Furman Linebacker Braden Gilby (photo courtesy of Furman athletics)
Tyler Huff has been riding the momentum of uncharted territory. The graduate transfer from Presbyterian College has never been on a winning team before, but on Saturday, it was evident with his 335 yards of total offense and two touchdown responsibilities, that while he might have never been on a winning team prior to this season, that Huff was indeed a winner on some bad teams prior his time in Greenville, and proved a winning edge under center need in leading No. 24 Furman to a 24-20 homecoming win over No.7 Chattanooga in front of 9,724 fans at Paladin Stadium. It was the Mocs first loss to an FCS opponent this season.
Meaningful games in October and November. Today, Furman had one when No. 7 Chattanooga came to Paladin Stadium. Furman has had some of those over the years, although they have come with less frequency recently. One that came to mind when I arrived at Paladin Stadium for the ranked matchup between the 24th-ranked Paladins and the seventh-ranked Mocs occurred way back on Nov. 4, 2001, and it’s all because of the similarities leading up to the game.
On that misty, cloudy, and cool Saturday a little less than 22 years ago, the No. 1 ranked Georgia Southern Eagles made the trek to Greenville to take on No. 11 Furman in a do-or-die situation for the Paladins. It was win or miss the playoffs for Furman, while Georgia Southern had locked up at least a share of the SoCon regular-season title. It weighed on then head coach Paul Johnson, who opted to rest reigning Walter Payton Award winning RB Adrian Peterson, who was less than 100%.
On Saturday when Mocs head coach Rusty Wright and No. 7 Chattanooga visited 24th-ranked Furman, he opted to follow the same line of thinking as Johnson and the Eagles did 22 years ago—rest an All-American RB. Like Peterson over two decades ago, Ailym Ford was less than 100% this week coming off that physical, high-stakes battle with Mercer last week and didn’t even make the trip with the team to Greenville. The result this past Saturday was the same for Furman as it was more than two decades ago. A meaningful win with both playoff and league title implications. In 2001, Furman whipped the Peterson-less and top-ranked Eagles 45-10. In much closer fashion, Furman dispatched the Mocs offense that didn’t have their Ford operational, 24-20.
The win was one of significance for a Furman team that has struggled to gain any national attention for its worksheet so far through eight games coming into Saturday. However, without a bad loss coming into Saturday’s tilt with top 10 Chattanooga, Furman went about changing that narrative itself, dictating it with what it did on the field and not with what was said about its lack of quality wins or wins against a non-qualifying North Greenville. Put simply, Saturday’s game proved, at least for now, something some of us already knew and at least for now, proved the nay-sayers wrong.
With the homecoming triumph, the Paladins notched their fourth-straight win and improved to 7-2 overall and 5-1 in Southern Conference action. The loss halts what was a three-game winning streak for Chattanooga, as the Mocs fall to 6-2 overall and 4-1 in Southern Conference action. Furman’s 7-2 start to the 2022 season marks the best start to a season since 2005. The Paladins would go on to win 11 games before bowing out of the FCS playoffs at the penultimate stage with a 29-23 loss to eventual national champion Appalachian State.
The loss isn’t detrimental for Chattanooga, as the Mocs already have a decisive win over Mercer, and still have to play league leading and SoCon unbeaten Samford on Nov. 12. Furman will lock horns with Mercer that very same Saturday in Macon.
Huff finished the contest by connecting on 16-of-25 passes for 203 yards with a TD and an INT, while rushing 132 yards and a TD on 20 rush attempts. With two games left in the regular-season, Huff’s 418 yards rushing are just 223 yards away from setting a new school single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback, which is held by former Justin Hill, who totaled 640 rushing yards in his junior season of 1999.
In addition to Huff’s efforts rushing the ball for the Paladins in Saturday’s win, the Paladins also used got a hard-fought 34 yards and a touchdown on nine rush attempts from senior Devin Abrams, while Dominic Roberto, who entered ninth nationally in rushing yards and had a string of three-straight 100-yard rushing efforts, was held to just 22 yards on just 10 attempts.
While Huff did most of the grunt work on the ground, he found his top aerial targets to be the usual suspects of All-American tight end Ryan Miller and wideout Joshua Harris. Miller finished the contest with four catches for 64 yards and a score. He hauled in his 25th-career TD pass in Saturday’s win over the Mocs, which puts him within one of tying Chas Fox’s career record of 26 scoring grabs, which he set from 1982-85.
