Monday, December 4, 2023

Defense leads Furman past Mocs and to Montana

Travis Blackshear intercepts a pass during Furman's 26-7 win
over Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the second consecutive game, Furman's defense limited the opposition to less than 50 yards of total offense in the second half Saturday. If the Paladins could only win one of those games, picking the one in the FCS playoffs was the right decision.

After allowing 81 yards, four first downs and seven points on Chattanooga's opening drive, Furman allowed 119 yards, five first downs and zero points the rest of the day as the Paladins defeated the Mocs, 26-7. Seventh-seeded Furman (10-2) advances to play at second-seeded Montana (11-1) in the FCS quarterfinals at 9 p.m. Friday on ESPN2. It will be the Paladins first quarterfinal appearance since 2005.

While the Southern Conference's best defense did it's thing Saturday, Furman's healthier offense had a balanced day with 192 yards passing and 191 yards rushing. The Paladins welcomed back to the starting lineup their two leading rushers Saturday in running back Dominic Roberto and quarterback Tyler Huff. Sophomore running back Grant Robinson, who had not played since being injured in the South Carolina game three months ago, also returned and played a key role in the victory.

"I can't say enough about our staff and the job they did preparing our guys. ... Certainly, getting some guys healthy was big," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We ran the ball well and were really solid offensively. With the exception of some third downs in the first half, our defense played really, really well. And we were really solid in the kicking game.

"That's how we have to win games. We're not going to out-talent a lot of people. We have to grind to find a way to win games and that was one of those kinds of games today."

In Furman's shocking regular season finale in which Wofford won despite a 49-yard second half, the Terriers became the second Paladins' opponent to score on their opening possession this season and the first FCS team to score on Furman's defense following a turnover. So it was a little eerie when Chattanooga did both by the midpoint of the first quarter.

A day in which Paladin Stadium's beautiful view of Paris Mountain was completely hidden by fog got off to an unusual start as Furman received the opening kickoff for the first time since September. The Paladins had won seven consecutive coin tosses and nine overall before UTC won Saturday's and deferred to the second half.

Wayne Anderson got the home crowd off to a roaring start with a 40-yard return to the Furman 41. Huff looked fully healed as he scampered for 16 yards on a third-and-four play to the Chattanooga 37. On the next play, Huff made a beautiful throw to the end zone where a lunging Kyndel Dean could not haul the pass in. On the next play, the Mocs' Clay Fields made a leaping interception over the middle at the UTC 19.

Chattanooga (8-5) converted all three third downs on its ensuing possession, including Reggie Davis' 11-yard touchdown run on third-and-two.

Furman drove inside Mocs' territory again on its second drive but on fourth-and-seven from the 38, the punting unit came on. Punting inside an opponents' 40 is like nails on a chalkboard for some of us, but Ryan Leavy's perfect kick was fielded beautifully by Travis Blackshear at the UTC one-yard line. After one controversial third-down conversion, the Mocs had to punt from their own 14 and Furman took over at its own 40.

The decision to punt paid off when Furman marched 60 yards on 10 plays for a score. The Paladins didn't face a third down until third-and-goal at the one. With 260-pound defensive end Jeremiah Jackson leading the way as a fullback, Roberto bulled his way into the end zone for the touchdown.

While Furman's defense was in the process of transitioning to complete shut down mode, the Paladins' offense missed a couple of chances to take a big lead before halftime. On the second play of Furman's next drive, Myion Hicks broke free out in the open for a 40-yard run before he pulled up with a hamstring injury and went out of bounds at the UTC 45. On fourth-and-one at the 36, Furman was in a bunch formation that screamed run. However, Huff faked a handoff and rolled out. He had nowhere to throw and nowhere to go and was dropped for a three-yard loss.

The Paladins drove to UTC's 26 on their next drive. On second down, Huff fired another beautiful throw to the end zone that Luke Shiflett couldn't hang on to. Furman settled for a 44-yard field goal by Ian Williams with 25 seconds left and took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

"I'd like to say that I was knocking off the rust (on the interception), but it was a bad decision and a bad throw. All the guys around me just patted me on the back and told me it we'd be alright and that they trust me," Huff said. "I haven't won much in my life, so winning a playoff game is huge. I'm just thankful and blessed to be a part of this team and we're excited to go play in the quarterfinals." 

The teams exchanged three-and-outs to start the second half. On Chattanooga's first play of its next drive, redshirt freshman Luke Schomburg - who was making his third consecutive start in place of injured starter Chase Artopoeus - made a throw to the right sideline that Blackshear read like a book. Blackshear jumped the route perfectly for the interception and just missed the fourth pick-six of his career as he returned 29 yards to the two-yard line.

"We knew they had a young quarterback back there that they were trying to protect with the type of personnel they had in. I was just able to make a play on that one," Blackshear said. "It (defensive success) really just started in practice. Thanksgiving break was much needed and we came back ready to go. We knew we had a big challenge this week and had a great week of prep."

