Friday, October 6, 2017

Furman hopes big play fun continues at UTC

Kealand Dirks runs for a 32-yard touchdown for Furman.
Photo courtesy of Furman.
Following last week's 56-35 win over ETSU, Furman coach Clay Hendrix noted how much his team has bought in to what the first-year head coach and his staff have been teaching. It's been evident lately on Saturdays and every other day of the week as well.
"It's almost like they like to practice," Hendrix said. "We have kids with different class schedules ... I'll look up and those guys will be running over the hill to get to practice from labs.
"That's really encouraging to me."
It looks like the Paladins (2-3, 1-1 Southern Conference) are are having more fun by the week. Scoring 101 points on offense and racking up 11 sacks on defense over a pair of wins the last two weeks certainly helps the "fun" level rise.
The new offense, with input from Hendrix, new offensive coordinator Drew Cronic, new assistant head coach George Quarles and receivers coach Brian Bratton, has clicked more and more each week.
"As coaches, we're making adjustments and getting more on the same page," Hendrix said. "It's been new for us too. ... We want to be a hard-to-prepare-for team."
While it appears to be a run-based offense - and certainly relies on effectively running the ball - quarterback P.J. Blazejowski is thriving passing in it. The senior captain has thrown a touchdown pass of at least 61 yards in four consecutive games. Each one of those featured a wide open receiver.
Blazejowski is currently fourth in the country (FCS) in passing efficiency at 178.4.
"P.J.'s smart. He will take risks, but he won't do anything that's out of nowhere. I love having a guy back there in the pocket that will do that," said senior wide receiver Logan McCarter, who had career highs in receptions (7) and yards receiving (178) last week.
As for getting wide open on long strikes this year, McCarter said, "It's just fun. The blocking part kind of drags you down, but you know that just opens up the passing game.
"Coach Bratton just tells us to stay with it and when we pass it, just make a play."
After putting up more than 300 yards rushing, more than 300 yards passing and 56 points against ETSU, Furman ranks third in the SoCon in total offense (421.6 yards per game) and second in scoring (34.2).
Just two years ago, the Paladins ranked dead last in the SoCon in scoring (17.5) and total offense (318.7). That 2015 team scored 24 offensive touchdowns and its longest offensive play was 61 yards.
At the near-midway point this year, Furman has 22 touchdowns and 16 offensive plays of 30 yards or more. Seven different players have collected them:

RUNS (3)
Triston Luke (44*, 45)
Kealand Dirks (32*)

Thomas Gordon (30, 36, 77*, 41)
Darius Morehead (31)
Logan McCarter (35, 43, 51, 64*)
Andy Schumpert (71*, 32*, 30*)
Cam Burnette (61*)

In addition to those plays from scrimmage on offense, three different Paladins have kickoff returns of at least 39 yards.
Among SoCon teams, only Western Carolina has more 30-plus yard plays on offense this season:

Western Carolina - 19 in 5 games (7 runs, 12 receptions)
Furman - 16 in 5 games (3 runs, 16 receptions)
Samford - 13 in 5 games (1 run, 12 receptions)
Mercer - 10 in 5 games (10 receptions)
Wofford - 9 in 4 games (4 runs, 5 receptions)
ETSU - 9 in 5 games (9 receptions)
VMI - 8 in 5 games (1 run, 7 receptions)
The Citadel - 7 in 4 games (2 runs, 5 receptions)
Chattanooga - 2 in 5 games (2 receptions)

Those big plays for Furman are often set up by the running game - or at least the appearance of the run from a tight formation. Just like with the big plays in the passing game, several Paladins have contributed on the ground. Seven different players have rushing touchdowns this season, and there's been a different leading rusher in four of Furman's five games.
"We've got three tailbacks and three fullbacks that we can play and feel really good," Hendrix said. "We can be a little bit fresher and they each bring a little something different to the table."
Last week, fullback Kealand Dirks posted the first 100-yard rushing day for any Furman back this season and scored two touchdowns. Tailback Darius Morehead added 97 yards and a pair of scores as well.
"I really like this offense. I think it suits me better," Dirks said. "We've got (fullbacks) Ridge (Gibson), who's a great blocker, Antonio (Wilcox), who can run outside with those long legs, and I can run it inside."
• This week, Furman hopes those SoCon big play trends continue when it travels to Chattanooga Saturday for a 4 p.m. kickoff. After dominating much of the series, including a 15-game winning streak from 1995-2009, the Paladins have lost each of the last five meetings with the Mocs.
Furman's last win in the series came in a 14-7 victory in 2011 at Chattanooga. The last two trips to Finley Stadium have resulted in blowout losses for the Paladins.
Chattanooga (1-4, 1-1) enters Saturday struggling on offense (251 yards per game) and with a big question of who will start at quarterback.
Preseason all-SoCon second team member Alejandro Bennifield returned from a four-game suspension last week against Western Carolina, but left the game in the first quarter after a vicious hit that knocked his helmet off.
Mississippi State transfer Nick Tiano, who started the first four games with Bennifield out, left in the fourth quarter last week with a shoulder injury. Redshirt freshman Dominic Caldwell played the rest of the game.
Bennifield and Tiano are listed as "or" as the starter on this week's depth chart. There seems to be a feeling that Tiano will get the start. The third quarterback on the depth chart is highly-touted freshman Cole Copeland, but the Mocs are trying to redshirt him.
While Furman's defense enters with an FCS-best 17 sacks this season, Chattanooga has allowed a SoCon-worst 18 sacks.
The Mocs ranks third in the SoCon in total defense (334.6 yards allowed per game) despite not having the services of senior linebacker Dale Warren. Warren, who led the SoCon with 19 tackles-for-loss in 2016, is serving a six-game suspension for an NCAA rules violation and won't be eligible to return until next week.