Monday, October 7, 2019

Paladins third in SoCon men's hoops polls

Furman senior Jordan Lyons was selected to the All-SoCon
preseason team announced Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Each of the past three men's basketball seasons, East Tennessee State, Furman, UNC Greensboro and Wofford have finished somewhere between first and fourth in the Southern Conference standings. According to the league's coaches and media, that's the expectation again this season.

One year after dominating the rest of the league, ETSU, UNCG. Furman and Wofford are the consensus picks to finish first, second, third and fourth, respectively, in the SoCon preseason polls released Monday. Those four teams went a combined 47-1 against the other six teams in the 2018-19 season. Furman picked up four first-place votes out of 30 in the media poll. ETSU got 20 first-place votes, while UNCG had six.

While the Paladins return four starters off a team that won a school record 25 games last season, the question that Furman coach Bob Richey has undoubtedly been asked about the most is who's replacing the one that's not. There's no doubt that Matt Rafferty turned his great career into a Hall of Fame one with a brilliant senior season, but this is the same question this program has grown accustomed to answering in a positive manner lately.

This time of year in 2016, it was who was going to replace Stephen Croone. In 2017, it was Kris Acox. In 2018, it was the big four of Geoff Beans, John Davis III, Daniel Fowler and Devin Sibley, who all helped install the fancy engine in the old clunker that Croone began restoring.

"The key to that is nobody saw any of those coming. You go all the way back to Stephen's senior year and we won - at that time, what seemed like a whopping - 19 games. Then everybody thought we were going to take a step back, and then all of a sudden guys emerge," Richey said. "Then Kris leaves and it's 'we don't really have a big guy,' but we had those seniors and a guard-led team. Matt and Andrew (Brown) were kind of the behind-the-scenes glue to that group. And then (last year), nobody saw it coming with Matt either.
"The wildest part when you look back on all this is the one that everybody's taking about the most now is Matt. But he was the one that people saw (coming on) the least."

Richey said the biggest reason there's been no decline, only continued elevation the past few years, is because of the foundation of the program is based on being a true team.

The reason last year's offense ran everything through Rafferty was because how well he could produce in every facet of the game. Richey believes that even when you lose a player like that, it can open up new avenues for success.

"We've got to try to get out and run a little bit more this year. We didn't want to necessarily wear Matt down last year doing that," Richey said. "That gives us a different dimension. There's no doubt we will lose different things (without Rafferty), but there's also some things this team is going to gain. I'll be interested to see how that manifests itself once we start to play."

Next year at this time, the question surrounding Furman basketball will likely be who's replacing Jordan Lyons. Lyons, the Paladins' lone senior, made the preseason All-SoCon team after averaging 16.2 points per game and hitting 34.7 percent of his 3-pointers.

Lyons became the first Paladin since 1969 to score at least 50 points in a game when he had 54 against North Greenville when he tied the NCAA record with 15 3-pointers. Lyons had a team-high 17 points in the Paladins upset win at reigning national champion Villanova.

"Jordan's worked really hard this offseason to get his game even more complete," Richey said. "We've seen growth in his game every year and I think this year, we're going to see the best version of him. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be one of the best players in the league.
"Jordan has earned what he's earned as an all-conference guy. ... Nobody's talking about your Noah Gurley's, your Clay Mounce's and your Alex Hunter's, which is great. We're good with that. We want to showcase what we have during the season.
"Nobody saw it coming last year either. We just keep our head down and keep working."

Furman opens the season Nov. 5 at Gardner-Webb before taking on 2017-18 Final Four participant Loyola-Chicago in the home opener Nov. 8.

Coaches predict Furman women to win SoCon

Furman's Le'Jzae Davidson (10) and Celena Taborn were selected to the
preseason All-SoCon team announced Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - With four starters returning for a team that finished just a few points shy of a Souhern Conference women's basketball championship last season, Furman has been picked to win the 2019-20 title by the league's head coaches. The Paladins, who received six out of eight first-place votes in the coaches poll, were picked to finish second by the league's media. The polls were released Monday at the SoCon's annual media day.

Mercer, which defeated Furman 66-63 in last year's final, was the media's choice to finish atop the standings for a third consecutive season. The Bears haven't lost to a SoCon team since the 2017 Tournament final.