Roberto scored from two yards out on the next play to push the lead to 17-7. That was the first of four consecutive scoring drives for Furman as Williams made field goals of 31, 37 and 20 yards out, respectively, to push the lead to 26-7. The last score was set up when Alex Maier tipped and then intercepted a pass from UTC third-string, walk-on quarterback Matthew Clemmer. Maier returned the interception 19 yards to the Mocs' seven-yard line.

"I wish we could've stuck that one in there. ... We were up 16, so we just wanted to get it to a three-score lead," Hendrix said. "Ian was just so solid today."

Huff threw for 192 yards on 18-of-29 passing and ran seven times for 32 yards. Anderson caught five passes for 53 yards, while Shiflett had four catches for 51 yards. Roberto ran for 51 yards and the two touchdowns, but Robinson was Furman's leading rusher with 62 yards on 13 carries.

While Chattanooga played without two-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person due to an injury suffered last week in the Mocs' win at Austin Peay, it still has a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Saturday was still a battle of the top two defenses in the SoCon and a rematch of a defensive slugfest in the regular season in which Furman needed a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to pull out a 17-14 win.

"You watch Grant move around and you can tell he brings a little something. That was a big bonus for us. With Dom, I think we got what we got out of him today and we tried to just be smart with him later in the game," Hendrix said. "Wayne and Myion certainly add to that mix as well. Myion's been dealing with that hamstring a little bit. When he popped that run, I think he did the right thing getting out of bounds before making it even worse.

"It was a pretty complete win in all three phases and Tyler was a huge part of that too. ... He made a couple of great throws and kept some plays alive (with his feet). A big key for us was going 9-of-17 on third down. I don't think many teams have been able to do that against that defense."

Chattanooga had eight total yards in the third quarter and 34 in the fourth. It didn't have a first down in the second half until it was 26-7 with 9:42 left to play. After converting six of their first eight third downs, the Mocs went 0-for-6 on third down the rest of the way. Furman had an 11-minute advantage in time of possession, including 20:56 to 9:04 in the second half.

"It's awesome (to reach the FCS quarterfinals). I think it's just a credit to the group of guys we got to come back from last year," Furman all-American offensive guard Jacob Johanning said. "That feeling in San Antonio (after a second round loss at Incarnate Word) a year ago stuck around and it's been the motivating factor for this season.

"We're going to fight to keep everybody together for one week at a time."

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Furman set for round two with Chattanooga

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff is set to return Saturday when the Paladins host
Chattanooga in round two of the FCS playoffs. Photo courtesy of Furman

The second round of the FCS Playoffs Saturday will also be "round two" for Furman and Chattanooga when they kick off at 1 p.m. at Paladin Stadium. It will be a rematch of the Paladins' thrilling 17-14 win at Chattanooga four weeks ago that clinched Furman's Southern Conference record 15th league championship.

While Furman had last week off thanks to receiving a bye as the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, Chattanooga traveled to Austin Peay for the opening round last Saturday. The Mocs overcame injuries to key players to leave with a 24-21 win thanks to a 35-yard field goal by Clayton Crile as time expired.

"We prepped a little bit for both teams before last weekend, but I'm not surprised at all that it's Chattanooga," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "I said it before and I said it after (they played), it's the most complete team we've played in terms of offense, defense and special teams.
"I think one of the great things is there will be a Southern Conference team in the final eight. We're going to do everything we can to make that be us."

Thanks to this crazy thing here in 2023 college football where every team in the SoCon still plays each other every season, this will be the seventh playoff rematch for Furman against a league team. The Paladins are 2-4 in those games, with some of the most joyous and painful memories that will be etched in the minds of Furman followers forever.

The first rematch came in 1983. After the Paladins and Western Carolina tied 17-17 in the regular season meeting at Cullowhee, N.C., the Catamounts won 14-7 in Greenville on their way to the national championship in their only playoff appearance ever. After the game, a group of Western fans proceeded to tear down Furman's goalposts drawing a lifetime of ire for the Catamounts from many Furman fans.

In 1988, the Paladins lost at Marshall 24-10 in the regular season before winning the rematch 13-9 on Dwight Sterling's touchdown run with 2:09 left in the game. Winning in the "wretched hive of scum and villainy" that was Marshall's Fairfield Stadium helped power Furman to a rout of Idaho back home the next week and a victory over Georgia Southern for the national championship two weeks later.

Furman lost at Georgia Southern 24-10 in the 2001 regular season, but in the FCS semifinals the Paladins became the first visiting team to ever win a playoff game in Statesboro. Furman outscored the Eagles 17-0 in the second half to record a 24-17 victory and advance to the national championship.

