win over No. 8 Kennesaw State Thursday night at Seibert Stadium.

In what was the lone win by a SoCon team over a ranked FCS foe in the opening weekend of play, the Bulldogs headed into the matchup with some uncertainty at quarterback. However, those concerns were more than answered by new starter Michael Hiers, who shined in his first start under center for the Bulldogs. He finished the night completing 18-of-24 passes for 289 yards, including throwing an impressive four touchdowns.

Kendall Watson caught nine of those 18 completions from Hiers, as he had a career-best 187 yards receiving to go along with a pair of scores. Chandler Smith also caught three passes for 67 yards to round out Hiers’ main targets in the passing game for Samford.

All told, the Bulldogs held an impressive 402-328 edge in total offensive yards. As impressive as the offensive performance was in the season opener, it new defensive coordinator Chris Boone’s defense that ended up being the story of the night. Samford surrendered over 500 yards per game last season, and ranked last (123rd) in all of FCS football last fall.

It was Kennesaw State, however, that ended up putting the first points on the board of the night, as the Owls went 80 yards in eight plays to take a 7-0 lead following a Presto Daniels 26-yard run with 8:55 left in the opening quarter.

However, the Bulldogs would respond with a pair of scores to take a 14-7 lead, following a 28-yard pass from Hiers-to-Watson before the same duo would hook up again, with Hiers’ completion this time going for six yards to Watson.

Kennesaw would respond in the third quarter, however, as the Owls got a 38-yard field goal from Nathan Robertson, and then later in the quarter, All-American quarterback Xavier Shepherd gave the Owls the lead back, at 17-14, as he completed what was a five-play, 13-yard drive with 3:51 remaining in the third quarter, giving the Owls a 17-14 lead. The short field was awarded to the Owls as a result of a fumble by the Bulldogs.

But Samford showed mettle in the fourth quarter, and with the backing of a rowdy crowd of 5,333 fans on-hand at Seibert Stadium, the Bulldogs would get back-to-back scoring drives to put win No. 1 of the 2022 season on ice, using scoring tosses of 15 yards and 31 yards, respectively, to Chandler Smith, to take a two-score lead with 5:40 remaining.

The Bulldogs held a KSU offense to just 193 yards on the ground in the contest. Last season, the Owls averaged 278 yards-per-game on the ground.

With the win, it marked the SoCon’s second-straight win over Kennesaw State in contiguous seasons, as East Tennessee State ended the Bulldogs’ 2021 season, with a 32-31 victory in the second round of the FCS playoffs in Johnson City.

Samford will have its proverbial hands full next Saturday, traveling to No. 3 and defending national champion Georgia (1-0) next Saturday. The Bulldogs were 49-3 victors over No. 11 Oregon on Saturday.

East Tennessee State 44, Mars Hill 7

Reigning Southern Conference champion East Tennessee State got the George Quarles era off to a flying start, as the Bucs knocked off nearby opponent Mars Hill, 44-7, as ETSU improved to 6-0 in home openers at William B. Greene Stadium since 2017, which includes a pair of victories over Mars Hill, while also posting wins over Limestone, UVA-Wise, Shorter, and Samford. It also marked the third-straight season-opening win for the Bucs.

SoCon preseason Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Saylors got his season off to a strong start, posting a pair of rushing touchdown and had a 29-yard scoring catch, finishing the night with 92 all-purpose yards. He rushed for 63 yards on 13 carries to lead an ETSU ground game that generated 107 yards on the ground for the night, out-gaining the Lions on the ground, 107-18.

The Bucs held a 304-262 edge in total offensive yards, and the defense was impressive by forcing four turnovers. Preseason All-SoCon selection Alijah Huzzie posted a pick six, returning a Jimmy Urzua pass 38 yards for a touchdown to make it a 34-0 lead for the Bucs at that point. Huzzie also had a 62-yard punt return that would set up a Saylors 2-yard touchdown.

Will Huzzie, who is the cousin of Alijah Huzzie, had a big night as well for the Bucs, as he hauled five catches for 67 yards and a pair of scoring catches. Huzzie, also like his cousin, was a preseason All-SoCon selection. Huzzie hauled in scoring passes of 17 and 26 yards, respectively.

