On a lovely day just begging for drama and excitement, Furman provided little in Mercer’s 24-3 Southern Conference triumph at Paladin Stadium on Saturday.
The Paladins probably weren’t uninspired, but they looked it. Football is more complicated than it looks.
What Furman (2-2, 0-1 SoCon) was lacking was breakaways. The Paladins completed passes but couldn’t sustain drives. Timmy Bleekrode gave the Paladins a short-lived 3-0 lead with a 46-yard field goal in the 1st quarter, but he later had a 44-yard try blocked.
“We weren’t going to win the game in the 2nd half running the football,” head coach Clay Hendrix said. “At that point, we had to throw it.
“I thought, 1st-half wise, we were right where we wanted to be. We were moving the football. We were mixing the football, running and throwing it. We don’t ever have anything to show for it. The two turnovers were huge. We had a touchdown called back. Of the two interceptions, one was a bad throw and one was a bad decision. I thought we could’ve had 14, 17 points at the half, and if we had done that, they probably would’ve had about the same.”
The Paladins’ opening possession began at the 21-yard line, three rushing plays netted a 1st down, and Sisson hit Ryan Miller for another. Luke Shiflett entered at quarterback for a play, then Sisson returned to hit Wynn, who made an impressive run to get a 3rd-down conversion. Miller then hauled in a touchdown pass that was called back for holding.
Bleekrode kicked a 46-yard field goal with 9:51 remaining in the 1st quarter.
Mercer returned the favor and then some as Fred Payton hit Ty James for a 35-yard score with 5:26 still on the 1st-quarter clock.
Furman took advantage of the game’s 1st turnover when DiMarcus Clay intercepted Payton’s pass, giving the Paladins’ possession at the Mercer 36. Payton’s liability was limited as his throw bounced off intended receiver Ethan Dirrum. The drive ended when Sisson’s pass was picked off by Luke Ward.
Sisson’s 2nd interception was an attempted bomb to Joshua Harris that was intercepted by the Bears’ Yahsyn McKee. Effectively it was a heck of a punt since Mercer took possession at its own 9, but the Bears climbed out of the hole anyway. Parker Wroble’s acrobatic catch of Payton’s running throw gave the Bears a 1st down at the Furman 10. Brandon Marshall ran it in from there, and Devin Folser’s PAT hiked the Mercer lead to 14-3 with 8:17 remaining in the half.
Furman’s offense went to work, primarily on the arm of Sisson and the hands of Miller, who caught consecutive passes that took the Paladins most of the way to the Mercer 28. Noah Henderson was wide of the end zone when he caught a pass there, and Bleekrode’s field goal was partially blocked and short.
Mercer didn’t back off. Payton hit James near the left sideline for a 26-yard gain to the 22. The ensuing score, by Marshall again, was from a yard out, and Mercer led 21-3 with only 10 seconds unspent on the 1st-half scoreboard.
Sisson’s 3rd interception, by Richie Coffey, gave Mercer possession at the Furman 32. The Furman defense stiffened and Folser’s 47-yard field goal attempt was both short and wide right. Sisson converted on 3rd down by means of a 9-yard pass to Ryan DeLuca, but the Bears’ defense stiffened and Bleekrode trotted out again, this time to punt.
Payton’s breakaway scramble to the Furman 40 perpetuated the ensuing drive. On another 3rd-and-long, he hit a wide-open James at the 26, and three plays later, Folser’s 44-yard field goal hiked the Bears’ edge to three touchdowns at 24-3, where it remained.
Furman rushed for only 91 yards, averaging 2.8 yards a carry. Devin had 11 carries for 39 yards. Mercer rushed for 223 yards, led by Fred Davis with 94 yards in 18 carries. Marshall scored 2 touchdowns to go with his 66 yards.
Sisson completed 16 of 25 passes for 141 yards, but his longest completion spanned only 21. Miller caught 7 for 55 yards.
“I didn’t think we played defense well at all. … We just can’t get off the field on 3rd down,” Hendrix said. “Losing contain, letting the quarterback scramble. The (bad) tackling has shown up the last two weeks.
“We didn’t help ourselves a whole lot, but give them credit. Their quarterback (Payton) was phenomenal. … He made a bunch of plays with his feet and throwing. I think the story of the whole game was missed opportunities in the 1st half.”
Jace Wilson replaced Sisson to little effect in the 4th quarter. Wilson threw an interception of his own at the 6:30 mark of the 4th quarter, pegged by Mercer’s Michael Campbell. The 4 interceptions weighed heavily in the outcome.
“I wish we’d have finished better in the 2nd half,” said Mercer head coach Drew Cronic, “but our defense played so good, we didn’t have to. When you don’t let the other team cross the goal line, that’s a pretty good day’s work.”
After a week off, the Paladins visit Wofford on Oct. 9.