Harris managed to post three catches for 62 yards, while Kyndel Dean had four catches for 47 yards.
The Paladins maintained their theme for the season of making enormous, timely plays on special teams. Jack Barton blocked his second kick of the season, taking Furman’s total to six blocked kicks for the season. Barton’s block, which kept the score at 24-20 instead of letting the Mocs inch ever closer and to within a point, at 24-23, came with just over seven minutes remaining.
Furman’s superb defensive effort was led by linebackers Braden Gilby and Bryce McCormick, who added 10 and eight tackles, respectively, while both Cally Chizik and Hugh Ryan added seven tackles apiece. In addition to Chizik’s seven stops, he contributed one-and-a-half tackles behind the line of scrimmage, and a key fourth quarter, fourth down pass breakup with two-and-a-half minutes remaining allowed the Paladin offense to take over and they would not allow the Mocs to obtain possession of the football again before running the final seconds off the clock.
Ryan registered his team-leading fourth INT of the season in the second quarter, helping thwart a potential Mocs scoring drive that would have seen the visitor’s potentially take a two-score advantage. Furman’s other INT in the game came from Micah Robinson on the first play from scrimmage.
For Chattanooga offensively, the Mocs saw Preston Hutchinson struggle at times Saturday against the Paladins after putting together such a strong performance in last Saturday’s dominating win over Mercer. The Eastern Michigan transfer finished the day completing on 17-of-35 passes for 270 yards, with a touchdown and two INTs.
In the absence of Ford in the Mocs backfield, it was Gino Appleberry that got the call as the starter in the backfield for the Blue and Gold, and he would turn in what was a modest performance of 56 yards rushing on 22 attempts. Hutchinson, meanwhile, was Chattanooga’s second-leading rusher, as he finished the contest with 28 yards and a touchdown on nine carries.
The Mocs receiving efforts were led by Taylor Arnett, who hauled in six passes for 100 yards, while Jamoi Mayes and Sam Phillips caught four passes apiece for 69 and 49 yards, respectively. Phillips also added a 13-yard scoring reception in the second quarter. Javin Whatley had the biggest chunk play of the afternoon for Chattanooga on a 51-yard drag route, which was eventually tracked down by All-SoCon cornerback Travis Blackshear on a drive that eventually saw the Mocs must settle for an Aaron Sears 32-yard field goal in the first quarter. That play, which might get lost in the many sparkling Paladin defensive plays made against the talented Mocs offense Saturday, saved four points and also happened to equal the total margin of victory for the Paladins on a cloudy homecoming Saturday.
Defensively for Chattanooga, the Mocs were paced by Ty Boeck, who led all tacklers in the game and posted 14 tackles and an INT. Furman’s defense limited the Mocs to just 84 yards on 32 attempts in Saturday’s win. The 84 yards gained on the ground by Chattanooga were a season-low, eclipsing the previous low of 93 yards on 33 attempts in the loss to Illinois earlier this season.
How It Happened:
For anyone that has taken in a Furman game against FCS competition this season, it came as little surprise that most of the drama would once again be ironed out in what was a frenetic fourth quarter. After all, the last time the boys were back in town, Western Carolina struck like lightning to the tune of a 20-3 fourth-quarter explosion that nearly fried Furman’s Southern Conference title hopes, however, Ivan Yates’ tackle of Catamount wideout Censere Smith at the Paladin 5 as time expired kept the Paladins from experiencing the ultimate letdown after holding a 44-20 lead as the quarter began only to hold on for a 47-40 win.
Against Samford, it was Furman that had to do the coming back, but ran out of time in a bizarre game that changed on a dime, or rather, a lengthy review of a play that was overturned but ultimately shouldn’t have been reviewed. After Furman ran to a 10-0 lead against the No. 16 Bulldogs, it saw Samford change the game following the controversial decision levied by the game officials, and following a 34-7 run, the Bulldogs had a 34-17 entering the final 15-minute frame. After out-scoring Samford 10-0 in the fourth quarter, the Paladins suffered their first FCS loss in heartbreaking fashion.
And when Furman led 24-13 entering the fourth quarter Saturday, few expected anything but the game to come down to the wire. After Preston Hutchinson ran it in on a five-yard scamper following a 12-play, 80-yard drive, it seemed like all the momentum was on the side of the Mocs. Furman’s bid for an upset and potential attention-grabbing win for the FCS playoff committee seemed to be severely in question.
