Friday, September 17, 2021

Depth a key to Furman's stingy defense

Defensive tackle London Lewis helped Furman hold Tennessee Tech to 23 yards
rushing in the Paladins' 26-0 win last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When the Furman football team reported to fall camp in August, it did so with more than 110 players taking the practice field. Coach Clay Hendrix said it was the biggest group of players he could recall since his playing days back in the mid-1980s. In addition to creating needed competition, Hendrix said it also created much-needed depth.

"Our sport is one of attrition," Hendrix said following a preseason practice. "We've recruited really hard to try to get our numbers up. It's nice having more bodies to work."

Hendrix believed that with some fall games being quite a bit warmer than the spring, depth would pay off especially in the fourth quarters this season. That proved to be the case in the season-opening win over North Carolina A&T as Furman finally found some running room in the final quarter to help seal the win.

Depth paid off in last Saturday's win at Tennessee Tech in a different way, although the Paladins did run out the clock over the final five-plus minutes of the game to seal their first shutout in 17 years. The depth along the defensive line proved to be a factor all day. After losing starting defensive tackle Matt Sochovka for the season due to a torn knee suffered in the opener, Hendrix said others would have to step up and they did.

All three of Furman's sacks last Saturday were made by non-starters. Backup bandit and co-captain Elijah McKoy made his first sack since 2018 on a third-down play in the first quarter, while backup tackle Parker Stokes' sack came on a third-down play in the fourth.

The other sack was made by freshman bandit Luke Clark, who doesn't appear on the two-deep depth chart. His went for a 13-yard loss and a forced fumble that freshman Seth Johnson, a backup noseguard, just missed picking up for a possible scoop and score.

"He tried to pick it up, but you've just got to get that ball," Hendrix said. "But we've got more and more of those guys stepping up and that's good to see. ... We're playing a lot of guys over there who are playing really well and flying to the ball.

"We will be challenged more and more going forward. Certainly (N.C. State) is going to be a totally different animal ... but this is a good one to build on."

Furman's defense held Tennessee Tech to 121 totals yards and six first downs, including 18 yards and one first down in the second half.

Getting off the field

Of Tennessee Tech's 13 offensive drives last Saturday, 10 lasted no more than three plays including each of its final eight drives. The Golden Eagles converted just 2-of-13 third downs, one week after North Carolina A&T made just 3-of-12. That 20 percent third-down conversion rate by Furman's defense ranks third-best in the FCS.

The defense has found other ways to get off the field as well. After making eight interceptions in seven spring games earlier this year, the Paladins are halfway there two games into the fall. All three on Saturday turned out to be key.

Cornerback Travis Blackshear's first on Saturday came two plays after Devin Wynn's 42-yard touchdown run on Furman's opening possession. It led to the first of Southern Conference special teams player of the week Timmy Bleekrode's four field goals that pushed the Paladins' lead to 10-0.

DiMarcus Clay's interception came on the very next play after Tech's lone first down of the second half. Three plays later, Wynn scored Furman's other touchdown to seal the win. The Eagles' only trip into Furman territory after halftime came after a long punt return to the Paladins' 39. Three plays and zero yards later, Blackshear made his third pick of the season on Tech's final offensive play with 5:21 left.

Those kind of plays were similar to the season opener when Furman seemingly had an answer every time North Carolina A&T threatened to make things very interesting. After two turnovers in their own territory by Furman's offense, the defense limited the Aggies to field goal attempts each time. When it appeared A&T's quarterback was about to run for a score, Blackshear forced a fumble before he reached the goal line.

"It's called sudden changes and you've got to know how to respond," Blackshear said. "That's what we key on in the secondary. You're going to get beat sometimes, but how are you going to respond. ... We had a good week of preparation (for Tennessee Tech), but you've got to translate that to the field and we did that."

Harris making an immediate impact

One week after taking a slant pass 41 yards for a touchdown the first time he touched the ball in a college football game, true freshman receiver Joshua Harris made his first collegiate start at Tennessee Tech. He made the most of it on Furman's opening drive. Harris converted both of Furman's third downs on the drive, making catches of 15 and 12 yards respectively.

In the third quarter, Harris made a beautiful two-handed grab over the middle for a gain of 16. He finished as Furman's leading receiver with 54 yards on five receptions.