The only time Furman won in the regular season in any of these matchups came in 2005 when the Paladins defeated Appalachian State in Greenville, 34-31. The rematch came in Boone in the FCS semifinals. With Furman leading 23-21 midway through the third quarter, Ingle Martin had a clear path to the end zone on a third-down bootleg. Martin slipped on a patch of ice at the three-yard line and came up limping after falling at the one. On fourth down, Jerome Felton was stuffed short of the goal line. The Mountaineers went on to score the lone points of the second half on a touchdown with 2:17 remaining in the game to pull out a 29-23 win.

The last time a rematch from the regular season occurred was twice actually in 2017. Furman fell to departed SoCon member Elon 34-31 in Greenville before winning at Elon, 28-27, in the opening round of the playoffs. The next week, the Paladins fell at Wofford 28-10.

Beating a good team twice is hard to do simply because beating a good team once is hard to do. Hendrix believes any philosophies on playing a team twice will become moot at 1 p.m. Saturday.

"I think one of the disappointments last year for our guys was seeing that they weren't going to Samford for the second round because they wanted that (rematch). Chattanooga may feel the same way," Hendrix said. "That's something to talk about before the game but once you kick it off, all that's forgotten. It's all about who can go execute."

From a personnel standpoint, this Saturday's rematch could have some different looks than last month's meeting. Most notably at quarterback, where the roles seem to have reversed.

After Furman starter Tyler Huff was injured early in the second quarter at Chattanooga, redshirt freshman Carson Jones threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to left the Paladins to the win. Jones started Furman's final two games of the regular season as Huff rested his injured shoulder, but Huff is ready to return this Saturday.

"I feel good. The rehab and recovery has gone well," said Huff, who said he could've played last Saturday had Furman not received a bye. "It was difficult not being out there. ... Wofford was especially tough (not being able to play).
"The best thing is this team hasn't forgotten about that. I think a lot of that pain, anger and the embarrassment we felt, we're excited to let that out against somebody else."

After being sacked five times by Furman, Chattanooga standout quarterback Chase Artopoeus hasn't played since. The Mocs have turned to redshirt freshman Luke Schomburg at quarterback. In last Saturday's win at Austin Peay, Schomburg completed 21-of-36 passes for 259 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"(Schomburg) reminds me a lot of Carson Jones. I think they did a really good job of protecting him in some of the things they asked him to do (last Saturday), " Hendrix said. "He moves around well. He's athletic and poised. You can see that about him and he's pretty accurate with a good arm."

Sophomore running back Reggie Davis ran for a career-high 97 yards in the Mocs' win last week. David and Gino Appleberry have carried the load of the ground game after one of UTC's all-time great backs, Ailym Ford, was lost midway through the season due to a knee injury.

Chattanooga also won last week with SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person on the sideline in the second half with his arm in a sling. He had recorded his 27th career sack and 56th career tackle-for-loss before the first-half injury.

"What a great player he is. It seems like he's been playing for 10 years," Hendrix said. "I think he's like our guys. I think he will find any way he can to go play, so I fully expect him to be playing.
"I don't know if you change much of anything in terms of preparation. We just need to be more concerned with ourselves. ... I don't think either team changes vastly based on who's out there."

In addition to getting Huff back, Furman could also have leading rusher Dominic Roberto back. Roberto's been a little beat up much of the season and didn't play in the regular season finale at Wofford two weeks ago. Grant Robinson might also be back in the running back mix this week.

Experience is never a bad thing to have. While Furman is trying to advance to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2005, this veteran group has lots of experience including the postseason. For seniors like Matt Sochovka, who was born before the Paladins last played in the national championship in 2001, this whole season has been like a playoff.

"When you get this point in the season, everybody is a good team and everybody's been through the ringer of close games. We've been in so many, it's like we've been playing playoff football all year especially with the target on our back," Sochovka said. "When you have 41 or 42 seniors like we have, this is the last time you're going to be with your brothers all in one place for the last month-and-a-half.
"It's about winning games, but it's really about not ending these moments we have together. I think that's what is going to fuel our team. We don't want to not be together anymore."

Paladins top Bulldogs ahead of test at Princeton

PJay Smith scored a season-high 20 points in Furman's 86-78
win over S.C. State Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Coming off a tough stretch of road games and ahead of a really tough road stretch, Furman appeared to be set for a bit of a respite when South Carolina State visited Timmons Arena Tuesday. However, the Bulldogs played nothing like a team that's only won once away from home over the past two seasons. Instead, S.C. State played like it did here last season when it forced 20 turnovers and Furman needed a 19-4 second half run to break away for a victory.

On Tuesday, transfer guard PJay Smith scored a season-high 20 points and Furman shot 61 percent in the second half to rally for an 86-78 win in its first home game in 18 days. The Paladins (4-3) trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half and led by as many as 14 late in the second half. Furman then withstood a pretty horrific finish in which it had five turnovers and made 3-of-6 free throws over the final 3:09.

"A win is a win and we needed one, so we will take it. Trying to close that thing out was frustrating. It looked like we were trying to solve calculus problems," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It wasn't the prettiest win, but give them credit. They played hard and really came out with some pressure. It took us a little while to settle in."