Hutchinson’s tough run came with almost an entire quarter of football left. Thirteen minutes to be exact. The feeling of the win slipping into the slipping into heartbreaking defeat was almost palpable on this latest homecoming Saturday in beautiful Paladin Stadium. Memories of the 1997 loss to East Tennessee State, the ’98 setback to The Citadel, and the ’10 setback to Chattanooga—all occurring on homecoming and all in come-from-behind fashion—became one montage of a nightmare that was occurring two days before All Hallows Eve.
After Ty Boeck intercepted Tyler Huff on a 3rd-and-13 play on the ensuing Furman offensive possession, things got even more dicey. Following Boeck’s 11-yard return, the Mocs offense set up just inside Furman territory at the Paladin 46. Chattanooga drove all the way to the 5.
However, Furman’s defense held. Instead of going for it on a 4th-and-1, the Mocs had nearly 10 minutes of game clock and all three timeouts. Surely Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright there would be at least another opportunity to kick at least one more field goal. It was all too tempting pass up a sure three with a chip shot field goal from Aaron Sears. However, it might seem less tempting to Wright in the aftermath of what was Furman’s sixth blocked kick of the season, which came via Jack Barton, keeping the margin at four. But you know what they say about hindsight.
Barton’s block was just the beginning of the pivotal plays that had to be made by Furman’s defense, and a few by its offense, in order to scramble way what was Furman’s most meaningful home win since a 34-14 triumph against No. 6 Wofford on Oct. 6, 2018.
Furman could muster just 18 yards in five plays as the Mocs defense grew in confidence as the game progressed. Five-straight runs had managed to grind a valuable 3:41 off the clock. The Paladins had to punt the ball back to the Mocs, and in doing so, Paladin punter Ryan Leavy somehow managed to avoid a heavy Mocs punt rush to almost miraculously not to have one of three Mocs block the punt. He provided a slight hesitation move to the right to get off an important 11-yard punt. It was another big play that might get lost in a myriad of minor details, which helped Furman thwart fourth-quarter disaster and maintain a precious fourth-quarter lead.
With 3:13 remaining, the Mocs had the ball back at the Furman 40 following the short punt, which was even better field position the Boeck INT had afforded UTC on the previous offensive possession.
But Furman’s defense, with its backs against the wall once again, once again weren’t interested in loosening their grip on a precious fourth quarter lead. After a five-yard fain on first down by Hutchinson, the talented transfer threw behind intended receiver Jamoi Mayes on 2nd-and-5 from the Paladin 35. On third down, Barton got his big paw up again, deflecting a Hutchinson pass, which fell to the ground just beyond the line of scrimmage harmlessly to the ground incomplete. It brought up 4th-and-5, and there was no more time for conservative play-calling for Wright and the Mocs…It was go time.
On 4th-and-5, Hutchinson’s pass intended for Kendall Toney was broken up at the last second by a diving Chizik, which ultimately turned out to be the game-winning play for the Paladin defense.
Following the turnover on downs, the Paladins faced a pair of crucial situations. With the ball back with 2:36 remaining in the contest, the Paladins were able to gain a single yard on two plays to set up a crucial 3rd-and-9 play. By now, the Mocs had burned two of their three timeouts as a result of runs on first and second downs, however, still held one in the back pocket in hopes of getting the football back with more chance to put together the potential game-winning drive. However, Huff had other plans, and his pass completion to Kyndel Dean for 17 yards forced the Mocs to inevitably burn their final timeout of the contest with just a little over a minute left.
Facing 3rd-and-8 with under a minute left and with Chattanooga having now burned all of its timeouts, Devin Abrams bounced off left tackle, breaking away from one would-be Chattanooga tackler, and scampered for a total of 12 yards and a first down, allow Huff and the Paladin offense to finish out the game and off the clock in the victory formation.
While most of the drama occurred in the final quarter, although there wasn’t much in the way of points to show for it, the Paladins were able to manufacture perhaps their biggest offensive drive of the day coming out of the locker room to start the second half.
Kendall Thomas got Furman’s second half off to a flying start, nearly breaking the second half kickoff all the way to the end zone but was just within the grasp of Chattanooga’s kickoff specialist Zach Brown, who tackled Thomas after a gain of 26 and prevented a second-straight home game that saw the Paladins return a kickoff to paydirt to open the third quarter.