Coaches may often consider being a preseason favorite to be a double-edged sword because of the pressure that comes with it, as well as the bulls-eye for other teams to shoot for. For Furman coach Jackie Carson, it certainly beats the alternative.

"The alternative is 10 years ago we were picked dead last and second-to-last in the two polls, so I'm very proud of where the program has gone in the last nine years," Carson said. "The nerves haven't hit yet. We're just enjoying the moment of having the respect of our peers in the conference, knowing how well we've built the program back up."

The Paladins are coming off a 19-14 season in which they went 9-5 in SoCon play and participated in the women's NIT for the second time in school history.

When it comes to feeling pressure for Furman, last year's tournament final run should provide the Paladins with a "been there, don't that" mentality. Coming so close to its first title since 2000 should provide plenty of motivation. After seeing a five-point fourth quarter lead disappear in last year's championship, Furman had three shots a game-tying 3-pointer over the final 20 seconds but couldn't get any to fall.

"That game was one of the best I've ever been a part of as a coach. It will probably be one of the best our girls will be involved in as a player. We were just on the wrong side of it," Carson said. "I think that game made us hungry and it's made us work harder in the preseason.
"That was a very young team with 13 freshmen and sophomores and we only have two seniors this year."

Two of Furman's four returning starters made the preseason All-SoCon team in Le'Jzae Davidson and Celena Taborn. Davidson led the Paladins and finished fourth in the SoCon in scoring last season at 16.4 points per game. The senior was the top free throw shooter in the SoCon at 84.4 percent last season and enters this season as Furman's all-time leader in 3-pointers with 235.

Taborn came back from double knee surgery last March to average 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season. The junior shot 64.2 percent from the floor to lead the league and establish a new school record.

"Le'Jzae is just a competitor. She shows up day in and day out. She loves the big moments and we love giving the ball to her. I think she's found a way to way more efficient and be even a bigger weapon than she has in the past," Carson said. "I don't think many people realize the tremendous pain Celena played in all last season. It was really hard for her to bounce back (from the surgeries).
"She did a lot in the preseason to transform her body and we gave those knees some rest. She's just been phenomenal. I look forward to her having a great year and getting back to that stride she had after her freshman year."

Furman will have an exhibition against Converse at Timmons Arena on Nov. 2 before opening the regular season at Clemson on Nov. 6.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Furman turns SoCon showdown into beatdown

Devin Wynn had touchdown runs of 75 and 89 yards and a 61-yard touchdown
reception in Furman's 58-14 win at Samford. Photo courtesy of Furman
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Less than three minutes into Saturday's showdown for first place in the Southern Conference, No. 14-ranked Furman found itself trailing an FCS opponent for the first time this season.

Evidently, the Paladins didn't take kindly to it.

After Samford easily drove down the field for a touchdown on the opening series of the game, the Paladins trailed for all of 13 seconds. That's how long it took for Devin Wynn to take an option pitch 75 yards untouched down the left sideline for a touchdown on Furman's first offensive play. That was the first of nine consecutive scoring drives, eight of which went for touchdowns, as the Paladins rolled to a 58-14 win.

"I just had a lot of confidence in our guys. I thought we'd play well," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I just thought the firmness with which we played today - the way our backs ran, how we blocked, Darren (Grainger) and defensively getting after those guys.
"I thought we'd only played one complete game and it was time for us to play another one. That one was pretty complete."

In snapping a three-game losing streak to Samford, Furman (4-2) moved to 3-0 in the SoCon. The only other team without a conference loss is Chattanooga (3-3, 2-0). The Paladins piled up 647 yards of total offense, the third-highest total in school history and the second 600-yard performance in the last three weeks. The other came in a 45-10 win over Mercer, the Bears' most lopsided loss to an FCS opponent. Saturday marked Samford's most lopsided loss in a SoCon game.

After Wynn's run helped tie things up at 7-7 just 3:11 into the game, it appeared the game was destined to be a shootout. But Furman's defense wasn't having that. After getting pushed around on Samford's opening 11-play, 75-yard drive, the Paladins defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs. Furman's offense followed those with a 38-yard touchdown from Darren Grainger to Thomas Gordon and a two-yard touchdown run by Devin Abrams.

"It was huge," Hendrix said of the early three-and-outs for Samford. "I was really proud of how the defense responded in the second half as well."