"A couple of those weren't easy catches by any means. The first third down, he went down to the ground to catch it and reached back on another," Hendrix said. "He came from a great program, so he was pretty good when he got here. ... I just love his demeanor. He's a great kid who just goes out there and works. He's already well liked."

Injury update

Hendrix said wide receiver Noah Henderson could make his season debut this Saturday at N.C. State. Running back Wayne Anderson is questionable. Anderson missed last week's game after getting banged up in the opener.

"You might even see Noah Henderson back up (All-American tight end) Ryan Miller a little bit," Hendrix said. "I sometimes worry about Ryan playing too many plays."

Freshman Dominic Morris, who's listed as Blackshear's backup on this week's depth chart, should make his collegiate debut Saturday. Morris, who enrolled at Furman in January after spending last fall at Air Force Prep, has been out with an injured finger.

"He was going to be playing until his finger deal," Hendrix said. "So that should help us a little bit, especially on special teams."

This week's Greenville News stories

Recapping Furman's 26-0 win at Tennessee Tech:

Clay Hendrix on fond memories of games at N.C. State and hoping to make another on Saturday:

Saturday, September 11, 2021

Catching up on Greenville News stories

Happy football season everyone. As we get back into the swing of things with the fall, I hope to post here on the Furman Sports Report on a more regular basis. In the meantime, here's some recent stories I've written for The Greenville News. If you can't access them, I encourage you to take advantage of sales on subscriptions they regularly have. I recently subscribed to online access for $1 for six months for example. 

On how Devin Wynn's versatility paid off in Furman's season-opening win over North Carolina A&T: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/sports/college/furman/2021/09/09/devin-wynn-furman-running-back-nfl-scouts-houston-texans-receiving-ability/5760555001/

Four things we learned in the Paladins' win over North Carolina A&T: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/sports/college/furman/2021/09/04/4-things-we-learned-during-furmans-upset-no-24-north-carolina-a-t/5721121001/

On Hamp Sisson's leadership on and off the field: https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/sports/college/furman/2021/09/02/furman-football-quarterback-sisson-embraces-pressure-his-position/5652866001/

Friday, September 3, 2021

At long last, Paladins' McKoy ready to roll

After missing last season with an injury, Furman captain Elijah McKoy
is healthy and raring to go this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman opens the season Saturday by hosting No. 25 North Carolina A&T it will be a battle of one team that will have last played 147 days ago against a team that will have last played 623 days ago. While the Paladins went 3-4 in the Southern Conference's spring season that was postponed from the fall, the Aggies opted out of the 2020 season entirely.

There are a few Furman players who will be back for the first time since 2019 as well. Co-captain Elijah McKoy, sophomore right tackle Pearson Toomey and wide receiver turned quarterback Luke Shiflett each missed the spring season.

"It's been two years since I've had a real camp, so it's really exciting to back," McKoy said following an early fall practice. "I worked all summer and training-wise, I was doing stuff better than I was before I hurt my knee. So I knew it was going to come back right, it was just the mental thing of overcoming that hurdle of being out on the field."

McKoy said it was an honor to be elected a team captain for the second consecutive season. After only being able to lead with his words last season, he's ready to go make a physical difference this season.

"We were really close to being a really good team in the spring. We just had a few plays here and there that we missed. It was especially frustrating knowing that I couldn't get out there and help," McKoy said. "Hopefully we can recover from the spring and have a really good season this year because we have all the tools."

McKoy, who has 236 career tackles, is the backup to Adrian Hope at the bandit position in this week's depth chart. He should see plenty of action through the defensive rotations though.

Furman coach Clay Hendrix said Toomey has a tremendous preseason. He's slated to start at right tackle.

"Based on August practice, our best lineman may be Pearson Toomey," Hendrix said. "We thought he'd be a starter in the spring, but he hurt his labrum in fall practice and never got back."

Shiflett, who transferred in from Middle Tennessee State in 2019, shifted from receiver to quarterback this preseason. He'd been getting some reps at each position in practice, but stuck at quarterback after Colt Minson left school for personal reasons. Minson had transferred in this summer from Charlotte. Shiflett is third on the depth chart behind starter Hamp Sisson and freshman Jace Wilson. Wilson and Shiflett each missed about a week of fall camp.

