Sunday, October 2, 2022

Paladins fail to overcome adversity in loss

Furman's Ivan Yates holds up the ball he came down with on a controversial play
in the Paladins' 34-27 loss to Samford Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

How quickly things can change.

All week, it appeared Furman would be playing in windy, wet conditions in its first home game in a month Saturday. But a couple of hours before kickoff, the sun appeared and it turned into a beautiful day at Paladin Stadium.

It got more beautiful for the home fans over the first 20 minutes. Five minutes into the second quarter, the Paladins were poised to build on a 10-0 lead after their second interception of the day set them up at the Samford 26-yard line.

But after long delay and TWO reviews of the same play, the ball inexplicably was awarded back to Samford. The Bulldogs took advantage of the horrific ruling, scoring a touchdown on that drive.

And the next drive.

And the next drive.

The 20-0 spurt over a six-and-a-half minute span stunned Furman. While never being out of the game, the Paladins never seemed to fully recover as 16th-ranked Samford went on to a 34-27 win.

"The one call didn't beat us, but we let it beat us later on and that's on me. We've got to respond better in those situations," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I wish those situations didn't occur. They seem to occur too often sometimes around here, especially with some review stuff. But I'm just disappointed in how we responded.

"Give Samford credit. They played better than we did today and coached better."

On the controversial play, Furman's Ivan Yates drilled Samford's Chandler Smith at the same time a pass arrived and Yates came out of the collision with the ball. Replays clearly indicated this, as well as the fact that Smith never had the ball nor did it ever touch the ground. But after a delay while Smith was checked on by trainers, Samford's offense went back out on the field as if it was a completed pass.

Before a snap took place, officials stopped for a review. After that delay, the ruling was that Yates made the interception. The ball was placed at the 28-yard line, rather than the 26 where Yates landed though. Before a snap could be made, Samford coach Chris Hatcher spoke with two officials on that sideline. After a couple of minutes, two officials spoke with Hendrix on the Furman sideline. Suddenly, the head official went back for another review.

Most of us in the press box assumed they were checking the spot since it was two yards off. But after the lengthiest review of them all, the head official declared that Smith's forward progress was stopped before the ball came loose. But that means that Smith had possession, which never actually happened. All in all, this embarrassing fiasco for the Southern Conference lasted 13 minutes between plays.

"They made the decision (after the first review), then the other side of the field gets a five-minute explanation and then they go back and review again," said Hendrix. "I've never ever seen that. ... I thought it was an interception and the ball was never possessed (by Smith).

"But they played better than we did and coached better than we did. It should've never came down to that. We had plenty of opportunities to take control of the game early and we didn't."

The review crew looked like hypocrites later in the game. Furman trailed 34-20 early in the fourth quarter when Smith made a leaping grab of a pass. The ball was knocked out by Micah Robinson, picked up by Braden Gilby and returned to the Samford 24-yard line. But a review overruled the fumble call on the field claiming that Smith never had possession and it was an incompletion. This one was debatable, but there's no debate that Smith actually had some semblance of a possession this time.

Now, on to the things that Furman could control.

The Paladins (3-2, 1-1) had a great drive to start the game going 73 yards on 14 plays. But a dropped touchdown on first-and-goal was followed by a false start. For the fourth consecutive game, Furman's first points came via settling for a first quarter field goal.

That field goal came after Jace Wilson was stopped for a one-yard gain on third-and-goal from the three on a shotgun draw out of an empty backfield. The Paladins' next field goal try, a 51-yard attempt by Ian Williams that was blocked, came after Wilson threw to Ryan Miller for a one-yard gain on third-and-four. Furman's last field goal came two plays after a false start on third-and-one at the Samford 11.

After that field goal cut the lead to 34-20 early in the fourth quarter, the Paladins' next possession ended on a punt after Dominic Roberto was dropped for a loss of one on a third-and-two shotgun handoff.

The struggles to line up and get necessary yards on third-and-short plays Saturday were especially frustrating against a Samford team not accustomed to stopping the Paladins. Furman ran for 460 yards against Samford in 2019, 248 two seasons ago and 358 last season. But on Saturday, the Bulldogs' new transfer-rich defense under a new defensive coordinator held the Paladins 128 yards rushing on 38 attempts.

Furman finished with 457 yards of total offense, but it took 97 plays to do it. Making his first start since last season for injured starter Tyler Huff (dislocated elbow), Wilson broke the school's single-game record Saturday with 38 completions. His 59 attempts were the second-most in school history. He finished with 329 yards passing, three touchdowns, no interceptions and 38 yards rushing. The completions record isn't the most glorified one though. Saturday marked the 13th time a Furman quarterback completed at least 26 passes in a game and the Paladins fell to 0-13 in those games.

"I thought Jace stepped in and did a good job," Hendrix said. "The dropped passes were big. We just left too many points on the field."

A Furman team that was near the national lead in turnovers forced and turnover margin lost that battle, technically anyway, 3-1. Samford (4-1, 2-0) scored a pair of touchdowns off of its three fumble recoveries, the last of which was pounced on at the Furman eight-yard line. The Bulldogs' touchdown after that fumble pushed the lead to 34-17 in the third quarter.

