|Furman senior noseguard and captain Jaylan Reid. Photo courtesy of Furman.|
After resuming football with the 2015 season, ETSU returned to SoCon play last year. An 0-6 Furman team traveled to Johnson City, Tennessee last year and left with a 52-7 win.
It might not be that easy this time around.
The 45-point defeat last year was part of a five-game SoCon stretch where the Bucs lost every game by at least 30 points. This season, it's been a different story as ETSU has ridden a bit of the momentum it created by upsetting an FCS-playoff bound Samford team in last year's season finale. The Bucs were the only team to shut down the Bulldogs' prolific attack last season in a 15-14 win.
That's one of ETSU's four consecutive SoCon games that have been decided by eight points or fewer. Last Saturday, the Bucs rallied from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to defeat Mercer, 26-23, in overtime. The prior week, the Bucs saw a 10-point third quarter lead disappear in a 31-25 loss to The Citadel.
ETSU is led by junior quarterback Austin Herink, who's started every game since football resumed two years ago. Herink is third in the SoCon with 205.8 yards passing per game. He's thrown six touchdowns and just two interceptions this year.
"East Tennessee State has played well lately. They're very well coached, spread the field on offense, and throw it around, so that will be a challenge for us defensively," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Billy Taylor, their defensive coordinator, has been a long-time Southern Conference guy who's been successful wherever he's been, and (head) coach (Carl) Torbush, that's where he made his name as a coach (defense)."
After being close in its two FCS losses this season, Furman (1-3, 0-1) put everything together in a 45-14 win at Colgate last Saturday. The Paladins raced out to a 38-0 second quarter lead to cruise to the win.
Quarterback P.J. Blazejowski threw a touchdown pass of at least 61 yards for the third consecutive game against the Raiders. He currently leads the FCS in yards per completion (19.83) and yards per attempt (10.72).
Burch retires due to neck issue
Furman's defense set the tone at Colgate forcing three turnovers and recording five sacks. It did so even as injuries at linebacker continued to mount leading into the game.
After losing senior captain Dillon Woodruff for the season due to broken leg in the opener, sophomore Alex Burch stepped in at middle linebacker and made a game-high 12 tackles and a sack the following week against Elon. Unfortunately for Burch, his first career start would also turn out to be his only one.
Burch sustained what was like a neck stinger versus Elon and experienced numbness in his extremities afterwards. It's an issue that Burch has dealt with this season, but became more evident following his first full game of action.
Hendrix said after a series of tests were performed, doctors recommended to Burch that he consider no longer playing football.
"I don't think it was something where they said, 'you can't play,' but they just felt like in the interest of him and his future that was something he should consider," Hendrix said. "He and his folks talked about it before he made the decision. I certainly support him.
"He will remain with us and we will use him in some capacity to help the program. He will actually be a senior next year academically."
Tyler Voyles replaced Burch in the lineup the next week at N.C. State. Just a couple of days before the Colgate game, Voyles began experiencing back spasms in practice. That left true freshman Reynard Ellis to become Furman's fourth different starting middle linebacker this season and he responded with 16 tackles and one sack. Fellow true freshman Elijah McKoy made his first career start at weakside linebacker, in place of injured senior A.K. Olusanya, and had seven tackles and two pass break-ups.
"(Inside linebackers coach) Ken Lamendola did a phenomenal job of getting them ready to go," Hendrix said. "That Colgate offense is a little quirky because they're reading all kinds of guys."
Voyles is expected to return against ETSU, backing up Ellis and McKoy.
Saturday's game is designated as a "Whiteout" contest that will see the Paladins wear their all white uniforms that are typically fashioned on the road. Fans are invited to wear official "Whiteout" t-shirts, which are available at the Furman University Bookstore and at Paladin Stadium on Saturday.