New starters
Toomey will be lining up alongside some relative newcomers when it comes to starting up front. Right guard Clark Daniel will be making his third career start at Furman after two in the spring. Daniel was Hendrix's final recruit at Air Force, where he transferred from in 2019.

At center, freshman Wyatt Hughes is slated to make his first career start after appearing in two games in the spring. Sophomore Evan Jumper, who's made 16 career starts, will see action on Saturday. He was limited in fall practice as he was out with an illness for 10 days and just returned to the team on Tuesday.

Sophomore left guard Jacob Johanning looks to make his eighth career start on Saturday, and it will be the sixth career start for junior left tackle Anderson Tomlin. 

"Wyatt Hughes has had a great camp ... and the plan is to play two guys there anyway. We moved (freshman center) Ryan Lamb to guard last week, just to get him some more reps," Hendrix said. "Anderson Tomlin's had a really good camp and I thought he had a really good year (in the spring). We lost him in the Chattanooga game for the rest of the season. So we really didn't have either of those tackles down the stretch.
"We will play about eight offensive linemen. I really like that group we've got. Their mindset's a little bit different."

Dominic Roberto is set to make his first career start at the running back position, with Devin Abrams - who has 19 career starts - backing him up. Hendrix said both will see plenty of action though, as should tailbacks Devin Wynn, Wayne Anderson and Kendall Thomas.

The lone new starter on defense looks to be freshman Ivan Yates, who will take over at a cornerback spot in place of graduated Darius Kearse.

Payton Award hopefuls square off
Saturday's first game between Furman and North Carolina A&T will feature two of the 13 running backs among 35 total players on the Walter Payton Award watchlist. The Payton Award is annually presented to the top offensive player in the FCS.

Wynn enters this season ranked ninth in school history in rushing yards (2,468) and 10th in touchdowns (25). He’s averaged 5.9 yards per carry in his career.

In 2019, the Aggies' Jah-Maine Martin was a Payton Award finalist after he broke single season school records for rushing touchdowns (23) and yards per carry (7.7). Martin piled up 1,446 yards rushing in A&T's 12 games and had nine touchdown runs of more than 50 yards.

"I think Devin's down about 10 pounds maybe from the spring. ... I think he's in the best shape of his life and we expect him to have a big year," Hendrix said. "Their kid has been highly productive in his career, so you've got two really good backs going at it. ... This is good group we're playing against. They're talented, big and athletic."

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Rice deals Furman its first loss in NCAA opener

Kyndal Anderson had Furman's lone goal in the Paladins' 3-1 loss to Rice in the
opening round of the NCAA Tournament Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

It took a little more than 15 minutes Wednesday for Furman to become the first women's soccer team to score against Rice in five weeks. By the end of their NCAA Tournament first round match though, the Owls became the first team to beat the Paladins all season.

In a matchup of the only two coaches Furman has ever had, the No. 21-ranked Owls rallied from the early deficit for a 3-1 win on a hot, sunny day in Cary, N.C. Coach Brian Lee's Owls advance to face fifth-seeded West Virginia on Saturday. The Southern Conference champion Paladins, who were playing in their first NCAA Tournament since 2015, end the season with a record of 8-1-2.

"Our legs just weren't underneath us today. Obviously scoring the early goal was great, but we were just late to every ball and every 50-50. I could tell we just didn't have the energy that we needed to compete against a team like Rice," Furman coach Andrew Burr said. "We tried to rotate different players and played three different systems today, just trying to find something to give us a lift. At the end of the day it just wasn't enough.

"I'm certainly proud of this group. I think they're mentally and physically exhausted from the last 12 months, but they can hold their heads up high."

The first 15 minutes of Wednesday's match seemingly all took place in front of Furman's goal as Rice (13-2-1) piled up six shots, including three corner kicks. All of a sudden, the Paladins broke through. Freshman Nieva Gaither passed to sophomore Kyndal Anderson, who split two defenders before firing the ball into the left corner of the net at the 17:23 mark. Anderson's fourth goal this season snapped an eight-game shutout streak for the Owls, who had last allowed a goal on March 15.

Rice's aggressive offensive efforts didn't slow down though and seven minutes later, freshman Natalie Gorgi tied the game at 1-1. At the 36:44 mark, Gorgi's shot found the net again and the Owls took a 2-1 lead into halftime. It marked the first time Furman trailed in a game since its season opener on March 5 and the first time all season it allowed more than one goal.