Furman's defense held Samford leading rusher Jay Stanton to 17 yards on eight carries. He entered Saturday averaging 71.5 yards per game. Unfortunately for the Paladins, they weren't as successful against Stanton's backup. Jaylan Thomas had 104 yards on only five carries, including three touchdowns. All three scores came on seemingly the same play, a simple dive handoff up the middle.

"The big thing that's been killing us on defense is giving up explosive plays," said Furman bandit Luke Clark, who had two of the Paladins' five sacks Saturday. "Three explosive runs from a team that really doesn't want to run the ball shouldn't happen.

"I don't think it's a lack of effort. I think we've just got to practice making sure that we can be where we're supposed to be."

What's becoming a trend now for Furman is that the defense's seemingly only weakness is the offense's biggest weakness. It's big plays - too many given up and not nearly enough gained.

"We're not getting any chunk plays in the run game. They are hard yards we're getting," said Hendrix. "They've (opposing defenses) got eight guys standing up there (in the box) most of the time. ... We've got to find a way to get some of those chunk yards.

"You get 97 plays, you've got to score more points than we did. We tried to mix it up because we knew they were going to crowd the ball in there. ... The three turnovers were just killers."

Furman plays at The Citadel next Saturday at 2 p.m.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Turnovers a key for Furman's deep defense

Kam Brinson celebrates a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter of
Furman's 24-19 win at Charleston Southern. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman overcame four turnovers on offense to pull out a 24-19 win at Charleston Southern last Saturday. The last time the Paladins suffered that many turnovers and still managed to win came in a 27-17 victory over Coastal Carolina in 2007.

A big reason why Furman was able to withstand those turnovers was that its defense forced four turnovers as well. Turnover margin for the Paladins this season is at plus-six, which is tied for the second-most in the FCS. Four games into this season, Furman (3-1, 1-0 Southern Conference) has the second-highest total of turnovers in the country with 13. That's already more turnovers than the Paladins forced in the seven-game 2020 season (11) and the entire 2018 season (12).

Two of Saturday's turnovers were important parts of Furman's rally from a 19-10 second half deficit. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Jalen Miller ripped the ball away from a Charleston Southern receiver and Kam Brinson recovered the fumble near midfield. On the Paladins' ensuing drive, Jace Wilson scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on a 22-yard scramble.

"We knew we needed to make a play to just get the ball back to our offense. We practice that all week and emphasize punching the ball out," said Miller, whose fumble recovery in the first quarter set up Furman's first points of the game on an field goal. "I just saw my opportunity and thankfully, we were able to get on it."

Late in the fourth quarter, Charleston Southern's final drive reached the Paladins' 21-yard line but it ended on Dominic Morris' interception in the end zone. It was the second consecutive week that Morris made a game-sealing interception in the final moments.

Furman's defensive depth has been highlighted by the turnover numbers. While Morris has those two interceptions, six different Paladins are responsible for the others. Four different Paladins have the unit's five fumble recoveries with Brinson leading the way with two. Additionally, 20 different Paladins have been in on tackles-for-loss.

That kind of depth has paid off in crunch time, as Furman has allowed a combined 100 yards of total offense and zero points in the fourth quarter this season. Two other key stats for the Paladins' defense this season: a 100.08 pass efficiency defense rating that ranks ninth in the country and a 35.7 percentage of third down conversions allowed. Last season, Furman's opponents converted 47.7 percent of its third downs.

"That's one thing our defense prides itself on - having multiple people go out there and there's no drop off," Miller said. "That's so valuable when you get in these tough games. Somebody goes down, the next person goes in, and you don't have to worry about if they can do their job. It lets us trust each other and play a lot more freely.

"The big guys up front don't always get the praise they deserve, but their presence is definitely felt in the back end (of the defense). We're getting turnovers at a high rate because they're pushing the quarterbacks out of their spot and making them get rid of the ball before they're really ready to."

New looks up front on offense

Furman played Saturday without its most experienced (starts wise) offensive lineman as Evan Jumper was out after suffering a mild concussion at ETSU. Starting right guard Wyatt Hughes shifted to center and redshirt freshman Ryan Lamb made his first career start at right guard. Sophomore guard Blake Hundley played a career-high 63 snaps Saturday as well.

"Wyatt stepped in there at center and played really well. He was one of our players of the week," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Playing that position isn't an easy thing to do."

The line was also missing All-American tight end Ryan Miller for a short time early as he left the game after the Paladins' first offensive play. Miller returned and ended up with 94 yards on six receptions and extended his touchdown streak to seven consecutive games dating back to last year. Some of the missing pieces may have been part of what was an abysmal start offensively for Furman.

After putting together a 93-yard scoring drive late in the first half that gave them a 10-9 lead at the break, the Paladins seemed to finally settle in offensively. Furman possessed the ball for more than 10 minutes in both the third and fourth quarter.

"The biggest thing is our guys didn't panic and stuck together," Hendrix said. "That was an odd day. The number of turnovers we had. We didn't have power on our sideline for half the day. The phones were in and out. We didn't have access to (cooling) fans.

"It got a little warm there in the second half, but we didn't have a single guy cramp the whole day. That's a testament to them and to our training staff. A lot of things went against us, but they found a way to hang in there and get it done." 

The Paladins spent much of the preseason rotating offensive linemen at different spots. Hendrix said a number of the them took snaps at center, which was evidenced as the Fan Day scrimmage where Jumper played exclusively at tackle. Hughes believes that paid off Saturday.