An Alex Williams dunk off a J.P. Pegues' steal gave Furman a 14-8 lead seven minutes in. The Bulldogs (2-6) responded with a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take a 24-14 lead. S.C. State led 33-24 with four minutes to play in the first half. At that point, the Bulldogs had made 4-of-5 three-pointers while the Paladins were just 3-of-14 from three.

Smith knocked down back-to-back threes 23 seconds apart and that seemed to turn the tide from the outside. Furman made 7 of its final 17 three-pointers while the Bulldogs made 3-of-12. A three by Williams in the final minute cut S.C. State's lead to 36-35 at the break.

"My teammates were working for me. My first one rattled out, so I was just trying to get us back on track," Smith said. "They kept finding me and I got those two threes and we ended up going into half with a little bit of momentum.

"We've been putting a lot of pressure recently on J.P. and Marcus (Foster) to score a lot. I just felt like I needed to be more aggressive, get my teammates involved and look for my shot more just to take a little pressure off of them."

Furman trailed 40-37 just over two minutes into the second half before Williams tied the game on a three on a possession in which he grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds. Smith drained another three with 15:51 left to put the Paladins back on top for good. Another three by Smith pushed Furman's lead to 62-48 with just under 10 minutes to play and Furman never led by less than eight the rest of the way.

In addition to his Furman career-high 20 points, Smith tied his career-high by making 6-of-7 three-pointers. It was another great response from Smith, who didn't start for the first time this season Saturday at UAB. He did score 15 off the bench Saturday, but it wasn't enough in Furman's 92-86 loss to the 2023 NIT runner-up.

"We worked on defense all day in practice (Monday) and we kept stats on it live. We had a big board out there with all the things that matter on defense," Richey said. "We basically told them that the guy who has the most points (off deflections, steals, blocks, etc.) at the end is guaranteed to start. It was PJay. It's funny how that works.

"The game honors toughness. It always has and it always will. He was mentally ready to play today."

Smith was one of six Paladins in double figure scoring. Foster had 16 points and six rebounds. Williams and Garrett Hien had 12 points apiece, while Pegues scored 11 and Carter Whitt had 10. Pegues had game-highs in rebounds (8), assists (6) and steals (3) and also had a blocked shot.

"I'm very pleased with (offense), but we've got to continue to get better in our defensive focus," Richey said. "I think we will. This is a really hard stretch that we're in, but it's what we wanted. I think it's going to prepare us for what we need to be when we need to be really, really good."

Furman might not be "really, really good" yet, but they may need to play like it Saturday. That's when a pair of Cinderellas from the 2023 NCAA Tournament face off as Furman plays at Princeton at 2 p.m. The Paladins will then make it back-to-back games against teams that made the Sweet 16 last season when they play at Arkansas Monday at 8 p.m.

Richey believes that for the first time all season, Furman could be completely healthy Saturday. That would mean that Ben VanderWal would be available. VanderWal didn't dress out for the S.C. State game after having an appendectomy.

"I've watched them a couple of times live. I like how they play. It's a good brand of basketball. They're really good and they're tough," Richey said. "They can score it, pass it, move it and space it. They're as good as anybody we've played so far this year. ... If we go up there and play defense, I think it will be a great game."

Friday, December 1, 2023

Furman football racks up SoCon, national honors

Jake Johanning (55), seen here celebrating with Bryce Stanfield (97) after Furman's
win at Chattanooga this season, is the SoCon's Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner.

While the Furman football team has been solely focused on Chattanooga this week, I wanted to take a look back at postseason honors for the Paladins that were announced just before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, I did not have the free time available to write about them last week. I plan to have a full preview of Furman's playoff rematch with Chattanooga posted here Saturday morning.

After the Paladins' stunning upset loss at Wofford in the regular season finale, Furman coach Clay Hendrix said while it was obviously disappointing, it didn't diminish anything the Southern Conference champions accomplished this season. During the week that followed, Hendrix was proven right.

The following day, a large crowd of players, coaches and fans packed into the Younts Conference Center to watch the FCS Playoff selection show. While the loss cost the Paladins (9-2) a high seed, the crowd roared in approval when Furman was revealed as the No. 7 seed.

The day after the playoff field was set, Hendrix was announced as one of 20 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is annually presented to the top coach in the FCS. The next day, a school-record total of 19 Paladins earned All-Southern Conference honors while Tyler Huff, Jacob Johanning, Carson Jones and Hendrix won SoCon awards.

The day after that, long snapper Julian Ashby was announced as one of the 15 finalists for the Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award, which was annually awarded to the top scholar-athlete in the FCS. Furman spent the rest of the week enjoying Thanksgiving and the Saturday off thanks to being one of the eight seeds.