"With a shortened season like we had, you don't have a lot of opportunity to work out the kinks when you face adversity. We didn't have to face it too often this year so when you do face it, it's a little bit of foreign territory," Burr said. "It's a great learning experience for our girls, that's for sure. ... We had quite a few tests this year, and we were prepared. I think just the level of athleticism they have at Rice, we weren't quite prepared for."

Furman had a chance of tying it in the second half on one its just three shots on target for the game, but SoCon Player of the Year Isabella Gutierrez's shot could not find the net.

During a normal fall season, an opening round NCAA game would be held in November and heat would not be any kind of issue. On Wednesday though, Furman played in it's hottest game of the year. It was 88 degrees for the midafternoon game and water breaks were mandatory. Less than five minutes before a scheduled hydration timeout around the 70th minute, Rice added a backbreaking goal from Mikala Furuto.

"We were really hoping to get to that final hydration break (down 2-1) and change our system a little bit to just go forward and attack. Going down 3-1 into it just kind of deflated us," Burr said. "We just hit a wall and ran out of gas on the season. ... This was the biggest field we've played on this year and it felt huge."

The Owls had a 22-6 advantage in total shots and an 8-0 edge in corner kicks.

While disappointed in the result, Burr was able to share a light-hearted moment of reflection with Lee after the game. Prior to starting the women's program at Furman 27 years ago, Lee and Burr were teammates on the men's team. They've been the best of friends ever since.

"Back when we were playing at Furman, we had something called the 'Furman shell.' Anytime we went up 1-0, we would just collapse, get in a defensive posture and get the Furman shell going," Burr said. "I told him that the Furman shell didn't quite work today.

"Obviously, I'm so disappointed for our girls but I'm really happy for Brian and for Rice. I'm certainly going to be pulling for him for the rest of the tournament."

With only two seniors on his 22-player roster this year, Burr said he was proud of how his young team persevered through the challenges of a cancelled fall season and an uneven spring one. He's looking forward to getting back to a normal season again in less than four months.

"Our freshmen had to grow up in a hurry this year and the short turnaround's going to be good for us because we're really just starting to see what this group can do," Burr said. "They got a taste of what it feels like to win a SoCon championship and what it's like to go to the NCAA Tournament. They're excited and hungry for more."

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Greenville News: Furman set to face former coach at NCAA women's soccer tournament

The Furman women's soccer team opens play in the NCAA Tournament today against Rice. In case you missed it, here's a link to a story I wrote about this being a meeting of the only two coaches in the 27-year history of the women's soccer program.

https://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/sports/college/furman/2021/04/20/furman-women-soccer-team-face-former-coach-ncaa-tournament/7294424002/


Friday, April 9, 2021

Young, unbeaten Paladins aim for SoCon title

Furman's Isabella Gutierrez has been selected as the Southern Conference
women's soccer Player of the Year. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the Furman women's soccer team, the wait was worth it. After having its fall season and it's scheduled new spring season opener both cancelled due to COVID concerns outside of its program, the Paladins opened the season on March 5 by diving right into Southern Conference play against Mercer.

Playing a game that counts for the first time in 480 days, Coach Andrew Burr's young squad persevered with a 2-1 double overtime win. That victory set the tone for the season as Furman reeled off four consecutive shutout wins on its way to a 6-0-2 record and a No. 2 seed for the SoCon Tournament. The Paladins will host third-seeded Chattanooga in the SoCon semifinals on Saturday at 7 p.m. Saturday's winner will play at top-seeded Samford, which defeated fourth-seeded Mercer 6-1 in Friday's semifinal, in next weekend's championship.

"When you go 480 days without playing a game, the team and coaching staff realizes it's a privilege and a blessing to get to play. We've kind of got a renewed sense of excitement for the sport," said Burr, the SoCon's all-time winningest women's soccer coach. "I think part of our success this year was that we just enjoyed getting to play soccer again. ... Furman athletics in general, with Elaine Baker in sports medicine, has done an unbelievable job in keeping 300-plus student-athletes healthy and safe. 

"We have five freshman in the starting lineup, so we're a very young team that we've tried to get up to speed quickly. Not having a full season, we've had to ask our freshmen to really mature quickly and they've done great."