"(Offensive line) Coach (Matt) McCutchan does a great job of making sure everybody knows everything. Any given play, anybody can be the center," Hughes said. "You've got to know what everybody is doing on every single play to be effective in that (offensive line) meeting room."

SoCon the rest of the way

With the non-conference portion of Furman's schedule complete, it's SoCon games the rest of the way beginning with 16th-ranked Samford coming to town Saturday at 2 p.m. While the typically pass-happy Bulldogs (3-1, 1-0) are a bit more balanced this season, Michael Hiers is still second in the SoCon averaging 242.5 passing yards per game.

Most impressively for Samford's new quarterback is that Hiers has 12 touchdowns and just one interception in completing 84-of-122 passes this season. Samford's Jay Stanton is fifth in the league in rushing at 71.5 yards per game.

"Coach (Chris) Hatcher has done a phenomenal job with that offense for years and years. ... Where they seem to always have that one or two ultra-dynamic guy, it's more of a really good group of receivers this year," Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "Clearly the difference you see in them is on the defensive side of the ball. They've got a lot of the same players, but they've had a major influx of transfers. Many of them are playing for them, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. I think the entire secondary may be transfers.

"The thing that stands out to me, having watched them the past two days, is how hard they're playing defensively. They've been really opportunistic."

The Bulldogs are coming off a rather bizarre win. Samford allowed Western Carolina to pile up 32 first downs and 456 yards of total offense on 90 plays, but cruised to a 35-12 win. The Catamounts' 12 points came on four field goals.

"The name of the game is to score points and keep them from scoring points and they're doing a great job of that," Hendrix said. "We lead the league in time of possession and they're last in the league, but it doesn't matter if you're not scoring points like you should be scoring."

If Furman can post its fourth consecutive win in the series Saturday, it would give the Paladins two wins over top 20 teams this year for the first time since 2011.

Injury update

Obviously, concussion protocol is impossible to set a timetable for a return. Jumper is listed as possibly starting at center this Saturday with an "or" designation with Hughes at center. Hughes and Hundley have the "or" as the starter at right guard.

Starting quarterback Tyler Huff's dislocated elbow on his left (non-throwing) arm will keep him sidelined for a "short period of time" according to Hendrix.

"It may be a kind of a week-by-week thing," Hendrix said. "I think the way Jace came in and played Saturday gives him a lot of confidence and he's a guy we've won a bunch of football games with. He's played against a lot of these teams we've got coming up on our schedule."

This week's depth chart lists Wilson as the starter and heralded freshman Carson Jones as the backup. A reminder that players can participate in four games and still redshirt.

Travis Blackshear, who got banged up two weeks ago at ETSU and missed the game at CSU, is listed as a possible starting corner with the "or" with Morris.

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Paladins overcome miscues, rally past Bucs

Furman backup quarterback Jace Wilson scores the game-winning touchdown in the
Paladins' 24-19 win at Charleston Southern Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

NORTH CHARLESTON - For the second consecutive week, Furman's defense allowed a couple of big plays Saturday. And for the second consecutive week, Furman's defense declared "the Bucs stop here," when it needed to most. "Here" being the "after three quarters" scoreboard.

After sealing a win over the ETSU Buccaneers last week with a late interception, Dominic Morris did it again Saturday against the Charleston Southern Buccaneers. That helped keep the Paladins' season-long fourth quarter shutout intact. Meanwhile, the offense overcame four turnovers, drive-killing penalties and the loss of quarterback Tyler Huff as Furman rallied for a 24-19 win.

"Man, I haven't been a part of many like that one. It was just 'how many ways can you turn the gun on yourself,' " Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I'm just proud of our kids for finding a way. We're going to always celebrate a win."

"We had a lack of attention to detail and that's on me. We were missing a few guys and we had some guys playing roles that they haven't played. Starting center (Evan) Jumper was out. We moved Wyatt Hughes over there and then inserted two different guards who've really not played. I would've liked to have had Travis Blackshear in that game. ... But having guys thrust into roles today will make us better going forward. This will be a great tape to learn from."

On a sun-splashed day in the Lowcountry, it was hot on Buccaneer Field's artificial turf and the Paladins' depth on both sides of the ball seemed to pay off after halftime. It took nearly an entire half for Furman's offense to heat up, but the Paladins' final drive of the first half set the tone for the rest of the game.

The Paladins final three drives of the first half started at their one-, two- and seven-yard line, respectively. Before that last drive that started at the seven, Furman had 48 yards of total offense on 23 plays. Huff's 10-yard run on third-and-one moved the ball to the Charleston Southern 41 and gave the Paladins more yards on that drive than they had all day. Unfortunately, it was also Huff's final play. After taking a shot on the tackle, Huff slowly got up and signaled to the sideline that something was wrong. As it turns out, it was a dislocated left elbow and Huff didn't return.

Furman turned to backup Jace Wilson for his first significant action of 2022. On fourth-and-one at the CSU 21, Wilson hit Ryan Miller for a 16-yard gain. On the next play, Wilson kept for a five-yard touchdown run with 27 seconds remaining in the half. That capped a 14-play, 93-yard drive. After one of its most atrocious halves of offense in recent memory, including three turnovers in the first quarter, Furman somehow took a 10-9 lead into halftime.