Samford got a couple of first downs on its next drive and reached midfield, but was forced to punt. While it flipped the field, it also set the table for Wynn to add to his career day. On the next play, Wynn took a handoff up the middle and raced 89 yards for a touchdown and the rout was on. That gave Wynn 174 yards in the first quarter, tying Jayson Foster's SoCon record for most rushing yards in a quarter.

"Just like the first one, it was like the Red Sea parted. The o-line did a phenomenal job and the coaches made another great call," Wynn said. "(The first run) was an amazing, great feeling because I've never had that one long play in my career at Furman. To get that off my back felt great."

Against the No. 1-ranked offense in the SoCon, Furman couldn't afford to let up and it didn't. The Paladins' two drives in the second quarter combined to take more than 10 minutes off the clock. They ended on Grainger-to-Gordon touchdowns connections of 17 and 25 yards, respectively, and the Paladins took a 42-14 lead into halftime.

It was more of the same after halftime. On the fourth play of the third quarter, Grainger avoided a sack and found Wynn standing all alone about 30 yards down the middle of the field. Wynn hauled it in and ran to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown catch.

Furman was getting further into run-out-the-clock mode after Grainger was shaken up on a run on the next drive. He didn't return, but appeared to be okay. While their touchdown streak ended, the Paladins settled for a 46-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins. Atkins boomed it through the uprights extending his school record to 16 consecutive makes.

Samford got inside Furman's 10-yard line on each of its third quarter drives. But those ended on Jordan Willis' nine-yard tackle-for-loss on fourth down and an interception by defensive tackle Mike Sochovka. Sochovka batted the ball in the air then made a terrific diving catch before it hit the ground.

In its four games against FCS opponents this season, Furman has allowed just 10 combined points in the second half.

"The biggest thing is communication on the field," said Willis, who finished with six tackles, including three for a loss and a forced fumble. "We weren't finishing those first few games, so we've just been preaching, 'finish, finish, finish.'"

Wayne Anderson wrapped up the scoring when he capped an 11-play, 84-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Furman emptied the bench throughout the second half as a total of 62 Paladins saw action. The final highlight of the day for the Paladins happened on their lone punt with less than five minutes to play. Rather than Atkins, who ranks second in the FCS in net punting, freshman Timmy Bleekrode got the call. His first career punt went 53 yards and was downed at the one-yard line.

"I just told them (in the locker room) the best thing about all of this is I think we can play even better," Hendrix said. "We will be challenged in different ways throughout the year, but they've been working good. It's an awesome way to go into a bye week."

Wynn finished with a career-high 217 yards rushing, the highest rushing total by a Paladin since Jerodis Williams ran for 239 against Western Carolina in 2012. The 89-yard touchdown run tied Williams for the second-longest in school history from that same game. Corey Watkins ran 10 times for 85 yards.

Grainger was 6-of-9 passing for 183 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Gordon's three touchdown catches tied the school record for a single-game, most recently done by Patrick Sprague against Citadel in 2007.

Furman's 58-point total is the most ever allowed by Samford in FCS play and the most for the Paladins since a 62-21 win over Presbyterian in 2011. The 14 points Furman allowed marks Samford's lowest output at home since a 24-9 loss to Chattanooga in 2011.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Paladins set for first-place battle at Samford

Senior captain Jordan Willis has a team-high 40 tackles
for Furman this season. Photo courtesy of Furman
In its first two Southern Conference games this football season, 14th-ranked Furman has allowed 10 points apiece. If that happens again on Saturday at Samford, chances are extremely high that the Paladins (3-2, 2-0) will have a happy bus ride home from Alabama.

Realistically, 11 points shouldn't be nearly enough for either team in this showdown for first place in the SoCon. After Furman's offense faced what could prove to be its biggest test this season in last Saturday's 17-10 win over ETSU, the defense could be in for its biggest test this week as Samford (3-2, 2-0) leads the SoCon in total offense (442.6 yards per game). Saturday will be a matchup of the league's No. 1 scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense as the Bulldogs average 43.4 points per game and the Paladins allow 21 points per game.

While the leading career passer in FCS history, Devlin Hodges, has finally departed, Samford's offense really hasn't changed. The Bulldogs have the second- and seventh-leading passers in the SoCon in starter Chris Oladokun and Liam Welch and are averaging 299.2 passing yards per game.