Tyler Riddell finished out his first game of the 2022 season by completing 14-of-19 passes for 197 yards and three TDs, with one INT. The Bucs ended up holding a 304-262 advantage in total offense in the contest.

Mars Hill’s lone points came in the third quarter on a five-yard scoring run from Ty Snelson to make it a 41-7 game with 3:23 remaining in the quarter.

ETSU all-conference place-kicker finished out the scoring on a 44-yard field goal with 2:08 remaining in the frame, closing out the scoring in the contest.

The Bucs improved to 22-7 overall in William B. Greene Stadium in the win, and will open Southern Conference play next Saturday with a trip to face The Citadel in Charleston. The Bucs went 7-1 in SoCon play last season to claim the league title.

Campbell 29, The Citadel 10

The Citadel was on the road to start out the 2022 season, and it did not go well from the outset, as Campbell captured a 29-10 win at Barker-Lane Stadium to open up the 2022 season, which is the Camels final campaign as a member of the Big South Conference before joining the CAA.

The Camels held a 373-222 advantage in total offense, which surprisingly included a 198-187 edge on the ground. The Bulldogs averaged 268 YPG on the ground last season. The Bulldogs would find the end zone until under three minutes remaining in the contest. Trailing 29-3, the Bulldogs got a 19-yard scoring strike from Peyton Derrick-to-Tyler Cherry to provide the final score.

Campbell, which had the top recruiting class in FCS football, highlighted by 11 four-star recruits coming out of high school, or either via the transfer portal. The Camels were paced by senior standout signal-caller Malik Hajj-Williams finished the contest showing the kind of savvy you would expect to see out of a quarterback that sports such experience, as he completed 12-of-21 passes for 175 yards with one TD, while adding 19 yards rushing.

The leader on the offensive side of the ball for the Camels was running back Bryant Barr, who rushed 19 times for 107 yards and a touchdown. Ezeriah Anderson finished as the top target for Hajj Malik-Williams, as he hauled in four passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.

The Camels got on the board on early, as the Camels took the opening possession of the night, and it was Hajj Mailk-Williams hooking up with Ezeriah Anderson for a 14-yard scoring strike to make it 7-0 early.

The Bulldogs scored their lone points until late in the game, when Colby Kintner connected on a 33-yard field goal to cap a 14-play drive for the Bulldogs in the opening quarter, making it a 7-3 contest with 3:35 remaining in the opening quarter.

The Camels would score the next 22 points of the game to essentially put the game on ice. Lamagea McDowell scored on a 7-yard scoring run in the second quarter, with Caleb Dowden connecting on a 36-yard field goal later in the second frame, making it a 17-3 Camels lead at the half.

Two Dowden field goals of 31 and 26 yards, respectively, in the third quarter made it a 23-3 Camels lead, and then with just under six minutes remaining in the contest, Barr helped put the Bulldogs away with a 2-yard run to make it 29-3.

Derrick, who got the start and went the full way in the contest, completed the contest by completing 3-of-5 passes for 35 yards, with a TD and an INT, while also rushing for 38 yards. Cooper Wallace led the Bulldogs’ rushing efforts, gaining 53 yards on 10 carries.

The Citadel returns to action next Saturday, hosting defending Southern Conference champion East Tennessee State in its home opener at Johnson-Hagood Stadium. Kickoff for that contest is set for 4 p.m. EST.

Furman 52, North Greenville 0

Furman opened the 2022 season in strong fashion, as the Paladins played their first-ever Thursday night home game at Paladin Stadium, and recorded a 52-0 win over nearby Division II North Greenville, as the two teams met on the gridiron for the first time.

The win marked Furman’s first home-opening shutout win since a 38-0 win over South Carolina State to open the 1988 season, and it marked Furman’s first shutout win at home since the 2003 campaign, when the Paladins recorded a 45-0 win over Gardner-Webb at Paladin Stadium back in 2003. The shutout win marks the second-straight season in which the Paladins have registered a shutout win, as Furman claimed a 26-0 on the road at Tennessee Tech last season.

