Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Frenetic Winthrop surges past Furman

Things literally went from bad to worse for the Furman men's basketball team Wednesday night. The Paladins trailed Winthrop by 17 with 8:43 left in the first half when Devin Sibley left with an injury and never returned. Trying to climb out of that kind of hole without the reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year proved too difficult for Furman, as the Eagles cruised to a 93-74 win at Timmons Arena.

The Paladins entered looking to avenge a one-point overtime loss at Winthrop last year in which the Eagles won on a desperation 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left. It became quickly evident Wednesday that Furman would be the one in need of a miracle.

Eight of Winthrop's first 10 made field goals were layups as the the Eagles built a 24-10 lead just 9:02 in the game. That set the tone for the night as Winthrop finished with 54 points in the paint. The Eagles played a frenetic, yet controlled, pace and simply appeared faster than the Paladins.

While Winthrop consistently drove to the basket, Furman settled for 3-pointers that didn't fall. The Paladins missed their first six 3-pointers and was already down 15 when Daniel Fowler hit Furman's first three with 9:45 left in the first half. The Paladins were 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from beyond the arc for the game.

"I think it was pretty clear that they were the tougher team tonight," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We knew they were really going to try to attack us off the bounce. ... We just couldn't guard the ball.
"As they say, 'fat pigs gets slaughtered.' I think we started thinking we'd done something coming off this Nashville trip (two wins over the weekend). ... I don't think we came out with the mental edge and toughness needed to play a team that good and that well-coached."

Fowler's 3-pointer cut Winthrop's lead to 27-15, but Winthrop flew back down the court and Xavier Cooks scored on a dunk. On Furman's ensuing possession, Sibley came away holding his right side near the hip. With a 5-and-4 advantage, the Eagles got a 3-pointer from Bjorn Broman to make it 32-15 before play was stopped and Sibley exited. The current SoCon Player of the Week was 0-for-4 in his nine minutes of play.

"Devin got hit on a rebound, tried to play through it, and then got hit on the same spot," Richey said. "I'm sure it's a day-to-day deal. From what I'm being told, it's nothing major."

Winthrop took its biggest lead of the first half on a four-point play by Nych Smith that pushed the advantage to 43-21 with 6:40 left. The Eagles were 21-of-37 (56.8 percent) from the floor in the first half to take a 52-32 lead into halftime. Winthrop became the first team to score 52 in a half against Furman since Feb. 12, 2015 at VMI. The Eagles were the first opposing team to score 52 in a half at Timmons Arena since Mars Hill on Dec. 10, 2013.

John Davis scored Furman's first six points of the second half and Jordan Lyons' 3-pointer cut Winthrop's lead to 16 with 17:47 left, but the Paladins could never get closer. Josh Ferguson's layup with 14:02 left gave the Eagles their biggest lead at 66-42.

"They just drove us and drove us and drove us," Richey said. "For whatever reason - and I'm not really interested in the reasons - we just mentally and physically got whipped tonight.
"The foundation of this program has always been defense and it's one of those deals where you've got to figure out a way to respond."

Cooks had 24 points, 10 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals to lead Winthrop (4-3). The blocks gave Cooks the all-time lead in school history with 166. He's also the second-leading rebounder in Winthrop history with 774. Ferguson had 17 points, 13 rebounds and three steals also for the Eagles.

Daniel Fowler had 16 points, two blocks and two steals for Furman (4-3). Matt Rafferty added 13 points, 11 rebounds and four assists, while John Davis and Clay Mounce scored 12 and 11 points, respectively.

Furman next hosts Tennessee Tech at 4 p.m. Saturday.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

After busy road trip, Furman set for 5 at home

Furman's Devin Sibley has earned Southern Conference
Player of the Week honors. Photo courtesy of Furman.
After a Thanksgiving week of adventurous travel in which the Furman's men's basketball team went 2-2 over eight days, the Paladins begin a five-game homestand Wednesday against Winthrop. Tip-off at Timmons Arena is scheduled for 7 p.m.

Playing in the PK80: Phil Knight Invitational, Furman put plenty of miles on its Nikes last week. On Thursday, Nov. 16, the Paladins bused to Charlotte, where it flew out of the next morning to Indianapolis. On Saturday, Nov. 18, Furman fell to Butler, 82-65, at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. After the game, Furman flew back to Charlotte then got back on the bus to head to Durham, N.C. After a day of rest and a walk-through Sunday, the Paladins fell at Duke, 92-63, last Monday. Furman boarded the bus after the game and arrived back in Greenville well after midnight. Just a few hours later, the Paladins were back in classes.