Welch started Samford's season-opening loss to Youngstown State before being relieved by Oladokun, and the South Florida transfer has started every game since. In addition to his 63 percent completion rate, 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions,  Oladokun can cause problems with his feet. He's Samford second-leading rusher with an average of 49.6 yards per game and has six touchdown runs.

"Defensively, it's almost a 180 after going against a team (ETSU) last week that turned the game into an inside drill," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "(Samford) Coach (Chris) Hatcher has a proven track record with quarterbacks and he's got a system he believes in that's certainly been really good for a long time.
"They're really big up front, almost building a little wall there and they get (the pass) out quick. Certainly you've got to find some ways to pressure them and we didn't do a very good job of that last year."

One thing not entirely clear this week is the health of Oladokun, who left last week's game against The Citadel and didn't return. Welch led a wild comeback as Samford rallied from a 38-24 deficit with six minutes to play and won 61-55 in four overtimes. For what its worth, Oladokun is still listed as the starter on Samford's depth chart in this week's game notes.

In Greenville last Saturday, Furman's defense held an opponent under 300 yards of total offense for the second consecutive week as ETSU had 290. Of particular note were the tackle totals for Furman's secondary, many of which came on run support.

Cornerback Amir Trapp established his career-high tackle day by the end of the first quarter with six and finished tied for the team lead with 11. Spur Jordan Willis had 10 tackles, including one for a loss. CornerTravis Blackshear had eight tackles. Trapp and Blackshear led the team in solo tackles last week with six and five, respectively. Corner Quandarius Weems had three solo stops off the bench in his first action since getting banged up in the season opener.

While their assignments will be much different this week, the tackling effort put forth by the defensive backs should give the group and coaches confidence. That boost could be important in this matchup that should see many of them on the field at the same time.

"People think corners don't want to tackle, but ours do a good job of it. We've needed them to be able to do that and they have," Hendrix said. "They're going to be spread out all over the field this week and a lot more space opportunities. The game won't be played in a phone booth (like the ETSU game) this week."

On the other side of the ball, Furman's offense will take its shot against a Samford unit that ranks last in the SoCon in rushing defense (264 yards allowed per game) and next-to-last in the league in scoring (38.8 points allowed per game) and total defense (458.4 yards allowed per game). Those numbers are skewed by the fact that the Bulldogs have played two games that have gone to multiple overtimes and have played run-heavy teams in Wofford and Citadel. Samford's defense has allowed 5.3 yards per play and 4.2 yards per carry, which rank second-best in the SoCon in both of those respective categories.

In its other SoCon win this season, Samford needed only one second half score to defeat Wofford in Spartanburg, 21-14. Last week, Citadel rushed for 266 yards against the Bulldogs but that came on 95 attempts for a 2.8 yards per carry average. Of the Citadel's seven pass plays, six went for completions of a total of 196 yards and two touchdowns. So while Samford has appeared to limit the run against teams that do very little besides running, it could be susceptible against passing and more balanced offenses.

There are a couple of other areas where the Paladins might have an advantage Saturday. Furman has a SoCon-best 12 sacks this season and Samford has allowed 12. In turnover margin, the Paladins are No. 2 in the SoCon at plus-two, while Samford is last in the league and 120th in the FCS at minus-eight. The Bulldogs have thrown eight interceptions and lost two fumbles, while their defense has two interceptions and no fumble recoveries.

After winning its first season opener since 2015 and sitting at 2-0 in the SoCon for the first time since 2011, Samford is another demon Furman will look to exorcise. The Bulldogs have won the last three meetings against Furman to become the only SoCon team with a winning record against the Paladins as they lead the series 11-10. Since the start of the 2016 season, seven of Furman's nine SoCon losses have been decided by seven points or less. The other two are Samford's wins in Greenville - 38-21 win in 2016 and 38-25 last season.

While that skid hasn't been brought up a ton, Hendrix said it's obviously something that players are well aware of.

"I think as a competitor when you're unsuccessful against somebody, you want to change that," Hendrix said. "Two years ago, we go down there for the last game of the season with a chance to win the conference championship and lose 26-20. ...  A year ago, we had the chance to go up three scores and the next thing you know the ball is going the other way (on a turnover) and the game totally flipped. That game turned about as quickly as any I can remember."