The Paladins had a new starter under center, in Presbyterian graduate transfer Tyler Huff, and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Huff was nearly flawless in his debut for the Paladins.

Playing his first game in 1.5 years, Huff ended the his season opener before halftime, completing 10-of-12 passes for 189 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while also rushing for 94 yards and a score. He powered the Paladin offense to a 45-0 halftime lead–the second-most points scored in a half at Paladin Stadium–which was bested only by a 48-14 lead over Presbyterian in 2011.

Furman’s defense was also impressive, holding the Crusaders to just 227 yards of total offense, out-gaining North Greenville, 589-227, on the night. Highlighting the defensive effort for the Paladins was Cally Chizik, who picked off a Bryce Fields pass and proceeded to return it 56 yards for a score in the opening quarter, giving the Paladins a 14-0 lead.

Furman’s preseason All-SoCon selection Dominic Roberto had a pair of rushing scores on the night, as he finished with 53 yards on nine rush attempts. All-America tight end got his final campaign off to a strong start for the Paladins, hauling in his 17th-career touchdown for Furman, as he got the scoring underway in the contest. His 17 TDs, which are already a school record for a tight end, also moved him into third place in program history in career receiving scores. He finished the season opener by hauling in four passes for 85 yards and a touchdown to lead the Paladin receiving efforts.

Furman returns to action next Saturday, traveling to No. 4 Clemson. Kickoff for that contest is set for 3:30 p.m. EST and is set for the ACC Network.

VMI fought hard in Thursday night loss to Wake Forest/photo courtesy of VMI athletics

No. 22 Wake Forest 44, VMI 10

VMI opened its 2022 campaign Thursday night at Truist Stadium against No. 22 Wake Forest, and fought valiantly before eventually falling, 44-10, to the 2021 ACC Atlantic Division champions.

The Keydets saw both quarterbacks Seth Morgan and Colin Ironside combine to throw for 139 yards, while VMI churned out 83 yards on the ground, however, the powerful Wake Forest offense countered with 212 rushing yards and another 294 through the air en route to the 34-point win.

VMI finished with a total of 222 yards of total offense, highlighted by Colin Ironside’s 34-yard scoring strike to Grant Swinehart with 2:01 remaining in the third quarter, which made the score 30-10 in favor of the Demon Deacons at that point in the contest. All told, the Demon Deacons ended up out-gaining the Keydets 506-222 in total offense.

The Demon Deacons raced out to a 23-3 halftime lead, getting on the scoreboard first when Matthew Dennis connected on a 33-yard field goal with 10:43 remaining in the opening quarter of play. A 35-yard scoring run from Christian Turner and a 23-yard pass from Demon Deacon quarterback Mitch Griffiths-to-Taylor Morin made it 17-0, and that’s how the opening quarter of play would finish out.

The Demon Deacons added two more field goals from Dennis in the second quarter, as he connected from 31 and 33 yards, respectively, to make it 23-0. VMI’s own Jerry Rice helped close out a six-play, 60-yard drive to get the season and on the board for the first time in the 2022 season and gave Scott Wachenheim’s team a bit of momentum heading into the halftime locker room, as Rice’s 42-yard field goal cut Wake Forest’s lead to 23-3 at the half.

In the third quarter, Turner put the Demon Deacons ahead 30-3 when he scored on a 1-yard plunge with 9:46 remaining in the quarter, capping off a five-play, 43-yard drive.

That would set the stage for VMI’s lone touchdown of the night later in the quarter. The Keydets would cover 60 yards in eight plays, as Ironside found Swinehart out of the backfield for a 34-yard scoring strike, making the score respectable 30-10 with 2:01 remaining in the third.

However, Wake Forest would answer moments later, as Griffiths found Blake Whitehart for a 27-yard scoring strike to make it 37-10 with just 42 seconds remaining in the third.

The Demon Deacons capped the scoring in the contest early in the third quarter when Jahmal Banks hauled in a 14-yard pass from Griffiths to increase the lead to 44-10 with 11:44 left. It concluded a four-play, 62-yard drive.