"We had guys that had presentations that next morning," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "That's always the fine balance here. You've got all this travel. You've got the end of the semester at a school where you've got real academics. At the same time, you've got about 30 things you feel like you've got to get better at."

The Paladins definitely looked to have gotten better in a least a few of those as the road trip resumed last Wednesday when the Paladins bused to Nashville, Tenn. After having Thanksgiving together as a team, the Paladins were back on the court the next day. Furman recorded a 78-64 win over New Hampshire before a 78-67 win over Northeastern on Saturday. The Paladins then bused home and arrived back in Greenville late Saturday night.

Coming off the two losses to heavily favored teams, those two victories were solid wins. Especially considering the travel schedule and the fact that Furman (4-2) was playing in a nearly empty arena both nights. The victories kept the Paladins at No. 21 in the latest CollegeInsider Mid-Major Top 25.

"In recruiting, the Colonial (CAA) tries to make a big gap from the SoCon, so it's nice to get off to a 2-0 start against the Colonial (wins over Elon and New Hampshire)," Richey said. "More importantly, they were against two teams that were bigger than us and our style won out.
"There's still a ton to improve on, but it was definitely good to get double-digit victories."

In the win over New Hampshire, Furman had 19 assists on 29 made field goals. Eight different Paladins had at least two assists in what was truly a team effort of sharing the ball. Furman had 13 assists the next day.

"That's something we've always harped on. We did a poor job of that in the Butler game. We did a better job of moving the ball in the Duke game, we just didn't shoot it well," Richey said. "What's also cool is - knock on wood - this is the lowest turnover rate we've had at this point in the year since I've been here.
"The thing that's interesting is, I still feel like we're due for a really, really good shooting night. We're shooting the ball okay, but we can shoot the ball better."

Devin Sibley had a combined 42 points and 19 rebounds in those two wins over the weekend and was honored as the Southern Conference Player of the Week. Sibley leads the team with an average of 18.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Three other Paladins average in double-figure scoring - John Davis III (12.3), Daniel Fowler (11.5) and Matt Rafferty (10.7).

On Wednesday, Furman will try to avenge a 58-57 overtime loss suffered at Winthrop last season. Anders Broman banked in a desperation 3-pointer with 1.7 seconds left to win the game for the Eagles.

Winthrop (3-3) is led by senior forward Xavier Cooks, who averages 14.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Paladins win one rematch to set up another

ELON, N.C. - With a second date added, Furman football can now officially call its 2017 postseason a redemption "tour."

The 22nd-ranked Paladins avenged an earlier loss to No. 15 Elon this season with a 28-27 win in the opening round of the FCS Playoffs Saturday. Furman advances to play at No. 8 Wofford at 2 p.m. next Saturday. That will be a rematch of the season opener in which the Terriers held on for a 24-23 win as the Paladins missed a last-second two-point conversion.

“We got this revenge to get to the second round and we’re focusing on Wofford now,” said Furman sophomore Donavan Perryman, who came up with a huge blocked extra point after Elon's final touchdown Saturday.

The Paladins (8-4) found a way to win despite suffering three turnovers and forcing just a meaningless one on Elon’s Hail Mary pass to end the first half.

“Special teams were huge in the game on both sides of the ball. I’m just proud of our kids for hanging in there after being down two times without a lot of momentum,” Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. “We were inconsistent offensively, but we found a way to get it going a little bit in the second half and certainly our defense came up with some big, big stops.”

The Phoenix made Furman pay for its first two turnovers, scoring touchdowns off both. But after the third, the Paladins’ defense stepped up when needed most.

Perryman’s blocked PAT left Furman clinging to a 28-27 lead with 11:26 left to play. The Paladins then went on a 13-play, 70-yard drive that chewed up 6:56 off the clock and reached Elon’s six-yard line.

Just when it looked like Furman was bound to extend the lead to eight, P.J. Blazejowski’s pass was picked off by Daniel Reid-Bennett in the end zone. It was only Blazejowski’s fifth interception this season, but it gave Elon a final chance with 4:20 left needing only a field goal to take the lead. It was eerily similar to Sept. 9, when Elon drove down and beat Furman 34-31 on a 36-yard field goal with 15 seconds left.

This time around, the Phoenix reached midfield. On 4th-and-11, Davis Cheek’s pass sailed incomplete giving Furman the ball back with 1:49 left. The Paladins forced Elon to use its final two timeouts before facing 3rd-and-6. Furman’s 244-pound fullback Kealand Dirks then muscled his way for seven yards to seal the win.

