CULLOWHEE, N.C. — Ray Early booted a Furman single-game record six field goals and quarterback Richard Hayes III rushed for a career-best 144 yards and a touchdown to lift the Paladins to a 32-20 victory over Western Carolina in Southern Conference football action on Saturday at E.J. Whitmire Stadium.
Early connected on field goals of 48, 24, 40, and 39 yards in the first half to give the Paladins a 12-7 lead and booted field goals from 30 and 32 yards in the second half to power Furman (6-5, 5-2 SoCon) to its fourth straight league victory.
Furman will play for a share of the Southern Conference championship next Saturday when it entertains Wofford at noon in Paladin Stadium.
Hayes, the Paladins’ freshman backup signal caller, rushed 12 times for his 144 yards — the second highest rushing tally in school history by a quarterback. His 54-yard run in the first half set up a field goal, and his 60-yard scoring burst in the third quarter gave Furman a 26-17 lead after Western Carolina (2-9, 1-6 SoCon) had narrowed the advantage to 19-17.
The victory was Furman’s seventh straight over Western Carolina and fourth consecutive triumph in Cullowhee.
Early’s six field goals topped the previous Furman record five field goals by Glen Connally versus East Tennessee State in 1990. In accounting for 20 of the Paladins’ 32 points, the senior from Darlington, S.C., climbed from sixth to fourth on Furman’s career scoring chart (233 points). He also deposited seven of his nine kickoffs into the end zone and averaged 41.3 yards on three punts.
It was all Early in the first half as his four field goals staked Furman to a 12-0 lead.
Western Carolina cut it to 12-7 with a Darius Ramsey 1-yard plunge and extra point with eight minutes remaining in the first half.
The Paladins found the end zone for the first time on the first possession of the second half, converting three third down plays on a 10-play, 60-yard drive. Fullback Ernie Cain covered the final two yards with a run off left tackle to stretch the lead to 19-7.
The Catamounts answered on their next two possessions with a Richard Sigmon 22-yard field goal and 55-yard touchdown strike from quarterback Eddie Sullivan to Karnorris Benson to slice the Paladins’ advantage to 19-17.
Furman countered quickly, however, behind Hayes, who took the first snap on the ensuing possession and bolted 60 yards up the middle to the end zone to make it 26-17.
Sigmon’s 29-yard field goal pulled the Catamounts to within 26-20, but after Early responded with his fifth field goal of the contest, from 30 yards, Furman’s defense stepped up with a stop, taking over on downs at the Paladin 46 with 5:32 remaining.
From that point Furman’s offense ground out yards and clock, moving 39 yards to the Western Carolina 15 to set up Early’s school record boot from 32 yards with 2:04 remaining in the contest.
Western Carolina registered 48 yards on the their final possession to claim a 434-412 advantage in total offense.
The Paladins rushed for a season high 268 yards with Hank McCloud following Hayes with 18 rushes for 87 yards. Starting quarterback Reese Hannon completed 17 of 31 passes for 144 yards. His favorite target was Jordan Snellings, who registered a career high six catches for 44 yards.
Jairus Hollman led Furman defensively with eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble, and a pass deflection.
The SoCon leader and ranked 12th nationally in turnover margin entering the contest, Furman played miscue free ball offensively and collected two Catamount fumble recoveries to up its turnover differential to +11 (25 gained, 14 lost).