Griffiths, who was making his first-ever start for Wake Forest under center, finished the contest connecting on 21-of-29 passes for 288 yards with three touchdown passes and no interceptions. VMI’s Seth Morgan completed the contest connecting on 13-of-27 passing for 79 yards, while Ironside was 6-of-9 passing for 60 yards, with one scoring toss.

VMI will return to action next Saturday, as the Keydets will host the Bucknell Bison in their home opener, with kickoff slated for 1:30 p.m. at Foster Stadium.

Carlos Davis throws for 400 yards and six TDs as Western Carolina begins the season with a 52-38 road win at Charleston Southern/photo courtesy of WCU athletics

Western Carolina 52, Charleston Southern 38

Western Carolina picked up right where it left off the 2021 campaign, which is rolling up yards as if they were going out of style, as well as lighting up its side of the scoreboard.

On Saturday, that would be the visitor’s side of the scoreboard, as the Catamounts went on the road to capture a 52-38 win over Charleston Southern in Ladson, S.C., as quarterback Carlos Davis finished the day connecting on 28-of-36 passes for 433 yards and a school-record six scoring tosses, which impressively went to six different receivers. Davis also threw a pair of INTs in the contest.

Dating back to last season, it marks WCU’s fifth win in its last six games after it started off the 2021 season and the Kerwin Bell era 0-6. It was Davis’ second 400-yard passing effort of his career, and it marked his third start in the past couple of seasons. His other 400-yard passing effort came in Charleston last season, as he helped lead the Catamounts to a 45-31 win at The Citadel en route to garnering SoCon Offensive Player of the Week accolades in the process.

He passed for 401 yards on that particular trip to the Lowcountry and his 433-yard passing effort Saturday punctuated what was the 10th 400-yard passing effort by a WCU signal-caller all-time. His 433-yard passing effort ties him for the second-highest passing total in a single-game in school history, alongside Don Dalton, who passed for 433 yards against Emory & Henry in 1969.

The Catamounts and Davis got off to a strong start, racing out to a 31-7 lead late in the second quarter, as Davis connected on 10 of his first 12 throws in the contest.

His first two scoring strikes went to a pair of talented freshmen wideouts, finding Tori Keigley on a 18-yard scoring strike before connecting with speedy Censere Lee on a 72-yard hookup, which made it a 17-7 game late in the opening quarter.

In the second quarter, Davis found Terrence Horne on a 30-yard scoring strike before tossing his fourth scoring pass of the afternoon on a 12-yard pass to University of Toledo transfer running back Jalynn Williams.

The Bucs would close the deficit to 14 points by the time the two teams went to their respective locker rooms for the halftime break. Sam Babush connected on an impressive 50-yard field goal, which split the uprights, and then with only four seconds to play in the opening half, Kale Anderson hauled in a 28-yard pass from quarterback Ross Malmgren to make it a 31-17 game at the break.

Davis wouldn’t take long to get going in the second half, tossing a 53-yard scoring strike to David White Jr. on the opening possession of the second half, putting the lead back to 21 points for WCU, at 38-17, following the Richard McCollum PAT with 13:30 to play in the third.

Charleston Southern would make things interesting from there, answering with a pair of third quarter scores to get back within seven, with Ross Malmgren recording a pair of his own TD tosses. He found Seth Anderson on a nine-yard scoring strike for the first to cut the Catamount lead to 38-24, and then tossed a 43-yard scoring pass to Anderson moments on the ensuing Buccaneer possession to make it a 38-31 game with 10:15 to play in the third.

Order would be restored, however, shortly thereafter, as the Catamounts registered their first rushing TD of the 2022 campaign when Desmond Reid rushed for 43 of his team-leading 69 yards rushing for a score, giving the Catamounts a two-score cushion once again, at 45-31, with 7:42 left in the third.

With 4:25 remaining in the game, Davis tossed his school-record sixth touchdown pass of the afternoon when he found All-SoCon wideout Raphael Williams on a 9-yard hookup to all but seal the road win. It was part of a strong start to the season for Williams, who finished the day with 10 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown for WCU.

The Bucs would tack on a late score, as Malmgren tossed his fifth scoring pass of the contest, finding Vinson Davis on a 15-yard scoring connection. All told, Malmgren connected on 30-of-45 throws for 392 yards, with five scoring tosses and only one INT.