Huff was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches. That feat is especially impressive considering that two other SoCon quarterbacks - Western Carolina's Cole Gonzales and Samford's Michael Hiers - are among the 30 finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which is annually given to the top offensive player in the FCS.

"Tyler basically played in eight games and the coaches thought he was player of the year. That kind of tells you what they think of him," said Hendrix, who was a consensus pick as SoCon Coach of the Year for the second time in his career. "We're certainly a better team with him on it, so we're excited to have him back (healthy). xxx."

Huff has thrown for 1,489 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions, and rushed for 488 yards and five scores this season. He missed the final two games of the regular season after injuring his shoulder against Chattanooga. The only stat that seems to matter for coaches are wins and losses and Huff is 13-0 as a starter against SoCon competition the past two seasons.

"I get too much credit for that. All these guys were here and the coaches were here. They just needed someone to facilitate a little bit," said Huff. "There's a reason everybody stuck around this season, because they knew they could do it. I was just one more little piece of it."

Another Paladin who claimed an award despite not playing a full season was Johanning, who earned the SoCon's Jacobs Blocking Trophy. A Furman player has now won this award, which is presented to the SoCon's best blocker, a league-record 16 times. After suffering a neck injury this past summer, Johanning didn't play until week four this season. His return made an immediate impact as the Paladins enjoyed one of their best offensive days of the season in a 38-14 win over Mercer.

As a former Furman offensive lineman and longtime offensive line coach, the award probably takes on a more special meaning for Hendrix.

"I think Jake's been the best lineman in our league for several years," Hendrix said. "I think it speaks volumes for the job (offensive line coach) Matt McCutchan has done and the job (offensive coordinator) Coach (Justin) Roper has done."

Jones was selected as SoCon Co-Freshman of the Year by the coaches. This honor came after coming off the bench in relief of Huff and throwing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Furman's 17-14 win. He followed that up by throwing four touchdown passes in the first half of his first collegiate start in the Paladins' 37-3 win over VMI.

Besides Huff and Johanning, other All-SoCon performers on offense for Furman were linemen Pearson Toomey and Wyatt Hughes, running back Dominic Roberto and tight end Mason Pline. Representing the SoCon's best defense were linemen Matt Sochovka, Luke Clark and Jack Barton, linebacker Braden Gilby, and defensive backs Travis Blackshear, Cally Chizik and Hugh Ryan. Placekicker Ian Williams and return specialist Wayne Anderson made the All-SoCon special teams units. Carson was joined by tight end Brock Chappell, wide receiver Colton Hinton and defensive back A.K. Burrell on the All-Freshman team.

"To get the number of guys on defense that made that team, we take a lot of pride in that," Hendrix said. "It's a little tougher defensively to have the numbers other guys have because of the number of people that we play. That's great for them.

"One of the things I tell our guys is that if you want to be one of those All-SoCon players, usually the best thing that helps you is to be on a really good team. They're on a conference championship team."

The winner of the Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award, which named in honor of the wife of Grambling coaching legend Eddie Robinson, will be announced on Dec. 12. Ashby, a senior physics major with a 3.97 GPA, has handled been Furman's snapper for PATs, field goals and punts for each of the last four seasons. He's successfully executed 389 snaps while working with a pair of All-SoCon punters and an all-conference placekicker.

The winner of the Eddie Robinson Award will be announced Dec. 7. Hendrix is trying to become the fourth Furman coach to collect the honor joining Dick Sheridan (1985), Jimmy Satterfield (1988) and Bobby Johnson (2001).

"It's been nice to kind of recharge our batteries, but we've put all that behind us," Hendrix said. "Let's go see what we can do this Saturday."

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Furman basketball looks to get on track at UAB

Marcus Foster set the Myrtle Beach Invitational scoring record as he had
78 points over Furman's three games there. Photo courtesy of Furman

On the Furman basketball team's last trip to Birmingham, the Paladins put on a clinic at Samford and left as the 2022-23 Southern Conference regular season champions. When Furman plays at UAB Saturday at 6 p.m., Paladins coach Bob Richey would love another clinic but would probably simply settle for some improved play on both ends of the court.

Furman (3-2) is coming off a 1-2 trip to the coast last weekend at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. After losing to Liberty, 88-74, in the opener, the Paladins knocked off host Coastal Carolina, 89-80, the following day. In Sunday's finale, Furman cut a 17-point second half lead down to three before falling to Wyoming, 78-71.

For the tournament, the Paladins made 26-of-94 three-pointers (27.7 percent). Meanwhile, their three opponents combined to hit 31-of-72 (43 percent).

"There's a few things that we got to continue to work through. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see we're not shooting the ball well and that's been consistent in these games so far. It's not consistent (with how they shot) in fall camp or the summer," Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show Sunday. "For whatever reason, right now, we're continuing to shoot in the 20s (percentage) from three. We lost the arc tonight by 12 points and they took nine fewer threes. It's killing us in some of these games.
"We've got to figure out shot quality and make some adjustments there. We're going to have to continue to figure out how to guard the bounce. They got way too many baskets where we were scoring that they just answered by driving the lane for a layup."