The Paladins (3-1) looked to keep the momentum going after halftime, taking the opening possession to the CSU 34-yard line. But a false start penalty pushed the ball back five yards. Rather than trying a 56-yard field goal by Ian Williams, whose shown a powerful leg this season, Furman punted. Hendrix said they wanted to try to finally have an edge in field position based on how well the defense was playing and Ryan Leavy's kick was downed at the seven-yard line.

After forcing a three-and-out, Furman got the ball back near midfield. On the first play of that possession, Wilson made a perfect pass to Luke Shiflett for a gain of 37. However, it was nullified by a holding penalty, essentially sinking the drive before it really started.

Leavy's next punt pinned the Bucs at their own three-yard line. Field position went out the window on the next play as CSU hit a 97-yard touchdown pass. Perhaps the most important play of the game occurred on the Bucs' next drive, which began at their own 11. On the second play, CSU looked like it had a touchdown. But the 82-yard run ended at the Furman seven when Kam Brinson showed incredible hustle to chase down the Bucs' running back from behind and make the tackle.

That play became huge a few plays later when CSU had to settle for a 28-yard field goal to push the lead to 19-10 with 3:13 left in the third quarter.

"Kam Brinson made one of the biggest plays of the game running the guy down, and then we hold them to a field goal," Hendrix said. "If it's 23-10, it could be a whole other story."

Wilson answered on Furman's ensuing drive. The sophomore was flushed from the pocket and scrambled for 10 yards to midfield on a third-and-seven play. On third-and-two, Wilson faked a handoff, pump faked on a short screen pass and went deeper down the right sideline to Miller. Miller made the catch, turned to his left, and took off for a 44-yard touchdown. That extended his school record streak to seven consecutive games with a touchdown catch.

"Ryan and I had a good connection last year and that just kind of picked up where it left off," Wilson said. "Coach called some good rollout plays, got me in the open field, and let me just be me and play free."

CSU's ensuing drive ended at midfield when Jalen Miller ripped the ball away from a Bucs receiver and Brinson recovered the fumble. After Kendall Thomas ran for five yards on first down and three on second, he was stuffed for a one-yard loss on third. Facing fourth-and-three at the CSU 42, Wilson rolled right, couldn't find a receiver and kept for four yards.

On third-and-one later in the drive, Devin Abrams ran for seven yards to the 22. On the next play, Wilson faked a handoff to his left to Abrams and rolled to his right looking to throw before tucking it and running. Shiflett made a great block around the 10. That helped Wilson reach the three where he spun to his left and lunged into the end zone for the go-ahead score with 10:30 left in the game.

"Every week I just try to prepare myself like I'm going to be the starter. Coaches tell us all the time, 'next man up,' because you never know when your number's going to get called and I was prepared," Wilson said. "I'm happy my teammates rallied around me and got the win. A win's a win."

A sack by Dan Scianna helped end CSU's next drive. The Bucs' last chance came after a Wilson third-down pass went right to a linebacker. The interception set up CSU at the Furman 43 with 3:57 left. On fourth-and-seven at the Paladins' 21, Morris made an interception in the back of the end zone with 2:43 left.

After failing to get a first down on its first six third downs Saturday, Furman converted nine of its next 15. That ninth one was a two-yard run by Dominic Roberto on third-and-two that allowed the Paladins to kneel out the clock. Furman has outscored opponents 21-0 in the fourth quarter this season.

Without really trying to milk the clock, Furman had the ball for more than 21 minutes in the second half and posted 237 yards of total offense. CSU (0-4) had 235 yards in the second half, all but 56 of those coming on two plays.

Miller had 94 yards receiving on six receptions, while Roberto finished with 88 yards on 21 carries to lead Furman. Wilson threw for 109 yards on 7-of-15 passing and was the Paladins' second-leading rusher with 48 yards on six carries.

"Other than the last pass and a couple of other things he can do better, Jace wasn't fazed by the moment. His experience paid off there. We've won a bunch of big games with him, including this bunch we will play next week," Hendrix said. "Our guys have a lot of confidence in him.

"I don't know how long Tyler will be out, but we will get him back. I'm just proud of how our team rallied and didn't panic. There was a little frustration, but no panic."

Braden Gilby had a game-high 11 tackles, including three-for-loss, a sack and a forced fumble to lead Furman's defense. Scianna collected nine tackles, including two-for-loss and a sack.

The Paladins return home for the first time in a month next Saturday when they host Samford at 2 p.m.

Thursday, September 22, 2022

Harris steps up for Paladins

Furman's Joshua Harris had career-highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards
(95) in the Paladins' 27-14 win at ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman's Ryan Miller draws the kind of attention from opposing defenses you'd expect an All-American tight end to draw, there are going to be times where other receivers have to step up. That happened Saturday night at East Tennessee State, and sophomore Joshua Harris was one of those that answered the call.

Harris established new career highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (95) to help Furman knock off then No. 18-ranked ETSU, 27-14. Harris' big night began in spectacular fashion. On third-and-11 with Furman backed up at its own three-yard line, Tyler Huff threw deep down the left sideline to Harris who was defended very well. Harris made a leaping grab and managed to get his left foot down in bounds for a 28-yard gain.

