Mercer Set To Host Furman In SoCon Season Finale
MACON, GA. — The Southern Conference is set to get four teams in the FCS Playoffs this season should things fall right on Saturday, but the one matchup in the league that will have no bearing on the postseason will be the one between Furman and Mercer.
However, it might be the most intriguing of all Saturday’s clashes, and that includes the clash between The Citadel and North Carolina in a battle of the powder blue.
There’s no ignoring the fact that this matchup features the obvious storylines of Bobby Lamb facing his alma mater and former employer, while Furman, which started 0–6, has won three of its last four and is playing some of the best football in the SoCon.
Mercer enters the clash with a 5–5 overall record and a 3–4 mark in Southern Conference action, while Furman is 3–7 on the campaign and 3–4 in the SoCon. Saturday’s game will mean a lot in terms of the momentum carried forward both programs.
SOCON’s ONLY TWO SENIOR SIGNAL-CALLERS:
Mercer’s John Russ and Furman’s Reese Hannon have meant a tremendous amount to each of their respective program’s over the past four years.
For Russ, it’s a chance to help lead the Bears on the field last time. In last week’s game against Samford, Russ rushed the ball 41 times while throwing it 30 times, factoring on 71 of the 92 total plays run by the Bears in last week’s loss in Birmingham.
Russ’ 41 rush attempts against Samford last Saturday are the second-most carries by a player in the Southern Conference this season. Only The Citadel’s Tyler Renew has more rushing attempts this season, posting 45 carries against Samford. His 41 rush attempts also marked the second-most in NCAA Division I FCS football this season. On those 41 attempts, Russ finished with a career-best 185 rushing yards in last Saturday’s contest.
The senior Russ enters Saturday’s contest against the Paladins having posted 8,378 passing yards and 76 career scoring tosses, while as a rushing threat, is responsible for 2,217 yards and 29 career rushing TDs. All told, Russ enters Saturday’s career finale having posted an impressive 10,595 yards of total offense to go with 105 TD responsibilities, making him a huge part of the Mercer offense over the past four years.
Hannon, who recently became Furman’s all-time leading passer, will also be suiting up for the final time for the Paladins on Saturday, and like Mercer’s Russ, is responsible for much of the success that the Paladins have had over the past four years.
The Greer, S.C., native comes into Saturday’s season finale having set Furman’s all-time passing record, and that includes a bevy of talented signal-callers over the years, including Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb. In 36-career starts, Hannon has thrown for 7,489 yards and has 39-career passing scores.
The senior has also posted another Furman career milestone, with 7,630 yards of total offense during his standout four years donning the Purple and White. Hannon’s 308 yards of total offense-per-game ranks second in the SoCon this season. His 7,489 passing yards in his career shattered the previous career record, which was set by Jordan Sorrells (2006–10).
Hannon’s best season came as a sophomore back in 2013, as he helped lead Furman back to the FCS postseason for the first time since 2006, as the Paladins won a share of the Southern Conference crown and finished 8–6 overall and 6–2 in Southern Conference play, tying Chattanooga and Samford for the Southern Conference crown. The Paladins won the automatic bid and were one of two Southern Conference teams picked for the FCS postseason, joining Samford in that distinction.
That season saw Hannon finish the campaign with 1,748 yards through the air to go along with seven scoring tosses and five INTs. However, despite Furman’s struggles against one of the toughest slates in school history this season, Hannon has shined in the starting role after taking over the position following a third quarter concussion suffered by starter PJ Blazejowski in week three against Chattanooga. Hannon, who did not start games at Michigan State or Southern Conference champion The Citadel, has not let go of the starting job since.
Since the third quarter of that Chattanooga game, Hannon has connected on 174-of-261 passes for 2,221 yards, with 18 scoring tosses and only seven INTs. In the past four games, Hannon has been nearly unstoppable, throwing for 1,134 yards and nine TDs, while tossing just one interception. In addition to his career passing yards record, Hannon also has the school-record for passing attempts (1,033) and completions (664).
The Paladin offense has seemingly been hitting on all cylinders the past four weeks, with games against East Tennessee State, Wofford, Western Carolina and VMI, with the Hannon-led Paladins averaging 39 PPG during that stretch.
The former Greer High standout and nephew of former Furman signal-caller Justin Hill (1996–2000) leads a Paladin offense that enters Saturday afternoon’s contest ranking fifth in the SoCon in scoring offense (27.7 PPG), fourth in total offense (406.3 YPG), second in pass offense (267.0 YPG) and sixth in rush offense (139.3 YPG).
Not only has Hannon become the Paladins’ top passer of all-time, he has also helped fashion Furman’s all-time leading wideout, in Andrej Suttles. Suttles, who will also be playing his final contest for the Paladins tomorrow against the Bears, has posted a school-record 2,478 receiving yards on 178-career catches.
Suttles’ 2,478 yards receiving comes in 40-career starts for the Paladins, and his 2,478 yards receiving in school history is just more than Adam Mims, who finished his Furman career with 2,433 receiving yards and remains the school’s all-time receptions leader as well, with 198 receptions. Mims’ receptions record looks safe for now. Suttles will also be suiting up for a final time in the Furman Purple and White on Saturday after enjoying what has been a sensational career in Greenville.
