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  • Daniel Hooker

Catamounts Drop a 29-17 Decision in Battle of SoCon Unbeatens

Cole Gonzales tossed a pair of touchdown passes and Richard McCollum connected on a season-long 43-yard field goal, but #3/4 Furman posted a pair of passing scores and tallied two rushing scores including the second inside the game’s final minute in dealing #14/8 Western Carolina a 29-17 setback in Saturday’s battle of Southern Conference unbeatens at E.J. Whitmire Stadium / Bob Waters Field.

With Furman clinging to a six-point lead and looking to run out the clock, the Catamount defense put the Paladins behind the chains on a third-and-long in the closing moments. However, on the third-and-9, Furman QB Tyler Huff sealed the victory for the visitors with a 53-yard touchdown rush inside the game’s final minute. WCU’s final drive ended with a second interception in the loss.

Gonzales finished 21-of-35 passing for 269 yards and two touchdown passes but was intercepted twice and sacked three times. His two second-quarter scores went to sophomore AJ Colombo on a nine-yard pitch-and-catch and a 17-yard touchdown pass to David White Jr. just before halftime. White Jr. and sophomore Censere Lee both recorded six receptions for 73 yards to lead the way.

Tailback Branson Adams rushed for a career-high tying 61 yards in relief of injured starter Desmond Reid who only saw a handful of snaps after re-aggravating an injury suffered midway through the Chattanooga game. Reid ran twice for 10 yards and posted WCU’s longest pass play on a 39-yard catch-and-run before exiting.

WCU’s offense was held to a combined 353 total yards including just 84 rushing yards, snapping a five-game streak of racking up 500 or more yards.

Huff accounted for three touchdowns on Saturday for the Paladins, finishing 13-of-22 through the air for 174 yards with two first-quarter touchdown passes. He added 89 rushing yards including the 53-yard rushing score. Mason Pline paced Furman with 88 receiving yards on four catches with a 10-yard TD catch to open the game’s scoring, while Colton Hinton caught two passes for 22 yards and a touchdown.

Running a combined 70 offensive plays including 48 on the ground, the Paladins held a 10-minute edge in the time of possession in amassing 334 rushing yards. Dominic Roberto ran for 154 yards and a touchdown with Wayne Anderson Jr. posting 85 yards to compliment Huff’s ground performance.

The Catamounts (5-2, 3-1 SoCon) fell behind by 13 points after being held scoreless in the first quarter and were never able to either pull even or ahead in Saturday’s loss. WCU’s first two offensive drives moved 33 and 41 yards, respectively, but ended on failed fourth-down conversions as the Catamounts were 0-for-3 on fourth down in the game.

Colombo got the Catamounts on the board early in the second quarter, catching a short pass and dancing his way into the endzone for a nine-yard score to cap a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Furman, however, reclaimed the two-score advantage on the ensuing possession as the Paladins marched 75 yards in just four plays, keyed by a 54-yard run by Anderson Jr. before Roberto polished it off with a nine-yard touchdown run.

WCU got back to within one score late in the opening half as Gonzales found White Jr. for a 17-yard score to pull the Catamounts to within 20-14 with less than three minutes before intermission. Furman moved back into scoring position and ultimately missed a 50-yard field goal attempt after a TD pass was waved off by a penalty, sending the teams to the locker room with the guests in front, 20-14.

Following a scoreless third quarter that featured just two total possessions aside, the two squads traded fourth-quarter field goals in keeping it a one-score game, 23-17 in favor of the Paladins setting up Huff’s heroics on the long, game-sealing touchdown rush.

Both sides had opportunities in the third quarter, WCU’s coming on special teams miscues by the Paladins. Furman failed on a 32-yard field goal attempt midway through the frame with Ed Jones IV returning the short kick 13 yards. WCU marched into the red zone before Gonzales was intercepted at the goal line. On the ensuing possession, the Catamount defense forced a punt that only traveled 13 yards, setting the home squad up in plus-field possession. However, Furman forced a three-and-out, stopping the Catamount drive with a seven-yard loss on a sack.

Senior LB Va Lealaimatafao led the Catamount defense with a season and career-high 17 tackles including 10 solo stops with Lee Campbell credited with eight total tackles and a pair of pass breakups. Evan DiMaggio collected 10 tackles with eight solo stops and two sacks to pace the Paladins.

Western Carolina remains at home next Saturday, Oct. 28, hosting the Mercer Bears (5-3, 3-2 SoCon) in league play at Whitmire Stadium / Waters Field. Kickoff of the annual Homecoming game is scheduled for 2:30 p.m.

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