Downtown to host some Furman hoops again

Furman Athletic Director Jason Donnelly speaks during a press conference
at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday morning.
In the first event ever held at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, Jerry West scored 29 points to help the No. 1-ranked West Virginia men's basketball team rally from a six-point second half deficit and defeat Furman, 76-67, on Dec. 1, 1958. That season-opening victory was the Mountaineers' 37th consecutive Southern Conference win.

In the last college basketball game ever held at the Auditorium, Davidson rallied from a 10-point deficit with seven minutes to play and defeated Furman, 88-79 in overtime, on Feb. 26, 1996. That season-ending victory was the Wildcats' 17th consecutive win as they became the first team to go undefeated in SoCon play since Furman in 1975.

In the 38 years between those defeats, the Paladins' old home court saw a lot more Furman wins than losses. Now the Paladins are winning again and are headed back downtown again, for a few games at least. A press conference was held at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday morning to announce that Furman would hold three men's games and one women's game there this season.

"Weekends at the Well will only heighten the Arena's relationship with Furman University, as well as put a spotlight on the success of their basketball programs," BSWA General Manager Beth Paul said. "We look forward to reconnecting Paladin basketball to downtown Greenville and to creating a best-in-class experience for Furman's student-athletes, coaches, athletic staff, faculty, alumni, fans and students."

The "Weekends at the Well" schedule has Furman facing Winthrop on Dec. 14 at noon, UNC Greensboro on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. and Wofford on Feb. 22 at noon. Prior to the UNCG game, the Furman women's team will face Samford there at 4:30.

Since the former Bi-Lo Center opened in 1998, the Furman men have played 19 games there. These three games will be the most the Paladins have played in a regular season there and be their first games there since an 80-77 overtime loss to College of Charleston on Feb. 19, 2007.

Furman is looking at this as a way to strengthen the connection between the school and the city of Greenville. It may also attract new fans to a product that's been very entertaining of late. The Paladin men were ranked in the top 25 for the first time ever last season and finished with a school-record 25 wins. Meanwhile, the Paladin women won 19 games and fought a Mercer team that hasn't lost to a SoCon team in three years down to the wire of last season's SoCon women's championship.

"We have a historic tradition of being part of this city. ... This is our opportunity to get back in the city and really further our brand," Furman Athletic Director Jason Donnelly said. "We've got a phenomenal basketball product with both of our men's and women's teams. They're both ready for this opportunity."

Paul opened Thursday's press conference before Donnelly spoke. Furman President Elizabeth Davis and Greenville Mayor Knox White also shared their thoughts. Those in attendance included Furman men's and women's head coaches, Bob Richey and Jackie Carson, along with Furman staff and cheerleaders.

Davis spoke about the many connections Furman continues to make with the city and downtown area and pointed out that 7,000 alumni reside in the area. White touched on the history Furman basketball made in downtown, including Frank Selvy's 100-point game at the old Textile Hall, Furman's home court prior to Memorial Auditorium.

"Some great things happened at the old Auditorium. Those memories are still out there and the stories are still told, but they never thought it would happen again downtown," White said. "So thank you to everyone who made this possible and for getting it down so quickly. ... I have no doubt the community will be all in on painting the town purple."

Making this collaboration happen was a big priority for Donnelly, who only began his AD duties in August. It was also a case of "been there, done that."

"Three games here this season is actually perfect. I've got to be honest. I borrowed this a little bit from a blueprint I did at Villanova. There we played on campus in a 6,500-seat arena and we'd also play downtown at the Wells Fargo Center in a 20,000-seat arena," Donnelly said. "The goal here is to have three great games here this season, to pack the house and have a great environment.
"We're still committed to a great on-campus environment at Timmons Arena, but to have three to five games here annually against the right opponents is the goal for the future."

The Well will always be a special place for Carson. It's where her legendary playing career wound down as a senior in 2000 when the facility hosted the SoCon Women's Tournament. She led the Paladins to double-digit wins in all three of their SoCon Tournament games year as they cut down the nets for the second time in school history.

"The feel around this arena when you're playing in it is incomparable. I can't wait for our girls to experience it," Carson said. "I think it truly shows we're Greenville's team and I would love for everyone to come see what our women's program is all about.
"We have a very passionate group of almost like internal fans. This opens a door for more."

As the Furman men have continued to pile up wins during Richey's coaching tenure, Timmons Arena has transformed into one of the toughest places to play in the league. The atmosphere, especially when a Wofford comes to town, has reached a level that the most optimistic Furman fan could've never imagined the once downtrodden program could reach.