Saturday will also mark the end of some stellar careers on the two defenses. For the Paladins, players like linebackers Carl Rider (334-career tackles/19th in program history) and Byron Johnson (61 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs) and All-Southern Conference safety Trey Robinson (team-leading 96 tackles, 6 PBUs, 3.5 TFL) have helped the Paladins to their fair share of big wins over the past four seasons. Nick Miller, Jamarri Milliken (37 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 5 PBUs, 1 INT), and the aforementioned Robinson will leaves some pretty large vacancies in the Paladin secondary.
Miller is easily having the best season of his career in Furman purple, as he has posted 30 tackles, two INTs, three PBUs and a pair of forced fumbles. In last Saturday’s win over Western Carolina, Miller posted five stops and also forced a fumble.
Along the defensive front, Jordan Hawkins (10 tackles), TJ Warren (21 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks), Brian Ross (29 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU) and Brad Minter (15 tackles, 1.0 sack) will also be closing out their careers.
Mercer will bid farewell to the likes of defensive end Tunde Ayinla (22 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR) and All-SoCon linebacker Tosin Aguebor (35 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 6.0 sacks, 1 FF), as well as talented middle linebacker Tyler Ward (team-leading 64 tackles, 3.0 TFL) — a player who has established himself as a mainstay in the Bears’ linebacking corps over the past four years. Aguebor 31.5 TFL in his career, with 23.5 of those being quarterback takedowns.
Safeties Zach Jackson (44 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 4 PBU, 1 INT) and Lendell Arnold (40 tackles, 1 FR, 1 INT) will also be suiting up for the final time on Saturday. Jackson’s interception, which helped seal the Bears upset win over then third-ranked Chattanooga will remain in the memory banks of many Mercer fans for years to come.
LAST SEASON’S THRILLER IN GREENVILLE
Mercer head coach Bobby Lamb returned to Furman on Saturday, taking on his alma mater and a place where he spent 29 years as a player, assistant and head coach, and is a member of the school’s athletics Hall-of-Fame, but for the first time in stadium history, he stood on the visiting sidelines.
Lamb would lead Mercer to a 27–20 overtime win over the Paladins. Interestingly enough, the last time the Paladins won an overtime game was under the direction of Lamb.
The game started slow, and though the Paladins were able to force an early turnover, it was Mercer that would begin to take initiative and put points on the board a 43-yard field goal by Jagger Lieb put the Bears ahead 3–0 with 4:23 remaining in the opening quarter.
The Paladin offense, which had looked anemic with both P.J. Blazejowski and Reese Hannon under center in the opening half of play, as the Paladins were locked down by the Bears’ stingy unit, and at halftime, had amassed just 54 yards of total offense and two first downs.
Trailing 13–0 at the break, things would go from bad to worse for the Paladins, who on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, would turn the ball over in great field position to the Bears. Furman’s Antonio Wilcox mis-handled the Hannon hand-off and the ball was recovered by the Bears at the Paladin 29 and turned into points six plays later, when Russ tossed his second short scoring pass of the contest of the afternoon, as he connected with wideout Avery Ward, who hauled in a second scoring pass on the day with a three-yard reception to make a 20–0 lead for Mercer following Lieb’s PAT with 8:22 remaining in the third quarter.
Midway through the third quarter the Paladin offense would begin to finally click, as the Paladins would get things going in the third quarter of play on the shoulders of junior quarter Reese Hannon, who after going 0-for-5 in the opening half of play, finished the third quarter completing six passes for 86 yards and a TD in the quarter, cutting the Mercer lead to 13 points, as he hooked up with wideout Andrej Suttles on what was the first of his two scoring catches, with the first covering 22 yards to make it a 20–7 game with 3:29 remaining.
The Paladins cut into the lead even more on the ensuing possession after the Paladin defense came up with yet another stop. Hannon led the Paladins on another drive, utlizing the airways once again, as he found Suttles down the middle for a 26-yard scoring strike with 11:41 left, and Jon Croft Hollingsworth’s PAT made it a 20–14.
Furman’s defense would get greedy from that point, picking off a John Russ pass, as Paladin senior cornerback leaped high into the air to intercept an underthrown pass intended for Ward at the Furman 5-yard line.
Following a Furman punt, the Paladin defense came up with its second turnover when Jordan Hawkins pounced on a Mercer fumble to give the Paladins life once again, as the Furman offense took over the ball at its own 32.
However, four plays later, Hannon was sacked by Mercer bandit linebacker Tosin Aguebor and coughed up the football, and Aguebor recovered the fumble to give the Bears the ball at the Furman 40. Mercer would move the ball to the Furman 25, however, a pair of penalties would force the Bears to settle for a 44-yard field goal attempt from Lieb, which he hooked wide left with 1:15 left.