“I believe I made a middle school mistake (on the interception). That’s something I shouldn’t have done, but I’m thankful for my brothers for having my back,” Blazejowski said. “I need to hug every single one of them tonight.
“For me and the other seniors who’ve gone through what we’ve been through here, this is one of the highest moments.”

Furman improved to 8-0 when leading at the half this season, but this game wasn’t like most of those other wins. Saturday was just the second time that the Paladins fell behind in the second half after leading at the break. Just like in it’s 28-21 win over Mercer on Oct. 21, Furman found itself trailing 21-14 midway through the third quarter.

The margin in the Paladins’ six other victories this season ranged from 21 to 36 points. Meanwhile, Furman’s FCS losses were by 1, 3 and 6 points, respectively. While the blowouts were obviously fun for the Paladins, learning how to win a close game could be vital. Especially next week against a Wofford team that’s piled up a ton of close wins this season.

“They’ve got a really good football team that’s won a bunch of close games,” Hendrix said. “They had a week off and imagine they’ve spent a little time on us. It’s going to be a big challenge.
“We went over there the first time and were still trying to figure out who we were, but I think our kids will be excited to go play.”

In the teams' first meeting, Elon took advantage of two early Furman turnovers to take a 21-0 lead after one quarter. Saturday's opening quarter was better for the Paladins, but still pretty dreary as they trailed 7-0. After Thomas Gordon muffed a punt that the Phoenix recovered, Elon's De'Sean McNair scored on a 26-yard touchdown on the next play.

Furman didn't pick up a first down until the 1:01 mark of the first quarter. That did lead to a score though when Blazejowski found Andy Schumpert crossing the middle of the end zone for a six-yard touchdown with 11:55 left in the second quarter. The Paladins then forced their first three-and-out, but a 54-yard punt pinned them at their own 9-yard line.

Furman needed just three plays to take the lead. After an incompletion, Darius Morehead took an option pitch left for 21 yards. On the next play, Furman appeared to begin an option right, but Blazejowski pulled back and fired to Schumpert who raced for a 70-yard touchdown.

The Paladins missed a great opportunity to add to its 14-7 lead. It appeared that Furman had a safety when Alec Hanff wrapped up Cheek in the end zone. However, it was ruled that Cheek was down at the one. An Elon punt from its end zone set up the Paladins at the Phoenix 38, but Furman managed just a negative yard before punting.

Elon took all the momentum early in the second half. After Furman went three-and-out to begin the half, the Phoenix marched 79 yards on 12 plays to tie the game 14-14. Cheek converted three third downs on the drive with completions and he capped the drive with a 16-yard strike to Corey Joyner.

On the ensuing kickoff, Gordon was stripped of the ball and Elon recovered at Furman’s 25-yard line. The Phoenix converted two more third downs before McNair scored from three yards out as Elon took a 21-14 lead midway through the third quarter.

Furman responded thanks in part to Gordon, who made a terrific leaping catch for a 19-yard gain to midfield on a 3rd-and-6 play. Six plays later, Antonio Wilcox rumbled 14 yards for his 14th rushing touchdown of the season as the Paladins tied the game.

"Thomas competes and makes a lot of plays, but (turnovers) are just something we cannot do," Hendrix said. "I was proud of him for coming back. He made a couple of big plays for us."

On Furman's next possession, Wilcox reeled off a 62-yard run to the Elon 11-yard line. Blazejowski capped the drive by sneaking in from a yard out on the first play of the fourth quarter as Furman took a 28-21 lead.

On its ensuing possession, Elon faced 3rd-and-4 at Furman’s 28-yard line. As the Paladins blitzed, McNair gutted it for his third touchdown run of the day. Perryman then got a hand on the ball as the Phoenix’s extra point fluttered away no good.

McNair rushed for 101 yards for Elon (8-4), while Cheek had 201 yards on 24-of-43 passing. It was a vast improvement defensively for Furman as Cheek was 26-of-35 for 301 yards in the first meeting.

“I think we’re trusting our coaches more (as the season has gone on). … We’re all coming together and now we’re doing a good job of making adjustments on the fly,” said Furman freshman cornerback Darius Kearse, who had a team-high nine tackles including six solo stops after not playing in the teams’ first meeting.

Blazejowski was 12-of-22 for 176 yards passing and rushed 12 times for 55 yards. Wilcox led the Paladins with 92 yards on seven carries.