While the Paladins are a young team, they have a veteran leader in junior Isabella Gutierrez. On Thursday, Gutierrez became the seventh different Paladin to earn SoCon Player of the Year honors during the women's soccer program's 27-year history. The Statesboro, Ga. native had four goals and two assists this season, including the lone goals in 1-0 wins over The Citadel and UNCG.

"Bella's been our most consistent performer all year and she's a soccer junkie," Burr said. "She's a perfect fit for Furman University. She excels in the classroom, on the field, and just excels in life. She's a great representative of our program."

Gutierrez wasn't the only Paladin to earn a league award Thursday as Nieva Gaither collected SoCon Freshman of the Year honors. The three-time Georgia Player of the Year at Parkview High had two goals and four assists this season. She had the game-winning goal at VMI and the lone goal of Furman's 1-1 double overtime tie with Samford. Gaither is the 10th Paladin to earn the honor of being named the SoCon's top freshman.

Joining Gutierrez on the All-SoCon first team was freshman Miya Poplin and 2019 SoCon Freshman of the Year, Jasmine Greene. Joining Gaither on the second team was junior Faith Hauberg. Gaither, Poplin and goalkeeper Addison Corn represented Furman on the All-Freshman team.

Corn has an 0.56 goals against average and a 3-0-1 record. She's split time with sophomore Nora Sampson, who has an 0.31 goals against average and also a 3-0-1 record. Corn has allowed just three goals in 486 minutes this season, while Sampson has given up just one in 290.

"It's been a great battle for that starting goalkeeping spot," Burr said. "It's been good for Addison to learn from Nora, but they're both very talented."

While there's plenty of motivation as Furman shoots for its seventh SoCon Tournament title and an eighth NCAA Tournament bid, there's a little extra this season. The Paladins were in first place in the SoCon from the start of the season and had the inside track to the top seed. That all changed with the postponement and then cancellation of Furman's scheduled match at ETSU on March 28.

That match was postponed due to rain and wet field conditions. The Paladins proposed to play the match the following day, just as Wofford and Western Carolina decided to do on the same day, but the Bucs refused and the match was rescheduled for April 6. On March 31, ETSU pulled the plug on its season due to opt-outs and injuries that left the program below the SoCon's recommended guidelines at a key position.

The Bucs (1-6-1, 1-4-1), coached by Jay Yelton, have a 2-14 record all-time against Furman. The cancellation meant that the Paladins would not have a chance to catch Samford (7-1-3, 7-0-2), coached by Yelton's brother Todd, in the SoCon standings.

In addition to missing out on a chance to share the SoCon regular season title, Furman also missed out on the No. 1 seed and home field advantage throughout the SoCon Tournament. Had the Paladins and Samford each finished 7-0-2 in league play, Furman would've gotten the top seed via tiebreaker. The teams tied in their head-to-head meeting, but the Paladins beat third-place Chattanooga while Samford's game against the Mocs ended in a tie.

If Furman had won what turned out to be its last game of the regular season against Wofford, which ended in a tie, the Paladins would've gone 7-0-1 in league play and had a higher winning percentage than Samford. However, Furman still would not have gotten the top seed as the SoCon implemented a points system this year that awarded three points for a win and one for a tie.

"We were No. 1 in the conference and ranked 23rd (in RPI) in the country at the time of the opt-out," Burr said. "Unfortunately in a no-contest, there's no access to points so we went from first place to second place without playing a game.

"That was certainly unfortunate, but it's also the crazy year of COVID. ... It certainly doesn't hurt with a motivation factor. We're just excited to still be playing."

Furman would love a rematch with Samford, which is the last team to hand the Paladins a loss. That came in the 2019 SoCon Tournament championship, where the Paladins fell 1-0.

Before another showdown next weekend at Samford for the championship, Furman must first take care of business against a Chattanooga team that has enjoyed its best season ever at 7-2-1 overall and 6-2-1 in . While the Paladins improved to 27-0 all-time in the series with a 2-0 win over the Mocs in the regular season, Burr knows this will be a challenge.

"They've really done a great job. Coach Gavin (McKinney) has recruited some big-time players and turned that program around," Burr said. "They have some international kids that are very skillful players with very high soccer IQs. ... It's going to be a tough match for us on Saturday."