After incompletions on the first two plays with the ball back in its possession, Hannon, who suffered a concussion earlier this season against The Citadel, was shaken up after being pressured and hit on his second down pass, which fell incomplete. Hannon left the game and back came P.J. Blazejowski, who started the game for the Paladins under center.
Blazejowski would connect on big pass plays to Jordan Snellings for a gain of 34 yards into Mercer territory, and then on the next play, found Logan McCarter down the seam for a 37-yard connection to get the Paladins all the way down to the two. Redshirt freshman running back Kealand Dirks bowled over the line from two yards out to tie the game, 20–20, pending the PAT.
The drama continued, however, as Dirks was flagged for spiking the football in his excitement, and Mercer was given the option of forcing Furman into a long PAT, or allowing the 15-yard penalty to be assessed following the kickoff. The Bears opted for the PAT, and Jon Croft Hollingsworth, which had a pair of game-winning field goals, including a 53-yarder against Central Florida, and was a perfect 14-for-14 on PATs for the season, missed the 35-yard PAT, and the game remained tied, 20–20. Mercer ran out the remainder of the clock to force overtime.
Furman won the toss in overtime and deferred, and Mercer needed only three plays to get into the end zone and score what would prove to be the game-winning score, as Alex Lakes, who finished with 141 yards rushing on 19 attempts, scored his only TD on a 3-yard scamper in OT to give the Bears a 27–20 lead following Lieb’s PAT.
Furman’s first possession would end after only one play, as Blazejowski’s pass intended for Suttles in the end zone was picked off by Zach Jackson, and the Mercer sideline erupted in celebration following the pick.
The loss ensured Furman of its third losing season in its last five, while the win meant Mercer would finish with a chance at a winning season for the second time in three seasons since bringing the program back after a 72-year hiatus in 2013. Mercer out-gained Furman, 374–285, in the contest, including 286–60 in rushing yards. Blazejowski finished the afternoon connecting on 6-of-11 passes for 92 yards, with a TD and an INT, while Hannon completed 10-of-21 passes for 133 yards with a pair of TD passes.
Suttles had one of his best games of the season, hauling in eight passes for 101 yards and a pair of scores, while Snellings had five catches for 60 yards and McCarter finished with two grabs for 59 yards.
Mercer’s Tee Mitchell joined Lakes with a 100-yard rushing afternoon of his own, finishing with 112 yards on 21 attempts. Mercer quarterback John Russ connected on 13-of-21 passes for 88 yards and a pair of scores.
In his final home game at Furman, Paladin linebacker Cory Magwood finished the day leading the Paladins with 14 stops.
Of Furman’s four Southern Conference losses this season, only Samford has managed a double-digit win over the Paladins, with a 38–21 triumph back on Oct. 8. Furman has dropped heartbreakers to The Citadel (L,14–19), Chattanooga (L, 14–21) and Wofford (L, 27–34).
Like Furman, Mercer has also had its fair share of tough results go against it in Southern Conference play, especially among the top four teams in the league. Mercer opened Southern Conference play looking as if it might post an early SoCon upset in 2016, when the Bears gave The Citadel all it wanted before eventually dropping a 24–23 decision on a game-winning field goal by the Bulldogs. It was easily the toughest game The Citadel has had in SoCon play all season.
The Bears also dropped a 10-point decision at Wofford (L, 21–31) and nearly pulled the upset last weekend in Birmingham against Samford (L, 19–24) despite falling behind by 21 points in the opening quarter of play.
The only opponent in which the Bears failed to really challenge in league play this season was Chattanooga, who handed the Bears a 52–31 loss back on Oct. 8. Mercer accounted for the Mocs’ lone Southern Conference loss last season, with a 17–14 win in Macon.
A WIN WOULD…
Mercer — A win by the Bears and it would help the program secure its first-ever four-win campaign in league play as a member of the Southern Conference. The Bears would also clinch what would be a second winning season since joining the Division I FCS ranks back in 2013 as a start-up program under head coach Bobby Lamb. It would also mark the first winning season overall as a member of the Southern Conference.
The Bears would improve their overall Southern Conference record to 7–15 since joining the Southern Conference three years ago, and a fourth win would double the Southern Conference win total accomplished by the Bears last season.
A win would also help Mercer send its 30 seniors out with a win — the first and only class of seniors that can ever make the claim to be the actual foundation the Bears’ start-up football project is built on.
FURMAN — A win by the Paladins and it would secure a second-straight four-win season for head coach Bruce Fowler’s Paladins, who after starting 0–6 against maybe the toughest slate in FCS football, have rallied to play some of their best football over the latter half of the season.
It’s been a tough grind for the Paladins ever since winning the Southern Conference title back in 2013 under Fowler, as the Paladins have posted just a 9–23 mark since that 2013 season. Injuries have been one of several contributing factors to one of the worst periods of football for the program in modern history.
A win would certainly offer a credible argument that the Furman football program just might be on its way back up, especially considering how the Paladins ended the season. It would also send out the senior class, which features helped Furman claim its 13th Southern Conference title back in 2013. The 13th title helped Furman establish itself as the most-successful team in conference history, with 13 Southern Conference crowns, which is one more than former league member Appalachian State.