Richey is confident home-court advantage won't be lost. In fact, he has visions of creating an even greater home court advantage in what could become the Paladins home away from home. That vision includes a Furman basketball game at The Well becoming an obvious choice for folks visiting downtown on a Saturday.

"Jason thinks big and I like that. ... There's risk to everything, but there's reward to everything. I'd rather talk about the reward because we've shown - through the four or five sellouts at Timmons last year and the energy we had in the postseason (home NIT) game - that we can take this to a new venue," Richey said. "Let's not put limiting beliefs on this. If you're saying 'this place is too big,' or 'we're going to lose home-court advantage,' that's not the train of thought that we're trying to get here. That's what permeated us for a long, long time.
"I challenge our fan base and supporters. When you hear about this, you've got to get behind it. Let's go do something big together. That's just how all this works. Somebody's got to step up and say, 'we can go do something that people don't think we can do.' That's what this program has been able to do a few times over the last few years. ... I just look at this as another opportunity to do that."

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Defense lifts Paladins past ETSU

Furman's DiMarcus Clay returns an interception on ETSU's final offensive
play in the Paladins' 17-10 win Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman coach Clay Hendrix said ETSU's defense would present the 15th-ranked Paladins with its stiffest challenge yet - outside of Virginia Tech. As it turns out, that wasn't just "coach speak." But on a day when the Buccaneers routinely locked up Furman's offense, the defense kept providing the bail money.

For the second week in a row, the Paladins defense held an opponent under 300 yards of total offense as Furman held on for a 17-10 win at Paladin Stadium Saturday. Furman (3-2) improves to 2-0 in the Southern Conference for the first time since 2011.

"I'm thrilled to get a victory. ... I told them it was going to be exactly like it was. I knew it was going to be a fight," Hendrix said. "Defensively, just a phenomenal job by our guys. They just continue to get better and better.
"You've gotta find a way to win games like that and good teams do."

After putting up 45 points and 600 yards of total offense in last Saturday's win over Mercer, Furman looked to pick up where it left off after receiving the opening kickoff. But on a cloudy day in front of a sparse crowd, the energy level seemed a little low as the Paladins went three-and-out to start the game.

However, Furman came back with a nine-play, 80-yard drive on its next possession. On a day when Darren Grainger's cannon arm misfired a few times, it was on point when he zipped a pass to a well-covered Ryan DeLuca in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.

After a three-and-out for ETSU (2-3, 0-2), Furman's offense went back to work. The Paladins were at the Bucs' 15 again going the opposite way in the second quarter when they ran a similar play as the touchdown. This time, the ball slipped off DeLuca's fingers for an incompletion and Furman ended up settling for a 28-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins. Atkins' 15th consecutive made field goal established a new SoCon record.

It appeared more like business as usual for the SoCon's No. 1-rated offense as Furman led 10-0 and looked for more as it got the ball back with 11 minutes left in the second quarter. But a massive hit that resulted in a turnover seemed to shake up the Paladins. On 2nd-and-2, Corey Watkins easily got the first down and was looking for more when he was blindsided by ETSU's Artevius Smith. The Bucs recovered the ball at the Furman 42 as Watkins laid on the field motionless for a couple of minutes before leaving the game.

After the turnover, it took all of four ETSU runs to get on the board as Cameron Lewis ran for a six-yard touchdown. It remained a 10-7 game going into halftime.

"The fumble was huge," Hendrix said. "I really felt like we were getting ready to kind of take the game over.
"We didn't respond very good on defense. We missed a couple of tackles, they go down and score and the whole game changed."

ETSU tied the game on a 34-yard field goal by Tyler Keltner midway through the third quarter.

After going 3-of-10 passing in the first half, Grainger's first pass of the second half came on Furman's third possession after halftime. Grainger nearly slipped down for a loss after the snap but regained his stance and fired a deep ball to DeLuca, who fought through the defender and somehow made a 40-yard catch to the 11.

"I got past the corner and I thought it was going to be a little late, but I obviously didn't see Darren slip. He did a great job of recovering and making a play," DeLuca said. "He put it up there and I definitely thought there might have been interference, but I just tried to make a play."

