Monday, September 18, 2017

Football notebook: Slow starts hinder Paladins

Photo courtesy of Furman.
Despite shaving more than five minutes off the clock in a scoring drive to open Saturday's game at N.C. State, Furman still trailed 14-3 after one quarter. It was an all-too-familiar feeling for the Paladins, who've been outscored 42-6 in the first quarter this year.
Grayson Atkins' 46-yard field goal capped the opening drive and gave Furman its first lead in a first half this season. The Wolfpack didn't trail for long though. Ryan Finley opened their first possession with four consecutive completions to get to midfield. Nyheim Hines then ran four consecutive times, totaling 30 yards, to set up Jaylen Samuels' two-yard touchdown run.
Every Furman opponent this season has scored a touchdown on its opening possession. All three of those drives have been lengthy tone-setters, each lasting at least 10 plays. For a team trying to get over the hump of learning how to win, constantly playing from behind makes it particularly difficult.
"We're just falling short a lot of times where we have a chance to make a play," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said following Saturday's game. "We had one today go right through our hands that they caught (on third down) for a first down.
"There's just too many times where we're not doing what we're coached to do."
Pass defense troubles
Finley entered the game leading the Atlantic Coast Conference having completed 74 percent of his passes. That mark only went up on Saturday, as the N.C. State junior was 22-for-27 for 231 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions.
Finley's current 75.6 completion percentage ranks eighth-highest in the FBS. No quarterback who's attempted at least 123 passes has completed a higher percentage.
While the Paladins may not face many quarterbacks like Finley the rest of the way, pass defense still looms as a concern. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 76.6 of their passes against Furman this season, which ranks last in the Southern Conference.
After Elon freshman Davis Cheek completed 26-of-35 passes for 301 yards in a 34-31 win at Furman on Sept. 9, Cheek was 8-of-17 for 145 yards against Charleston Southern on Saturday. Cheek was 2-of-10 for 22 yards in the season opener at Toledo.
Linebacker losses
One thing not helping Furman's pass defense is losing linebackers to injury every week.
After losing starting middle linebacker Dillon Woodruff for the season to a broken leg in the opener, sophomore Alex Burch stepped in and made a game-high 12 tackles against Elon. After getting injured in practice last week, Burch was replaced by junior Tyler Voyles Saturday.
"We're hopeful Alex can return soon, but we don't know," Hendrix said.
Starting weakside linebacker A.K. Olusanya had his arm in a sling after Saturday's game due to a dislocated elbow. He will miss at least three weeks. Olusanya's backup, freshman Elijah McKoy, was also shaken up during the game but was able to return and is fine.
The Paladins also lost 6-4, 272-pound freshman defensive tackle Jordan Harris to a foot injury.
"I think it's going to keep him out quite a while, maybe for the season," Hendrix said.
Getting in the boxscore
With the injury situation at linebacker and how Saturday's game progressed, a number of Paladins made their collegiate debut. Furman has played a total of 25 freshmen this season, and at one point Saturday had seven of them on the field defensively.
As a result, 29 different Paladins recorded at least one tackle, led by Aaquil Annoor with 13.
Offensively, 12 different Paladins had at least one carry.
"That will be a good experience for them to get out there and play in that environment," Hendrix said.
Turnovers prove costly
While Furman's five committed turnovers in three games isn't an especially bad total, the bad part has come afterwards. Opponents have scored four touchdowns off those turnovers. The only one that didn't result in points came with 2:43 left Saturday as N.C. State simply ran out the clock.
"We've also only gotten two turnovers in three games," Hendrix said. "It's hard to win games when you don't get turnovers and it's hard to lose games if you don't turn it over. Today, we turned it over and didn't get any."
Deja vu all over again
The first three games in the tenures of the last two Furman football coaches have been eerily similar.
In Hendrix's first game as head coach, the Paladins lost a close Southern Conference road game at Wofford, 24-23, on a failed two-point conversion in the final minute. In Bruce Fowler's first game as head coach in 2012, Furman lost a close SoCon road game at Samford, 24-21, on a field goal in the final minute. Since 1975, those were two of only three times Furman opened the season with a SoCon game.
In the second game for each, Furman suffered heartbreaking, high-scoring losses at home - 47-45 in triple-overtime to Coastal Carolina in 2012 and 34-31 to Elon this year. The third game for each were lopsided losses at ACC schools - 41-7 at Clemson in 2012 and 49-16 to N.C. State on Saturday.
Least penalized team in country
Stats can change very quickly this early in the season, but a couple of national ones stick out for Furman. With just six penalties in three games, the Paladins lead the country in fewest penalties per game. Furman is second nationally in fewest penalty yards per game at 23.67.
The Paladins are No. 22 nationally and second in the SoCon in third-down conversion percentage at 47.6. Citadel leads the FCS at 61.2 percent.
At the other end of the spectrum, Furman ranks 121st (out of 123 FCS teams) with 2.3 tackles per loss per game.
Career longs
Jon Croft Hollingsworth's 71-yard punt Saturday was his career long. It was also the sixth-longest in Furman history and longest since Ray Early's 82-yard effort at Wofford in 2012. ... Andy Schumpert's 71-yard touchdown catch Saturday bested his previous career long catch by 26 yards. ... Triston Luke's 45-yard run Saturday is a career-long, topping his previous 44-yard run at Wofford two weeks ago.

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