"It's something we work on every day. ... What's running through my head is, 'it's 1-on-1 and I want to beat you.' ... You hold the line, stack them, get his hand off you and go make the play," Harris said of the catch. "I think the difference for me from last year to this year is confidence. Last year, coming in right out of high school, I was thrown into the fire. I was trying to play up to the standard that I have for myself.

"This year, I have players who push me every single day in practice to be the best I can be. So coming into a game, I feel like that confidence and level of play-making is there for me." 

While the Paladins didn't score on the first quarter drive, that play - and Ryan Leavy's 53-yard punt - helped flip field position.

Harris was a major contributor to Furman's best possession of the night, a 14-play, 89-yard touchdown drive that pushed its lead to 20-7 midway through the third quarter. He caught one pass for seven yards, then another for seven on a third-and-four play. On a third-and-nine, he drew a holding penalty against the Bucs. On a second-and-12 play, Harris took a slant pass for a gain of 23 yards. That set up a three-yard touchdown catch by Miller on the next play.

Later in the third quarter, Furman converted another third down when Harris drew a pass interference flag against the Bucs. The Paladins got first downs on four consecutive third down plays in the quarter after converting one of their first seven third downs.

"He makes those kind of plays every day in practice. ... One of the things may not realize about Josh this year is that he's 25 pounds heavier. He's still not a big, bulky guy, but I think he'd tell you that's been huge for him," Hendrix said. "The quarterback play has certainly helped him. I think we've got guys out there that force people to defend the whole field, which creates opportunities."

Blackshear's momentum-shifting tackle

Furman was faced with going on the road at a tough place to play - especially at night, on Saturday. That task becomes all the more daunting if you fall behind by two scores right off the bat, and that nearly happened to the Paladins.

After an ETSU interception on the second play of the game, the Bucs got a little momentum back by forcing a Furman three-and-out. They got all the momentum back when their next play went for a 75-yard touchdown. The Paladins lost a fumble on their ensuing possession, and ETSU marched down the field on its next possession in hopes of pushing its lead to 11.

The Bucs got a run for 14 yards. Then 16. Then 11. Then a 20-yard pass to Furman's eight-yard line. If this was basketball, Hendrix may have called a timeout to try to slow the momentum. On first-and-goal, ETSU handed off to preseason SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Saylors. If Saylors made one man miss, he looked to have a fairly clear path to the end zone.

But that one man didn't miss.

Furman senior cornerback Travis Blackshear dove at Saylors' feet and tripped him up for a one-yard loss. Two plays later, Hugh Ryan deflected a pass that bounced off Kam Brinson's helmet as Brinson nailed the ETSU receiver. Jalen Miller made his first career interception off the tipped pass to cancel the Bucs' scoring threat.

"That was a huge play. If they score there and go up 14-3, it definitely changes the shape of the game," Ryan said. "Then we had a huge confidence boost to get off the field without giving up any points. That allowed us to settle in a little more after that."

At the point of that first-and-goal play seven minutes into the game, ETSU had 133 yards of total offense. Over the final 53 minutes, ETSU had 219. Saylors, who was coming off a 187-yard rushing performance at The Citadel the week before, had 45 yards on eight carries in the first quarter Saturday. The rest of the way, he had nine yards on 11 carries.

A total of 10 different Paladins made tackles-for-loss. Hendrix praised Dominic Morris, who rebounded after being benched for a "dumb" taunting penalty. With Blackshear dealing with cramps for a bit in the second half, Morris came off the bench and made a couple of pass breakups and the game-sealing interception with less than a minute to play. 

"That first (ETSU) touchdown was a catastrophic play and you certainly don't ever want to give up those. But I think our guys didn't panic," Hendrix said. "We've got a lot of guys on that side of the ball that know they're going to play because they have a role. They've been really productive."

Miller extends record TD streak

While Miller was definitely a focus of ETSU's defense, he still managed to catch five passes for 39 yards and extend his touchdown streak to a school record six consecutive games dating back to last year. Of Furman's last nine games, the only one Miller didn't catch a touchdown in was Chattanooga's 13-3 win last season.

Miller's score broke the school record for consecutive games with a touchdown reception of five by Chas Fox (1985), Collin Anderson (2011) and Andy Schumpert (2017). Fox actually scored a touchdown in 10 consecutive games from 1984 to 1985. However in two of those, his only score came on one of his many electrifying reverses. 

SoCon weekly honors

Ryan was named SoCon Defensive Player of the Week after recording eight tackles, including seven solo stops, in Saturday's win. In addition to his team-high tackle total, Ryan also had an interception, a forced fumble and an official pass breakup. That breakup was separate from the one on Miller's interception, as for whatever stupid reason, pass breakups are not credited to someone who deflects a pass that someone else intercepts. It's why there was no pass breakup credited to Matt Sochovka, whose tipped pass led to Ryan's interception on the second play of the game.

N.C. State transfer Ian Williams earned SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week honors after nailing field goals from 44 and 43 yards out, respectively. Both kicks sailed through near the top of the uprights. Williams also put five of his six kickoffs through the end zone for touchbacks. He has a SoCon-best 15 touchbacks out of 18 kickoffs this season.