Furman football team gives young fan the star treatment

Furman football team gives young fan the star treatment

Friday, November 24, 2017

Paladins get first crack at redemption at Elon

Furman will be competing in the FCS playoffs for the first time
since 2013 at Elon Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman.
After a somewhat emotional few days prior to Thanksgiving, the Furman football team gets back to business on Saturday at 1 p.m. in the opening round of the FCS playoffs at Elon. The Paladins are thankful for the chance to compete for the FCS championship again for the first time in four years after a loss last Saturday left no guarantee of a bid.

Furman's resume of seven consecutive wins sandwiched between losses to three FCS playoff teams - each by six points or less - earned the Paladins a spot at the 24-team table. Saturday's opening round contest gives Furman a chance to redeem one of those losses and a win would give it a chance to redeem another. Saturday's winner advances to face No. 7 seed Wofford in Spartanburg on Dec. 2.

"Our kids are excited about playing again and it's well-deserved. It's something they've earned," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said following the selection show. "I'm just happy for all of Furman, our kids especially. They've bought into what we were selling and got a little better each week."

No other playoff game may be more of a "who would've thunk it" match-up than Furman-Elon. After opening the season with a 24-23 loss at SoCon preseason favorite - and eventual champion - Wofford, Furman fans had to be confident with an Elon team that went 2-9 last year coming to Paladin Stadium the following week.

But the Phoenix kicked a field goal with five seconds left to leave Greenville with a 34-31 win to snap an eight-game losing streak dating back to last season. As the year wore on though, that loss looked less and less lousy. Under first-year coach Curt Cignitti, Elon went 8-3 for its first winning season since 2010. The FCS playoff appearance marks the Phoenix's second ever and first since 2009. The only other time Elon hosted a postseason game was in the 1981 NAIA playoffs.

Meanwhile, Furman also had a big turnaround under its first-year head coach. This 7-4 season marks the Paladins first winning year since its last playoff appearance in 2013. It's Furman's 17th trip to FCS playoffs. Even after spending the previous 10 seasons at Air Force, Hendrix has been a part of 29 of the Paladins' 33 FCS playoff games and has gone 17-12 in them as a player and assistant.

Furman's defense has shown improvement throughout the season and Saturday could provide a gauge as to just how much. In the teams' first meeting, Elon quarterback Davis Cheek threw for 301 yards and three touchdowns. That launched him into a season of 2,230 yards passing, 14 touchdowns and Colonial Athletic Association Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

"If you get in, you've got a chance and we start with somebody we've got a little familiarity with. They're a program really similar to ours," Hendrix said. "Coach Cignitti did an unbelievable job with them this year, playing in a really good league similar to ours. It's a really great match-up."

Schmidt earns Jacobs honor
After the elation of seeing its name pop up on the screen during Sunday's FCS Playoffs selection show, the good times continued for Furman on Tuesday. A total of 13 Paladins were announced as All-SoCon players and Hendrix was named SoCon Coach of the Year by the league's media and coaches.

Hendrix is the ninth Paladin coach to earn the SoCon's top coaching honor, but only the second to do so in his first season. The other was Dick Sheridan in 1978.

It seems pretty fitting that in Hendrix's first year back at Furman, the Jacobs Blocking Award also came "home." Senior captain Matthew Schmidt is the 15th Paladin to earn the award given annually to the SoCon's best lineman. No other league school has had winners that often.

Schmidt has made 37 starts and been in on 2,348 plays in his career. The center helped Furman average a SoCon-best 35.1 points and 435.5 yards of total offense during the regular season. He helped pave the way for a running game that averaged 241.1 yards per game and scored 34 touchdowns.

Schmidt jointed running back Antonio Wilcox, offensive guard Terrell Bush, center Matthew Schmidt and tight end Andy Schumpert on both the media and coaches' first teams. Four Paladins earned second team accolades - quarterback P.J. Blazejowski, running back Kealand Dirks, noseguard Jaylan Reid and safety Aaquil Annoor.

A total of 27 freshman have competed for Furman this season and 10 of those combined for 41 starts. So it was no surprise when five Paladins made the SoCon coaches' All-Freshman team. They are offensive guard Reed Kroeber, running back Darius Morehead, linebackers Reynard Ellis and Elijah McKoy, and placekicker Grayson Atkins.

*Note: Apologies for not having updates here at the Furman Sports Report this week. It's been very busy with the Thanksgiving holiday and I had two large freelance projects to complete as well. One is a really special feature on Furman football that I'll post here as soon as it's ready for publication by the Spartanburg Herald. The other was my regular season wrap-up and look ahead to the FCS Playoffs for the SoCon. It can be viewed here:

Saturday, November 18, 2017

After loss, Furman waits to hear playoff fate

HOMEWOOD, Ala. - After a frustrating first half in which Furman didn't take advantage of all of its opportunities, Samford's defense made those opportunities dwindle in the second half. The Bulldogs joined N.C. State as the only teams to hold the Paladins to as few as three points in a half as Samford held on for a 26-20 win. The Bulldogs also became the first team to beat Furman since N.C. State as the Paladins' seven-game winning streak was snapped.

