One of the biggest surprises this season in the FCS has been the ascension of Samford. The Bulldogs didn’t ping on hardly any radars back in August but on Saturday they began to put a nice and tidy bow on what has been an incredible season. Quarterback Michael Hiers, who has been a big reason why Samford has seen so much success, put together a masterful performance against Chattanooga as his Bulldogs toppled the Mocs 35-24. The win locked up at least a portion of the SoCon title.
Both offenses got off to a slow start but it was the Samford defense that paved way for Hiers and company to eventually break through. After trading punts to begin the game, cornerback Hakeem Johnson dove for a tipped pass from Mocs quarterback Preston Hutchinson and came down with the interception. It was a play that opened the floodgates for the Bulldogs.
After the pick, Hiers commanded an 11-play drive that he capped with a 22-yard touchdown throw to receiver Kendall Watson. Watson, who would finish the day with two more scores when all was said and done, now has nine TDs on the season. He came away with 66 yards on eight catches.
Chattanooga answered the first touchdown quickly with a 41-yard scoring run from running back Ailym Ford. Ford’s touchdown was his 11th of the season but it would be the only one the Mocs would record in the opening half.
Hiers led another impressive scoring march on the ensuing possession in which he completed eight passes before finally finding the end zone with his legs. In total the series took 19 plays and went 84 yards. Early in the second quarter, Samford led 14-7.
The Bulldogs defense forced a punt shortly following and allowed Hiers and his offense to score once more. He hooked up with Watson for a 16-yard strike with just over seven minutes to play until halftime. The home crowd was silenced as things were starting to feel like a rout.
That feeling only got worse for the Mocs and their fans when Hutchinson’s fourth down pass to Ford came up a yard short on the next possession and Samford got the ball back once again. Hiers hit Watson again from five yards out and, although Chattanooga tacked on a field goal before the break, the momentum was squarely on the side of the visitors. As the two teams headed to the locker room, the Bulldogs were on top 28-10.
Chattanooga flashed some life coming out of halftime with a long touchdown excursion of their own. Ford pushed his way in for a one-yard scoring run to cut the Samford lead to 11. Just when it started to feel as though the Mocs were turning the tides of the game, however, Hiers struck again.
He hit receiver DJ Rias perfectly in stride and Rias did the rest leaving the Mocs defenders in his wake on the way to the end zone.
Things went from bad to ugly in a hurry for Chattanooga as Hutchinson’s second interception of the day came in the end zone on the next drive. What could have been the score to keep the Mocs in it was thwarted by Isaiah Richardson and Samford was beginning to feel it.
Hutchinson redeemed himself with a two-yard touchdown run later in the third but, as it turned out, that was the last score either team would record all afternoon. A late block field goal try off the foot of kicker Aaron Sears summed up Chattanooga’s day perfectly.
Samford’s bench exploded onto the field as the final seconds wound down at the prospect of their first SoCon title since 2013. Pending what happens with Furman and Mercer, the Bulldogs may even have the championship outright if the Paladins win.
Hiers played perhaps his best game of the season, throwing for 353 yards and four touchdowns while rushing for another. He completed 37 of his 47 throws, good for a percentage of 78.7%. He threw no interceptions. Jay Stanton rushed for 91 yards and Rias led the way through the air with 100 yards on four catches.
While the Bulldogs can revel in their league championship, the Mocs are left with just one game to prove why they’re worthy of a playoff spot. Predicted by many to be the SoCon champs this season, Chattanooga is now in danger of missing the playoffs altogether. They need a win next week at Western Carolina.
Hutchinson struggled for much of the day, throwing two interceptions and no touchdowns. Ford ran for 144 yards and found the end zone twice. The Mocs defense allowed Samford to convert 14 third down tries and both of their fourth down attempts. It all culminated in the team’s second loss in three weeks.