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Furman's defense turns the lights out on ETSU

Kam Brinson (3) celebrates one of four turnovers Furman's defense had in the
Paladins' 27-14 win at No. 18 ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - Things weren't always pretty for the Furman football team at 18th-ranked East Tennessee State Saturday night, but anyone expecting such a thing likely forgot about recent meetings between the teams. It appeared Saturday's game would be the fifth consecutive decided by seven points or less in the series, but a Dominic Roberto touchdown run in the final minute capped a 27-14 win for the Paladins.

While Furman put up nearly 400 yards of total offense in a respectable showing at Clemson last Saturday, reigning Southern Conference champion ETSU got upset at The Citadel, 20-17. Those two results had nothing to do with what took place this Saturday though, outside of making for a mad Bucs team scrapping like hell to try to not fall to 0-2 in the SoCon.

"I don't think we played our best, but man what a gut check by our entire football team," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Every game we've had with them has been like this and I knew this one was going to be the same way. They were wounded dogs and they came out fighting in a tough place to play. I don't think they've lost here since the last time we played here.

"We can - and we'll have to - play a lot better, but to come on the road and get a win ... I couldn't be prouder of our kids for finding a way."

The win snapped ETSU's eight-game home winning streak and dropped the Bucs to 9-2 in night games at Greene Stadium. Even at only a 13-point spread, Saturday marked the second-most lopsided SoCon loss for ETSU over the past five seasons. The Bucs (1-2, 0-2) were the highest-ranked team Furman has knocked off since a 34-14 victory over sixth-ranked Wofford in 2018. It's the highest-ranked home team the Paladins have topped since at 28-27 win at No. 15 Elon in the opening round of the 2017 FCS playoffs.

Defense led the way for Furman (2-1, 1-0) Saturday. The Paladins forced four turnovers, had three sacks, nine tackles-for-loss and most importantly contained ETSU star running back Jacob Saylors. Saylors, the preseason pick for SoCon Offensive Player of the Year, entered this season with a school record average of 6.6 yards per carry. Against Furman Saturday, he averaged 2.8.

After rushing eight times for 45 yards in the first quarter, Saylors had five carries for 11 yards in the second, five rushes for minus-1 yard in the third and one carry for minus-1 yard in the fourth. As a team, ETSU ran for 80 yards, 63 of which came in the first quarter. Saylors also caught five passes for only nine yards.

"I thought we got better defensively as the game went on. Usually, it's the other way," Hendrix said. "Saylors is a big part of their offense, so it was a key. ... There was a bunch of adversity out there and it was kind of like 'who's going to flinch?' and our kids didn't. Our depth really paid off for us tonight."

The first turnover came on the second play of the game after Matt Sochovka tipped a pass that Hugh Ryan intercepted at the ETSU 27. Tyler Huff, who had gotten off to such brilliant starts in his first two games as a Paladin this season, didn't enjoy the same kind of start Saturday. Furman's first possession lasted all of three incompletions and the Paladins settled for a 44-yard field goal by Ian Williams.

Comparatively speaking, Huff only had two incompletions in the opener and it took 18 passes for him to have three incompletions at Clemson.

After a 75-yard touchdown pass for ETSU on its next possession, Furman looked to answer as it marched from its 25 to the Bucs' 30. But that drive ended when Huff was sacked from behind and lost a fumble.

On the second play of the second quarter, Ryan forced a Saylors' fumble and Kam Brinson recovered at the ETSU 45. Roberto popped an 18-yard run on the next play, but the drive stalled and the Paladins again settled for a 43-yard field goal by Williams.

Most of the first half had to be frustrating for Furman's offense. Fed up with field goals, Hendrix went for it on 4th-and-2 at the ETSU 17 midway through the second quarter. Roberto took a shotgun handoff and was stuffed for a gain of just one. Other drives ended on third-down throws short of the first down stick.

Furman still trailed 7-6 when a 15-yard punt return by Cally Chizik set the Paladins up at their own 47. With only 1:05 left, Furman was kind of forced to take some deeper shots and it paid off. Huff hit Wayne Anderson on a 20-yard throw to start the drive. He fired a 15-yard dart to Anderson in the end zone to end it and Furman took a 13-7 lead into halftime.

"That certainly was a huge drive," Hendrix said. "That (two-minute offense) is something we've worked and worked and worked at since we started camp and it paid off."

The Paladins put together their best drive midway through the third quarter.  The 14-play, 89-yard march was capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from Huff to Ryan Miller. It's the sixth consecutive game that Miller has caught a touchdown. ETSU answered with a touchdown on its ensuing possession and Furman led 20-14 entering the final quarter.

The teams traded a total of six punts in the fourth quarter. But the sixth one came after a Furman drive that took the clock down from 6:47 to 2:08 and gave ETSU the ball at its own 20. Hendrix admitted that memories of last year's game, when the Bucs drove 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left, crossed his mind.

But there was no repeat of that heartbreak. ETSU appeared to have a 22-yard gain on 3rd-and-9, but was flagged for offensive pass interference. On fourth down, Tyler Riddell's pass was intercepted by Dominic Morris at the Bucs' 46 with 59 seconds left. Morris probably should've just knocked it down, but a fellow Dominic made it a moot point. Roberto, who was keyed on and bottled up much of the night, finally busted through for a 46-yard touchdown on the next play to seal the win.

"After last year's game, we've had this game circled all offseason," said Ryan, who finished with a team-high eight tackles, to go along with his interception, forced fumble and pass breakup. "We knew it would be a tough, physical game and we relish that opportunity. We went out there and played hard and did what we had to do.