Three plays later, Devin Wynn ran for six yards on 3rd-and-6 on the final play of the third quarter. For Furman, which entered Saturday ranked No. 1 in the SoCon in third down conversions at 49 percent, it was the first third down conversion of the game. Wynn scored from a yard out to open the fourth quarter to as the Paladins took a 17-10 lead.

Furman's defense came up with a pair of turnovers in the fourth quarter. Cally Chizik forced a fumble that Parker Stokes recovered at the ETSU 37. Two plays later, Grainger fired to the end zone but was picked off by Smith. With 3:06 left in the game, Furman's DiMarcus Clay intercepted Trey Mitchell's pass on third down.

"We just continued to talk about having more energy, especially in the second half," said captain Jordan Willis, who had 10 tackles. "We seemed kind of flat coming out, but once we picked it up everybody just continued to keep going and let loose."

With the Bucs still having all three timeouts, Furman needed at least a couple of first downs to run out the clock. The Paladins avoided disaster on the first play as Wayne Anderson fumbled an option pitch but recovered it. That was the last pitch of the day, but the ball did go in the air one more time when Grainger hit Avery Armstrong for 13 yards on 3rd-and-11. On 3rd-and-4, it appeared there was supposed to be a handoff but Grainger kept it and rolled to his right for a gain of four and a first down. Furman then kneeled out the clock.

"I think I said something to (offensive coordinator) George (Quarles) about that play (option pitch), but we didn't crack the safety. If we had cracked the safety, we might have had a big, big play," Hendrix said. "We executed that (3rd-and-11) about as well as you could execute it. ... Then (on 3rd-and-4) luckily, Darren made a heck of a play.
"I was proud we didn't have to send our defense back onto the field."

While ETSU was held to 290 yards, it outgained Furman by 22 yards and had a seven-minute edge in time of possession. The 268-yard total for the Paladins are the fewest in a victory since a 221-yard effort in a 17-3 win over S.C. State in 2015.

Watkins, who never returned after taking the big hit, finished with 58 yards on five carries to lead the Paladins. Wynn, who sat out the first quarter, and Devin Abrams each had 43 yards on 11 carries. Grainger was 6-of-14 for 97 yards passing and rushed for 24 yards on seven attempts.

"Offensively, we've had a lot of people tell us how good we are. When you have days like today, you get brought back to earth a little bit," Hendrix said. "It's nice to learn that lesson and still get a win."

Amir Trapp set his career-high for tackles in a game by the end of the first quarter Saturday and finished with 11 to share the team lead with Braden Gilby. Travis Blackshear and Elijah McKoy each had eight. Dru Seabrook got his team-leading fourth sack this season. That came on third down and forced an ETSU punt from its 16-yard line in a 10-10 game. After Trapp made a fair catch at the Furman 49, Grainger hit the 40-yard pass to DeLuca on the next play.

In addition to breaking the SoCon record for consecutive made field goals, Atkins was vitally important in the field position battle. He averaged 42.6 yards on five punts and put three of those inside the ETSU 20-yard line.

"Everybody's accountable for just doing their job. My job is to pin them inside the 20 and make my field goals when they come up," Atkins said. "Shout out to my coverage team because a lot of those inside the 20 have been downed. They've done an incredible job making me look good."

Friday, September 27, 2019

Furman set for redemption portion of schedule

Furman 5-foot-8 corner Amir Trapp deflects a pass intended for Mercer's 6-2
receiver David Durden in the Paladins' 45-10 win. Photo courtesy of Furman
After winning its first season opener since 2014 and first Southern Conference opener since 2015, the No. 15-ranked Furman football team is now set for the redemption portion of its 2019 schedule. The Paladins (2-2, 1-0) have the chance to avenge its only SoCon losses from last season each of the next two weeks, as they host East Tennessee State on Saturday before playing at Samford on Oct. 5.

A win in either of those games last year would've given Furman the outright SoCon championship and saved a whole lot of heartbreak on the FCS version of "Selection Sunday." Instead, the Paladins settled for a share of their league-best 14th football title and became just the second SoCon champion to not receive a bid to the FCS playoffs.

Last season's loss at ETSU was particularly painful for Furman. After taking a 13-6 lead into halftime, the Paladins seem unfazed by a 50-minute lightning delay that extended the break. Furman scored touchdowns on two of its first three possessions of the second half to push its lead to 27-6 with 8:19 left in the third quarter.

