MACON, GA. -- Jon Croft Hollingsworth kicked four field goals and Gary Wilkins' fourth quarter 19-yard interception return for a touchdown powered Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) 17th-ranked Furman to a 25-20 win over Mercer in the Southern Conference season opener for both teams Saturday evening at Mercer University Stadium.
Hollingsworth converted field goals of 21, 35, 22, and 50 yards to help Furman (2-0, 1-0 SoCon) build a 19-14 lead, and Wilkins capped it with his interception return for the touchdown -- the second of his career -- to increase the Paladins' lead to 25-14 with 12:38 remaining.
Mercer (1-1, 0-1 SoCon) cut the advantage to 25-20 with a 7-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Russ to JT Palmer with 3:34 to go, but the Bears failed to convert the onside kick, allowing Furman to effectively run out the clock.
The win was the seventh in the last eight games for Furman, the reigning SoCon champion, and handed Mercer its first home loss since resurrecting its program last year under former Paladin head coach Bobby Lamb.
Furman head coach Bruce Fowler's Paladins received a solid outing from redshirt freshman quarterback Dillon Woodruff in his first start since taking over for the injured Reese Hannon in last week's 13-3 victory over Gardner-Webb. Woodruff completed 14-of-29 passes for 228 yards.
Jordan Snellings had five catches for a career high 111 yards.
With Furman holding a 16-14 advantage early in the fourth quarter, Woodruff converted a third-and-seven play with a 35-yard connection to Snellings to the Mercer 35. Four plays later Hollingsworth stroked his final field goal of the contest, from 50 yards, to give Furman a 19-14 lead.
The 50-yard effort tied for seventh longest in school history.
On Mercer's first play following the ensuing kickoff, Wilkins stepped in front of short pass attempt by Ross, broke free from a Bear offensive lineman and bolted 19 yards into the end zone. Furman's two-point conversion attempt failed, but the 11-point lead proved to be all the Paladins would need.
The Paladins grabbed a 6-0 lead with Hollingsworth field goals of 21 and 35 yards, but then saw Mercer answer on its third possession by moving 87 yards in 13 plays to go up 7-6 on an Alex Lakos two-yard run with 4:31 to go in the first half.
Furman took a 13-7 advantage into intermission with an eight-play, 62-yard drive, punctuated by senior running back Hank McCloud's five-yard burst up the middle.
Mercer took its last lead on the first possession of the second half, going 73 yards for a 9-yard touchdown pass from Russ to Robert Brown.
The Paladins responded behind Hollingsworth, whose 22-yard field goal, set up by a 31-yard Chas Scott punt return to the Mercer nine-yard line, put Furman ahead for good, 16-14, with four minutes left in the third quarter.
Furman amassed 367 yards in total offense to Mercer's 286.
McCloud, who missed the Paladins' season opener due to preseason injury, led Furman with 17 carries for 74 yards.
Cory Magwood topped Furman with 14 tackles, including two for-loss. Wilkins finished with 10 stops, an interception, and a pass deflection.
Wilkins' pickoff return for a touchdown was the fifth by the Paladins in the last two seasons.
Furman plays at Presbyterian next Saturday in a 7:00 p.m. game that will be televised my My40 and also broadcast by ESPN3.
Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information