Interestingly enough, the Catamounts have surrendered at least 21 points to every foe in each of their five wins over the past six outings.

The Catamounts will be on the road next Saturday at Georgia Tech for a 7 p.m. battle with the Yellow Jackets. Georgia Tech will battle No. 4 Clemson Monday night at Bobby Dodd Stadium in the Chic-Fil-A Kickoff Classic.

Kickoff for that contest is set for 8 p.m. The Catamounts and Yellow Jackets will be facing each other for the first time since 2011, and will mark the sixth all-time meeting between the two programs. The Catamounts have lost all five previous meetings.

As was the case in 2011, when the Catamounts dropped a 63-21 decision in Atlanta against Catamount grad Paul Johnson, Western Carolina will be facing another of its graduates, as Geoff Collins, who is in his fourth season leading the Yellow Jackets’ football program.

Chattanooga shuts out Wofford to open SoCon play/photo courtesy of Chattanooga athletics

No. 12 Chattanooga 31, Wofford 0

In the lone Southern Conference matchup of the opening weekend of action on the SoCon gridiron, preseason title favorite Chattanooga posted an impressive 31-0 win over Southern Conference rival Wofford, marking the first shutout win in a home opener over a Division I opponent since 1995, when the Mocs blanked Charleston Southern 41-0 at historic Chamberlain Field.

For Wofford, it marked the Terriers’ 11th-straight loss dating back to last season, as well as its 13th-consecutive Southern Conference setback, which dates back to February of 2021 when the Terriers posted a 31-14 win over Mercer.

The Mocs defense was as good as advertised, shutting the Terrier offense down all night, limiting Wofford to just 231 yards of total offense, and even recorded a pick six, which saw Reuben Lowery III step in front of a Jimmy Weirick pass and return it for a 45-yard touchdown to increase UTC’s lead to 17-0 early in the second quarter.

In the opening quarter of play, the Mocs got their opening score of the game after the stout Mocs defensive unit forced a Wofford punt on their opening possession of the contest.

That would set the stage for Eastern Michigan transfer Preston Hutchinson to make his debut under center as the Chattanooga signal-caller. He helped engineer a 10-play, 81-yard drive, which took 5:06 off the game clock and was capped by a 3-yard touchdown run from preseason All-SoCon running back Ailym Ford.

It would be the beginning of a big night for Ford–a Florence, S.C. native–as he completed the contest with 18 carries for 156 yards and a pair of scores. The Mocs would make it 10-0 on a 21-yard field goal from Andrew Southard with 1:33 remaining in the opening quarter.

In the second quarter, Lowery picked off a Jimmy Weirick pass in the flats and had nothing but green grass in front of him, housing it from 45 yards out to give the Mocs a comfortable 17-0 lead with 13:38 remaining in the first.

Exactly 10 minutes later, Hutchinson would toss his first scoring pass as a Chattanooga Moc, hooking up with Javon Burke on a 17-yard scoring strike to give UTC a 24-0 lead with 3:38 remaining in the first half. The scoring pass from Hutchinson capped a seven-play, 79-yard drive by the Mocs.

Ford would put the finishing touches on the first win of the season for Chattanooga in emphatic fashion, breaking off an 86-yard run with just under five minutes remaining in the third quarter to increase the Chattanooga lead to 31-0 following Southard’s PAT. That would prove to be the final points of the evening.

The Chattanooga defense would force three turnovers on the night, forcing and recovering a pair of fumbles to go along with Lowery’s pick-six. All told, the Mocs held a 361-230 advantage in total offense.

Hutchinson finished his first start connecting on 11-of-18 passes for 171 yards and a touchdown, while Wofford’s Jimmy Weirick finished the contest by connecting on 14-of-21 throws for 133 yards, with one INT. Kyle Parson rushed for 46 yards on 12 attempts to lead the Terriers ground attack, which generated just 97 yards on 45 attempts, averaging only 2.2 yards-per-carry against the stout Mocs defense.