Furman also dealt with inconsistencies in availability due to injuries and illness all last weekend. Alex Williams, who suffered a hand injury in the season opener, remained out through the tournament. Tyrese Hughey, who was coming off a brilliant performance in the win over Belmont, missed the first two games with a groin injury and played just nine minutes after starting Sunday. Ben VanderWal missed the Coastal game due to an illness.

"I'll be the first to admit, we don't have this thing totally figured out personnel wise. Neither did we at this point last year and there's a lot of teams in the country like that," Richey said. "We've still got a really good player in Alex Williams that's not playing right now. We'll get him back in a couple games and we'll have to figure that all out. We've just got to stay together and stay the course.

The brightest spot from Myrtle Beach for Furman was Marcus Foster. Foster made the All-Tournament after setting the Invitational's scoring record with 78 points over the three games. Foster scored 30 apiece in the first two games and had 18 points against Wyoming.

In Sunday's game, Wyoming used an 11-0 run early in the second half to take its biggest lead of the game at 48-31. The Cowboys had a 12-point lead with just over seven minutes to play before J.P. Pegues went on a personal 8-0 run to trim the deficit to four.

It was an eight-point game with 2:12 when PJay Smith drained a 3-pointer for Furman. He then had a steal on the other end which led to Pegues drawing a foul. Pegues hit both free throws to cut the lead to 70-67 with 1:40 left. Wyoming's Brendan Wenzel answered with a three and the Paladins never could get the lead back under six.

"I credit our guys for hanging in there and making a comeback the way that they did. ... But when you get down 17, your margin for error is really small," Richey said. "I thought we had the momentum and had enough time to eventually get the lead. But we let their best shoot a three on non-action play. At that point, it freed them up and took the game pressure off them.
"It's November and this is about getting better. ... It's early, but that doesn't excuse lack of effort and lack of focus on the defensive end. We've got to get better at that. There's no doubt about that."

Pegues finished a team-high 22 points Sunday. In addition to his 18 points, Foster also grabbed seven rebounds. Carter Whitt had nine points and seven assists.

"I have a lot of belief that this is an upside team," Richey said. "If we can have those two things get better - our shooting and defense - I think you're going to see this team do a lot of good things."

Monday, November 20, 2023

Putrid offense sinks Furman in loss at Wofford

A pass falls just out of the reach of Kyndel Dean during Furman's
19-13 loss at Wofford Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

SPARTANBURG - Fourth down plays can obviously have a big impact on football games. Saturday at Gibbs Stadium, a couple of them had an impact like many watching likely had never seen before.

Two fourth-and-one plays, one snapped by Wofford and one snapped by Furman, resulted in two Terrier touchdowns. On a day where the Paladins' offense was nowhere to be found, those plays proved to be the difference as Wofford stunned Furman, 19-13. In winning its "Super Bowl" against its biggest rival, the Terriers spoiled the No. 2-ranked Paladins' bid for a perfect Southern Conference season.

"Give them credit. They did what they had to do to win and outcoached us and outplayed us," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said following Saturday's game. "I don't know if we could play any worse than we played offensively. ... That's one of the more frustrating days I've ever been a part of."

Furman (9-2, 7-1) entered Saturday going for a 10th win to add to its FCS playoff resume in hopes of securing the No. 2 seed. The regular season-ending loss ended those hopes and the shocking nature of it made it less of a guarantee that the Paladins would receive one of the eight national seeds and a first round bye. The playoff committee supposedly factors in injuries when determining the field, so the fact that the Paladins played Saturday without starting quarterback Tyler Huff and starting running back Dominic Roberto should've been taken into consideration.

A day after the bitter disappointment of its first SoCon loss since last Oct. 1, Furman got to celebrate the product of its wins this season Sunday. At a viewing party of the FCS Playoff selection show, roars of approval filled the Younts Conference Center when Furman was revealed as the No. 7 seed. After taking this Saturday off, the Paladins will host either Chattanooga or Austin Peay in round two on Dec. 2 at 1 p.m.

"I guess this was the first time I've sat in that room and watched knowing that we were in, so that was a great feeling," Hendrix said Sunday. "Certainly yesterday was a disappointment, but all it changed was the path. The seed was obviously a big part of that. ... Everybody you play now is going to be challenging."

More to come: I'll have more from Sunday's viewing party as well as SoCon postseason honors for the Paladins later this week.

Carson Jones, who had played so flawlessly in relief of Huff each the past two weeks, had some struggles Saturday that you'd expect from a freshman. After throwing six touchdowns over the course of the fourth quarter at Chattanooga two weeks ago and the first half against VMI last week, Jones had none Saturday. He completed 18-of-38 passes for just 99 yards and had one interception. A number of those throws were simply low-percentage passes.