"I thought in the second half, we kind of shut down the running game and made them one-dimensional. Once we did that, we could really get after them up front."

Huff had 218 yards on 24-of-40 passing with the two touchdowns and no interceptions. He led Furman in rushing with 98 yards on 13 carries. Roberto finished with 80 yards on 10 attempts. Joshua Harris posted career-highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (98).

The Paladins play at Charleston Southern next Saturday at noon.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Furman opens FCS, SoCon play at ETSU

Furman All-American tight end Ryan Miller has 17 receptions for 180
yards and two touchdowns this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

After opening the 2022 football season with a blowout win over a Division II opponent and a respectable loss at an FBS behemoth, it's FCS the rest of the way for Furman. Based on the Paladins' play the first two weeks, that "rest of the way" could grow but a loss Saturday would seriously weaken that idea. Furman's FCS opener is also its Southern Conference opener and it comes against reigning league champion East Tennessee State at 7:30 p.m.

The storyline entering this one is fairly obvious. After spending the past five seasons at his alma mater on Clay Hendrix's staff, George Quarles is the new head coach at ETSU. After helping Furman win the Division I-AA national championship in 1988, Quarles went on to become one of the greatest high school football coaches ever at Maryville (High) in Eastern Tennessee. Quarles got off to a 10-7 start at Maryville before going 240-9 - with 11 state championships - the rest of the way.

While Quarles knows plenty about the team he will be facing Saturday, Hendrix reminded folks that his staff has a new assistant who knows quite a bit about ETSU. Furman offensive line coach Matt McCutchan spent the previous four seasons coaching the Bucs' offensive front. Hendrix said nothing really changes all that much in preparing to face a former assistant.

"Defensively, they really haven't changed anything. Billy Taylor, their defensive coordinator, has been there a long time and does a great job," Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "Offensively, they're a spread team which is vastly different from what they were doing. Their offensive coordinator (Adam Neugebauer) actually followed (Furman offensive coordinator) Justin Roper at Slippery Rock.

"They have the preseason (SoCon) offensive player of the year at running back. The have a preseason all-conference quarterback, wide receiver, lineman, kick returner and kicker. So they've got good players. ... I'm sure we will get their best shot and that's a challenging place to go play."

It was a happy homecoming for Quarles, who is from Jefferson County, Tenn. - about halfway between Maryville and Johnson City, in ETSU's season opening win over Mars Hill. While the Buccaneers easily rolled to a 44-7 victory, the numbers didn't quite match the spread. Each team had 16 first downs and ETSU had 307 yards of total offense. The Bucs averaged just 3.0 yards per carry that night, thanks in part to allowing four sacks.

ETSU had a better showing statistically last Saturday at The Citadel, averaging 6.8 yards per carry and totaling 351 total yards despite only having possession of the ball for 20:44. But the Bulldogs, who were coming off a 29-10 loss at Campbell, made a field goal as time expired for a stunning 20-17 win. That loss plummeted the Bucs from No. 8 to No. 18 in this week's FCS Stats Perform (media) poll.

"In the first week, they had that team outmanned," Hendrix said. "Watching the tape from Saturday, they just made some crucial mistakes."

It was just another close SoCon game for the Bucs, who've played in a ton of one-score games in the league the past few seasons. That includes the Furman series, the last four of which have been decided by a total of 17 points.

The Paladins will try be just the second visiting team to win at ETSU's Greene Stadium at night. ETSU is 9-1 under the lights of its home stadium. They're also trying to be the first visiting team to win at ETSU since they did in the spring of 2021. That 17-13 victory was highlighted by Devin Wynn trucking a defender to his backside in the end zone on one of his two touchdown runs as Furman rallied from a 10-0 halftime deficit.

The Bucs avenged that loss in heartbreaking fashion for Furman last fall. After trailing 13-3 in the third quarter, ETSU rallied for a 17-13 win. The Bucs ended the game with a 14-play, 80-yard drive capped by a game-winning touchdown pass with nine seconds left.

"Offensively, we didn't give ourselves a chance to win that game. We should've put it away and not left it to the defense to finish it," Furman All-American tight end Ryan Miller said. "That was tough last year for sure. That one probably hurt the most.

"This year, it's a revenge game for us. ... We're going to go out there and play our hardest, do our best and hopefully come out with a victory."

  • For notes from last Saturday's 35-12 loss at Clemson, click here.

Thursday, September 15, 2022

Furman's Huff unfazed by Death Valley's aura

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff had 256 yards on 31-of-40 passing in the
Paladins' 35-12 loss at Clemson Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

During Tyler Huff's three seasons at Presbyterian, the biggest crowd he played in front of was at North Alabama in 2019, where the official attendance was 8,573. So it was quite a different experience for Furman's new quarterback Saturday, when he took snaps before a crowd of 78,302 at Clemson.

Amidst the typical pomp and circumstance of a Tigers' home game, it was also their home opener and the debut of the eighth-largest scoreboard in college football. Huff was unfazed. Even though his start got off to about as intimidating one as could be scripted, Huff picked right up where he left off during his Paladin debut in Furman's 52-0, season opening win over North Greenville.