All-SoCon linebacker Ty Boeck led the defensive efforts for the Mocs with seven stops and a fumble recovery, while fellow linebacker Jay Person recorded six tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss, a sack and forced a fumble. Preseason SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Devonnsha Maxwell posted a pair tackles, a tackle-for-loss and a sack.

Chattanooga will be back in action next Saturday, traveling to Eastern Illinois for a 7 p.m. EST contest, while Wofford returns to Gibbs Stadium looking to put an end to an 11-game losing streak, when it hosts Elon in a 6 p.m. EST contest.

Auburn gets off to a fast start to upend Mercer/photo courtesy of Mercer athletics

Auburn 42, Mercer 16

In the final game of the opening weekend of Southern Conference football, Mercer fell for the first time in the 2022 season, as Auburn ran out to a 21-0 lead in the first half and never looked back en route to capturing a 42-16 win over the Bears before a sellout crowd of 84,562 fans on-hand at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Leading the Bears offensively was quarterback Fred Payton and wide receiver Devron Harper. Payton finished the night connecting on 21-of-36 passes for 197 yards and a pair of scores, while Harper hauled in nine passes for 40 yards and a pair of scores.

The bigger, faster and stronger Tigers overwhelmed the Bears at times, as is expected when SEC meets SoCon on the gridiron, as Auburn finished the contest with a healthy advantage of 497-271 in total offensive yards, including a sizeable 285-74 margin in rushing yards.

Auburn opened its 2022 campaign impressively, as the team picked to finish last in the SEC West, looked far the team many had projected to have its share of struggles with a new quarterback under center, and plenty of unknowns entering the season.

The Tigers scored on their first four drives of the 2022 season to take a 28-0 second quarter lead when Tank Bigsby barreled in from two yards out to give Auburn a four-touchdown advantage with a little over five minutes remaining in the opening half.

Bigsby’s TD was followed up by the first of two Mercer passing TDs in the contest, as Harper hauled in a 5-yard scoring pass from Payton with 20 seconds remaining in the half, as the Bears cut the Auburn lead to 21, at 28-7, at the half.

Rushing scores of one and 39 yards by Jaquez Hunter and Bigsby increased Auburn’s lead to 42-7 in the third quarter before Mercer closed the game with the final 10 points in the fourth, getting a 33-yard field goal from Devin Folser and an 8-yard pass from Payton-to-Harper to close out the scoring.

Mercer will have a bye week next Saturday before returning to action against The Citadel on Sept. 17, hosting the Bulldogs at Five Star Stadium in a kickoff slated for 6 p.m

Power Rankings:

  1. Chattanooga (1-0, 1-0 SoCon)–Took care of business in SoCon opener in emphatic fashion.
  2. Samford (1-0, 0-0 SoCon)–Win vs. No. 8 Kennesaw State was easily the best win of the week, and thus, the Bulldogs deserve the high ranking after week one.
  3. East Tennessee State–Bucs took care of business like they should against an overmatched Mars Hill team to get the George Quarles era off to a strong start.
  4. Mercer (1-1, 0-0 SoCon)–Bears fought hard on the road against the bigger, faster and stronger Tigers and were respectable in defeat.
  5. Furman (1-0, 0-0 SoCon)–Tyler Huff put together a strong effort in his first-career start for the Paladins, as Furman did what it was supposed to in its dispatching of North Greenville.
  6. Western Carolina (1-0, 0-0 SoCon)–The Catamounts got a sterling performance from Carlos Davis, who passed for 433 yards and six scores to open the 2022 season with a 52-38 at Charleston Southern.
  7. VMI (0-1, 0-0 SoCon)–The Keydets fought hard and were respectable in season-opening loss at Wake Forest.
  8. Wofford (0-1, 0-1 SoCon)–Terriers have a lot to figure out after 11th-straight loss and 13th-straight SoCon loss.
  9. The Citadel (0-1, 0-0 SoCon)–The Citadel was dominated in every phase of the game in its loss at Campbell.

SoCon Players of the Week:

Offensive: QB Carlos Davis (WCU)

Defensive: Reuben Lowery III (Chattanooga)

Special Teams: Alijah Huzzie (East Tennessee State)

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