Furman's running game wasn't any better as it was held to 89 yards on 25 attempts. Myion Hicks had 70 of those 89 yards, and 38 of his 70 came on one run.

"I really don't know what we would've done differently. It's football. You've got to be able to block, throw and catch, sustain drives, score points and take care of the ball," Hendrix said. "I thought our kids played hard and kept playing hard. It's a frustrating deal."

Every little mistake that Furman made, Wofford (2-9, 2-6) seemed to capitalize on. The first example of that came on the second play of the game. The Terriers, who entered Saturday ranked 117th in the country in total offense and scoring offense, should've been on the verge of a three-and-out as it faced a third-and-eight play. But Jack Barton was flagged for a weak roughing the passer penalty on second down. The drive ended on a 46-yard field goal to give Wofford a 3-0 lead.

Furman's first two offensive plays Saturday were an 11-yard run by Wayne Anderson and a 12-yard push pass from Jones to Colton Hinton. After those two plays, the Paladins had 14 yards the rest of the first quarter. The offense managed nothing despite being put in great field position. Wofford's next two drives ended on an interception by Cally Chizik and a fumble recovery by Matt Sochovka. Furman could only manage an Ian Williams' field goal off of those as the game was tied 3-3 after one quarter.

The Paladins followed up their 37-yard first quarter with a 50-yard second quarter. Another strip sack ended Wofford's first drive of the second quarter when Barton recovered the fumble. Furman got just another field goal by Williams to take a 6-3 lead.

On Wofford's ensuing possession, it faced third-and-six. Freshman quarterback Amari Odom was able to pick up a low snap off the ground and complete a nine-yard pass for a first down. Four plays later, Ryan Ingram took a fourth-and-one handoff up the middle. He bounced out of the big pile of players at the line of scrimmage and was gone for a 53-yard touchdown. It was the longest run allowed by the Paladins all season and the first rushing touchdown allowed since the Samford game on Oct. 14.

Furman responded with its first drive longer than 25 yards on its next possession. It was highlighted by Hicks' 38-yard run to the Wofford 14. On third-and-five from the Terriers' nine, Jones rolled to his right before throwing back to his left for tight end Mason Pline. Pline was immediately tackled for a five-yard loss. Williams had his string of 10 consecutive made field goals snapped when his 32-yard effort bounced off the right upright and Wofford took a 10-6 lead into halftime.

The third quarter pretty much told the story of the game. Furman outgained Wofford 73-12 in the quarter ... and got outscored 9-0.

The Paladins got the ball to start the second half and drove from their own 31 to the Terriers' 33. On fourth-and-one, Hicks never really got control of the handoff. If he had secured the ball, it appeared that he was likely going to be tackled well short of the first-down marker. A bad play for Furman turned completely horrific when Wofford's Maximus Pulley scooped up the loose ball and raced 64 yards for a touchdown. The extra point missed leaving the Terriers with a 16-6 lead.

That was Furman's first lost fumble since the season opener against Tennessee Tech on Aug. 31. It was also the first points off a turnover scored by an FCS opponent of the Paladins this season. Later on in the third quarter, Wofford added to that total. One play after the Terriers' David Powers sacked Jones, Powers intercepted Jones' tipped pass. That led to a field goal that pushed Wofford's lead to 19-6 entering the fourth quarter.

Furman answered with its lone touchdown drive of the day. Hicks capped the 11-play, 70-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run as the Paladins cut the lead to 19-13 with 12:07 left.

Wofford drove to the Furman 43 on its ensuing possession. On a third down, Sirod Cook and Evan DiMaggio swarmed Odom and forced yet another loose ball on the strip sack. Braden Gilby was in prime position to scoop it up and take it to the end zone. DiMaggio had no idea that Gilby was right behind him though and - as all defensive players are coached to do - fell on the loose ball at the Wofford 39 with 7:30 left to play.

After pass completions for one and two yards, Jones was sacked for a loss of eight on third down and Furman was forced to punt.

On Wofford's next possession, it looked like the Paladins might have collected their fifth turnover and the lead. The ball popped out late on a run by J.T. Smith and Furman's Bryce Stanfield picked it up at the 16 and raced to the end zone. Smith was ruled down though and there was no official review. On the television broadcast, it was hard to see where Smith's knee was but the ball was definitely out before any portion of his upper body hit the ground.

"They told me they looked at it (without stopping play for an official review) and his forward progress was stopped," Hendrix said.

Furman had one more chance after Wofford's punt was fair caught at the Furman 49 with 1:37 left. After three incompletions by Jones, Joshua Harris nearly had an incredible, acrobatic catch on fourth down but he couldn't haul it in and that was it.

In full fall seasons, Saturday was just Furman's second loss to a team with a losing record in Hendrix's seven years as head coach. The other was a 43-42 loss at Western Carolina in 2021.

The Paladins had just 188 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, Furman's defense gave up 184 yards for the game, including 45 in the second half.