Following the 26 yard return, the Paladin offense would set up shop at their own 40. On first down, Huff did much of what he had done in the opening half to gash the Mocs defense, which was through the Mocs’ vaunted defensive front seven, as he scampered for his longest rush of the day, eluding Mocs defenders only to be run out of bounds following a gain of 30 yards, getting the Furman offense down to the Mocs 30.
Huff and Miller hooked up on the very next play, giving the Paladins their first two-score cushion of the afternoon. The patented RPO that has seemed to work ever since the 2021 season opener against North Carolina A&T was there again, and the Paladins took advantage, as Huff’s pass was plucked out of the air by Miller at about the five, where he then proceeded to bounce off a pair of Mocs defenders and waltzed into the end zone to notch his ninth TD reception of the 2022 season. Following Axel Lepvreau’s PAT, Furman held its largest lead of the contest—24-10—just 45 seconds into the third quarter. It will be the last points of the day for the Paladin offense.
Chattanooga’s lone points game via the right boot of Aaron Sears, as he booted through a 23-yard field goal with 5:32 remaining in the third quarter, capping a 12-play, 58-yard drive, which took 6:04 off the clock and got the Mocs to within 11, at 24-13.
Furman put together an impressive touchdown drive late in the opening quarter. Tyler Huff sprinted 22 yards up the middle and around a couple of Mocs defenders to reach the end zone to give Furman a 7-3 lead with just 1:21 remaining in the opening frame. The scoring run capped a scoring drive, which covered 51 yards in five plays.
Chattanooga answered early in the second quarter to regain the lead, posting its first touchdown of the afternoon, as Hutchinson found wideout Sam Phillips open in the left corner of the end zone for a 13-yard strike and a 10-7 Mocs lead with 12:28 left in the half. The scoring pass capped off what had been a 9-play, 75-yard drive.
It then appeared Chattanooga was ready to take full control of the football game. On 1st-and-10 from the Furman 28 on the ensuing drive, Huff and Roberto didn’t communicate on the hand-off, and the ball bounced loose on the Paladin Stadium turf, recovered by Chattanooga’s Marlon Taylor at the Paladin 20. From there, the Paladins were able to hold serve coming up with their second forced turnover of the afternoon, as Hugh Ryan picked off a Hutchinson pass over the middle on 3rd-and-7 from the Furman 17, returning it 29 yards before another 15 yards was added following a personal foul, late hit on Ryan out-of-bounds. It was enough to set the Paladin offense up at midfield.
Five plays later, Furman was in the end zone again—a veritable 14-point swing—as the Paladins, which had been in danger of falling behind by two scores just moments earlier, used the turnover and needed just five plays to find the end zone themselves. It was Abrams, who capped the 5-play, 50-yard drive, as he bounced his run to the outside where there was no Moc in the vicinity and he was able to stroll leisurely into the end zone on a 5-yard run to give the Paladins a much needed 14-10 lead with 6:46 remaining in the opening half.
Furman’s defense would start the game much like Chattanooga started its onslaught of Mercer a week earlier, however, the opportunity that knocked wouldn’t be seized upon by the Paladins by way of points on the scoreboard, however, the play managed to set a tone that would be visited time and time again by the Paladin defense as the afternoon wore on.
On the first play of the game, Micah Robinson stepped in front of Preston Hutchinson pass and recorded the Paladins’ 20th takeaway of the season to set up the Paladins inside Mocs territory at the 29, however, faced with having to convert their second fourth down of the drive, the Paladins opted to attempt a 30-yard field goal, but it was a botched attempt and big Devonnsha Maxwell caused a fumble, which was recovered by Mocs defensive back Jordan Walker at the Mocs 14 squelching the Furman scoring opportunity
The Mocs took full advantage of their turnover, however, moving 72 yards in eight plays, setting up a Aaron Sears 32-yard field goal to give the Mocs a 3-0 lead with 6:02 remaining in the opening quarter.
Furman will be off next Saturday and will return to action on Nov. 12, when the Paladins take on another ranked, one-loss SoCon team, in the Mercer Bears (7-2, 5-1 SoCon). Chattanooga returns to action on the first weekend of November with another meaningful league test, as the Mocs will be on the road once again in the Palmetto State to take on The Citadel (2-6, 2-4 SoCon) in a 2 p.m. kickoff time slated for Johnson-Hagood Stadium.