On the Paladins' first offensive play, Huff's helmet came flying off and rolled about 25 yards backwards before coming to a stop in the end zone. There was somehow no flag, which meant Huff had to leave for one play. When he came back in on third-and-eight, Huff calmly waited for four blitzing Tigers to get through before delivering a screen pass to Dominic Roberto for a 27-yard gain. On the next play, Huff rolled to his right, avoided another blitzer and hit Ryan Miller for 28 yards.

Unfortunately for Furman, that first drive seemingly set the tone for Saturday. The Paladins moved the ball well all day, but reached the end zone only as often as Huff's helmet did on that first play.

"After going back and looking at (game film), man we left a lot of plays out there. Obviously, credit Clemson and I knew we weren't going to make all of those, ... We outgained them, we were great on third down, but didn't score enough points," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "It's certainly something to build upon and I think it gives our team a lot of confidence.

"We're certainly not in the moral victory business, but at the same time I think our football team can compliment each other really, really well. I think our defense feels like if they can get the ball back to our offense, we've got a good chance to score points and vice-versa. ... I think we're doing some really good things in the kicking game."

While they were disappointed to not make a better showing on the scoreboard, Hendrix and the team were happy about the showing on the field. After completing his last seven passes before checking out midway through the second quarter in the opener, Huff completed his first 12 passes on Saturday. Only a dropped pass by All-American tight end Ryan Miller - on a ball thrown a little behind him - stopped Huff from tying Chris Forcier's school record of 20 consecutive completions.

Huff ended up with 259 yards on 31-of-40 passing with a touchdown and an interception. He also ran nine times for 25 yards. His 31 completions are the second-most for a single game in school history. Cleve Hightower completed 32-of-67 passes against Wofford in 1969.

"Anybody that watches him play, the way he competes and makes plays, it kind of fires you up going forward," Hendrix said. 

The last time a visiting quarterback had at least 31 completions at Death Valley was South Carolina's Jake Bentley in 2018. That same 2018 season included Furman's last trip to Clemson. On that day, Paladin quarterbacks completed 4-of-9 passes for 46 yards. For more comparisons, Furman had 104 yards on 10-of-21 passing at N.C. State last season, and 68 yards on 9-of-16 passing at Virginia Tech in 2019.

So Saturday was a vastly different experience than the Paladins' previous games at ACC teams. After that wild sack on Furman's first snap, Clemson's vaunted defensive front got its only other one late in the fourth quarter.

"Being in this big of a stadium with this much noise, it's a lot of fun. We can learn from this experience because ultimately, we want to go to the playoffs where you might play a North Dakota State in a loud dome," Huff said Saturday. "I give a lot of props to our OC (offensive coordinator Justin Roper) today. He put us in a great position and just called perfect plays.

"Being a transfer, I just got here but this team has shown me a lot over the first two games. First, how we handled success when we got up very quickly in the opener. Then today against a big opponent, we got down pretty quick but nobody gave up or folded."

Huff not only received praise from his coach and teammates, but also the competition.

"I thought they did a really good job of executing their plan. Their quarterback is a heck of a little player. He's a baller, tough and gritty," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said in Saturday's postgame press conference. "They were 10-of-18 on third down. I don't remember the last time someone did that to us."

Dual-threat running backs

Of Huff's 30 completions Saturday, 13 were received by Miller. That tied the school record set by Byron Trotter in that Wofford game in 1969. While Miller made his typical share of big plays, the other big plays in the passing game were made by running backs.

On Roberto's 27-yard gain on the opening drive, he made a great catch as he pinned the ball with his right hand against his shoulder pad before securing it. Later, Roberto drew a pass interference penalty on the Tigers on a fairly deep pass down the sideline. Backup running back Devin Abrams caught a pair of screens for 20 and 19 yards, respectively, and delivered a couple of big hits to defenders making the tackle. He also ran for 29 yards on seven carries.

Former running back Wayne Anderson displayed such good hands out of the backfield in his career that he moved to receiver this offseason. He caught six passes for 44 yards Saturday.

"We always try to recruit those kind of guys. ... Both those guys (Roberto and Abrams) were big, athletic guys and really good players coming out of high school," Hendrix said. "We want guys that can break long ones, but also catch the football and protect with blocking. I think we've got a couple of more guys like that too. (Running backs coach) Antonio Wilcox has done a great job with that group."

Freshman Myion Hicks led the Paladins Saturday with 33 yards rushing on five carries, all of which made up Furman's final drive. Kendall Thomas, who Hendrix praised for his August practice effort before suffering an injury in the final week, made his season debut and had seven yards on two carries.

Miller still awaiting return

In an effort to get the ball to its one of its best players more, Furman slotted Miller in at kick returner alongside Anderson this season. Two games into the season, Miller hasn't gotten a chance to show what he can do there yet.

With North Greenville being shut out in the opener, only one kickoff to the Paladins was made and Anderson returned it 27 yards. On Saturday, all six Clemson kickoffs sailed through the end zone for a touchback.

While both quarterbacks shined last Saturday, the kickoff specialists may have had the most dominant performances as Ian Anderson booted every Furman kickoff through the back of the end zone as well. Of Williams 12 kickoffs this season, 10 have been touchbacks. The two returns went for only 31 yards combined.

"I'm glad Coach Hendrix has the confidence to put me back there. I just want to be able to make plays in any situation," Miller said. "Hopefully I'll get one and we'll see what happens."