"We played really well on defense. ... The difference was (Wofford's) mistakes didn't hurt them nearly as badly as ours hurt us," Hendrix said. "We just had catastrophic mistakes. ... I think we had a good week of prep, but you've got to go execute. We just executed at such a poor level and that ultimately comes back on me. That's my responsibility.

"I just told them that this doesn't diminish anything we've accomplished this year and we will get to play again."

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Paladins go for SoCon perfection at Wofford

Luke Clark earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors after his two-sack
performance in Furman's 37-3 win over VMI. Photo courtesy of Furman

Seemingly every week down the stretch of the regular season, Furman football has accomplished something big. At the same time, those big accomplishments have begat chances for more big accomplishments.

This week is no exception. When the No. 2-ranked Paladins resume the deep South's actual oldest rivalry at Wofford on Saturday at noon, there will be one last box of the regular season to check off.

The checked box two weeks ago came at Chattanooga, where Furman clinched the Southern Conference's autobid to the FCS playoffs and at least a share of the league title. Last week's came against VMI when the Paladins (9-1, 7-0) wrapped its first outright SoCon crown since 1990. This week, a Furman victory could be historic in several ways:

  • It would be the first time in school history than the Paladins have won eight SoCon games.
  • It would be a new school record 14th consecutive SoCon win.
  • It would extend Furman's school record of consecutive road wins to nine.
  • It would be the fourth 10-win regular season in school history, joining 1989 (10-1), 1985 (10-1) and 1927 (10-1).
You can bet that Wofford is fully aware of what's at stake for Furman. If not historically, at least nationally as the Paladins try to hang on to their No. 2 ranking in hopes of at least a No. 2 seed in the FCS playoffs.

"We're in a good spot. We've got pretty good control over about where we can be. Does it matter where your located and the path you're going to be settled (in the playoffs)? Absolutely," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "That's why this game's huge for us."

While the Terriers' 1-9 overall record is what it is, they've played teams in the top half of the league tough this season. They led Chattanooga 13-6 in the third quarter before losing 23-13. Wofford trailed at Mercer 10-7 in the fourth quarter before falling 31-17. The Terriers and Western Carolina were tied 25-25 in the fourth quarter before the Catamounts won 28-25.

Last week, Wofford notched its first victory with an 11-3 win at The Citadel.

"They're an old football team that's been close to winning a number of games," Hendrix said. "I'm assuming it's Senior Day over there, so it will be a bunch of kids playing their last game against us. I'm sure they'd love nothing more than to play well against us, so we will certainly need to be ready."

If Furman starting quarterback Tyler Huff remains out this week with a right shoulder sprain, redshirt freshman Carson Jones should enter Saturday with plenty of confidence. After throwing a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Furman's huge win at Chattanooga, Jones fired four touchdowns passes in the first half of last Saturday's 37-3 drubbing of VMI.

Anything can happen when rivals meet and this rivalry, which began in 1889 - four years before the first Georgia-Auburn game, is no exception. The way Furman's defense has played lately though, it would be pretty shocking to see a Wofford team that ranks 117th (out of 122 teams) nationally in total offense (254.8 yards per game) and scoring offense (13.3 points per game) have a lot of success on that side of the ball. 

Over the last five games, Furman has recorded 27 of its school-record 33 sacks this season. That 33 total ranks third nationally and has been compiled by 14 different Paladins.

"I thought we had a chance to be really good (defensively this season) because of depth and the ability to rush the passer," Hendrix said. "We knew we had to be better in covering (passes) and we have been other that early in the year. We gave up some explosive plays, but that's something we've really addressed.

"I still spend most of my (coaching) time on offense and our defense isn't really fun to practice against. But I think that's actually helped us on both sides of the ball."

Furman has gotten a handle on the tricky balance of being able to get after the quarterback while also containing the run. After limiting VMI to 30 yards rushing last week, the Paladins lead the SoCon and rank sixth in the FCS in run defense (90.4 yards per game allowed). Furman has held five of its last six opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.

Senior linebacker Dan Scianna says stopping the run is Furman's defensive identity.

"When we stop the run, then we're going to start punishing the quarterback," Scianna said. "We let our pass rushers go pass rush and defenders go defend, so it works out well. ... I think everyone on defense just embraces their role."

Saturday's game is the Nexstar SoCon game of the week and will be televised locally by CW Ch. 62.

Weekly honors

Furman bandit Luke Clark earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for the terror he inflicted on VMI last Saturday. Clark had a pair of sacks and stripped the football away on each of them. On one of those, he also recovered the fumble. His two sacks led an eight-sack defensive effort by the Paladins. He has a team-high five sacks this season.

Snapper Julian Ashby has been named as the SoCon's Student-Athlete of the Week. The redshirt junior is a physics major who holds a 3.97 cumulative grade point average. Ashby is the snapper for all Furman's kicks and punts and has served in that role for each of the past three seasons.