Then everything went belly up for the Paladins. The Buccaneers switched quarterbacks and senior Austin Herink threw for more than 200 yards over the last quarter-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Furman's offense completely disappeared with respective drives of five, nine, minus-10, minus-3 and six yards the rest of the way as ETSU rallied for a 29-27 win.

"I remember that feeling sitting on the bus after that game. If we would've just made one play anywhere...," Furman coach Clay Hendrix recalled. "They just played better than we did. At the end of the day, they made more plays than we did.
"I don't know how much that will play a part (Saturday), I just know they're a pretty good team coming in here."

The good news for Furman is Herink - who threw for a school record 434 yards in Furman's 56-35 win over ETSU in Greenville two years ago - is now a graduate assistant. The better news is the Paladins are on a completely different level from last September. This is especially true on offense where Hendrix says the difference is "night and day."

Because of injury and the weather cancellation the week before, last year's ETSU game marked Harris Roberts' first meaningful snaps at quarterback. Hendrix has said that it took the half the season last year for Furman to figure things out, especially when it came to developing an identity on offense.

This year, Darren Grainger has looked like more like a seasoned veteran rather than a redshirt freshman. Grainger has thrown for 694 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception, while rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns. Coming off its 600-yard performance last Saturday, which included 410 yards rushing, Furman leads the SoCon in total offense at 469.5 yards per game.

"We're not remotely close to that same team that went up there last year," Hendrix said.

The Paladins should be tested Saturday by an ETSU unit that ranks No. 2 in the SoCon in total defense (343.8 yards allowed per game), No. 2 in rush defense (140.8) and No. 3 in pass defense (203). The Bucs (2-2, 0-1) are led by SoCon preseason defensive player of the year Nasir Player, who leads the team in sacks (1.5) and quarterback hurries (4).

That defense shined last week in ETSU's 20-14 win over Austin Peay. The Bucs didn't allow a point in the second half and held the Governors to 79 yards of total offense after halftime. The week before, Austin Peay won at Mercer 48-34.

"They're a physical, fast group with a lot of good players," Hendrix said. "They have a physical running game on offense, so they get to practice against that. That shows up in how they play (defensively)."

Like ETSU last Saturday, Furman's defense also posted a second half shutout in the Paladins' 45-10 win over Mercer. In handing the Bears their most lopsided FCS loss ever, Furman allowed just 283 yards of total offense, forced four turnovers and had two sacks. Mercer entered last week averaging 42.7 points and 432.3 yards per game and had only allowed two sacks for the season.

What particularly stood out is the improvement shown by Furman's pass defense since the 48-42 shootout loss at Georgia State. Furman 5-foot-8 corner Amir Trapp held his own against Mercer's 6-2 David Durden. Trapp had three pass break-ups while limiting Durden, the Bears leading receiver, to six catches for just 54 yards. Meanwhile on the other side, Travis Blackshear helped hold Tucker Cannon to two catches for 17 yards. Cannon entered last week with 13 receptions for 285 yards (21.9 per catch).

Also for Furman's pass defense last week, Bryan Okeh, DiMarcus Clay and Hugh Ryan each had their first collegiate interception, while Dae'One Wilkins had two break-ups and Darius Kearse had one.

"Amir's a guy who's really competitive. The Durden kid is a heck of a player and Amir took that as a challenge. He's played some really good football for us in the short time he's been here. For him, it's just about staying healthy," Hendrix said. "Travis doesn't play like a lot of corners from a tackling standpoint. He's had some big hits for us.
"I thought our secondary easily had their best day - maybe one of the better days that I remember having around here."

An intangible that might be interesting to track Saturday could be the weather. The game is set for a 1 p.m. kickoff, just like every other Furman home game this year. It will mark the earliest kickoff this season for ETSU, which hasn't started a game before 7:35 p.m. in September.

Temperature at 1 p.m. is forecast to be 84 degrees with a heat index of 90, and both those figures are predicted to rise throughout the afternoon. Hendrix made no bones about why he likes the early afternoon kickoffs this week.

"Our conditioning is one of the reasons I like to play at one o'clock. I think we're in really good shape and our depth has been good," Hendrix said. "I think we're playing through a few more bumps, bruises and dings than we could have in the past, so we've been a little more durable. We try to play a physical style on both sides of the ball."