While Samford (8-3, 6-2 Southern Conference) likely wrapped up an FCS playoff bid, it now becomes a nervous waiting game for Furman (7-4, 6-2) ahead of the playoff selection show Sunday at 11 a.m. on ESPNU. The Paladins are banking on a resume that shows three FCS losses by a combined 10 points, all of which came against likely playoff-bound teams in Wofford, Elon and Samford.

"It's out of our control, but I know this: I think we're easily one of the best 24 teams in the country," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Based on who we've played and how we've played, I think it's deserved, but I'm sure there's a lot of people who think the same thing.
"This bunch and how far they've come - that probably makes it even tougher to have a chance and not pull it off tonight."

After Jordan Weaver's career-long 46-yard field goal gave Samford a 26-17 lead with 12:55 left, Furman responded with its only scoring drive of the second half. The problem was that it took 16 plays and 7:37 off the clock and the Paladins had to settle for a 28-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins to cut the lead to six with 5:18 left.

Samford got two first downs on its ensuing possession before Furman came up with a third-down stop and called its final timeout. After a touchback on the Bulldogs' punt, the Paladins had 80 yards to go in 1:12 for the potential win. On the third play of the drive, Samford senior Shaheed Salmon made a diving interception with 46 seconds left to wrap up the win. It was just the fourth interception this season for Furman quarterback P.J. Blazejowski.

The Paladins' offense had steamrolled opponents during the winning streak with an average of 42.3 points per game. During that time, Furman had been running the ball right down the throat of opposing defenses with fullbacks Antonio Wilcox and Kealand Dirks. But on Saturday, Samford held Dirks to 39 yards on 14 carries and Wilcox to 17 yards on eight carries.

Darius Morehead broke free on some option pitches to lead Furman with 86 yards, but he had only 19 in the second half as the Bulldogs tightened things up against the option.

"I don't think we played our best or coached our best football, but give them credit. They were better than us tonight," Hendrix said. "I thought we got exposed a couple of times. We've still got a little ways to go, physically. They pushed us around a little on both sides of the ball."

While each team finished with 411 yards of total offense, Furman rolled up 291 in the first half but felt like it should've had more than 17 points. The Paladins opened the game with a 75-yard drive capped by a a three-yard touchdown run by Wilcox. That marked the 11th consecutive visit to the red zone with a touchdown for the Paladins.

Samford answered with a 15-play, 78-yard touchdown drive in which it converted two fourth downs. The last came when Roland Adams took a direct snap and fought his way into the end zone from a yard out as the Bulldogs tied the game 7-7.

Furman's ensuing possession once again went deep into Samford territory. On fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line, it appeared that Wilcox's entire upper body got in the end zone, but he was ruled short of the goal line.

"In the first half, we left 11 points on the field. On the one we didn't get in, we'd love to have replay but it shouldn't have been that close. We've got to get it in there," Hendrix said. "Then it just seemed like we were backed up the whole second half."

On Samford's next play, the Bulldogs threw a screen pass in the end zone that should've went for a safety but Adams bounced off a tackler and made it just past the goal line. That turned out to be the first play of a 13-play, 99-yard scoring drive. Devlin Hodges' eight-yard touchdown pass to Clarke Miller helped the Bulldogs take a 14-7 lead midway through the second quarter.

The teams traded field goals as Samford pushed its lead to 17-10 with 1:23 left in the half. Rather than settling for taking a seven-point deficit into halftime, Furman rolled the dice and came up with a seven. Blazejowski rolled to his right, turned and threw back across the field to Andy Schumpert along the left sideline. Schumpert rumbled 55 yards to the Samford 20-yard line. On 4th-and-goal at the one-yard line, Dirks powered his way into the end zone with 25 seconds left in the half.

That momentum didn't carry over to the second half though. The Bulldogs raced down the field on the opening drive which took just 1:53 for them to take the lead. Hodges hit a wide-open Kelvin McKnight for a 29-yard touchdown, but the extra point sailed wide left and Samford led 23-17. Going into a stiff wind in the third quarter, the Bulldogs outgained the Paladins 154-65 and shut them out in a quarter that they had scored 105 combined points in entering Saturday.

While he was wide open on that touchdown, McKnight made some terrific catches against tight defense all night. He finished with 10 receptions for 179 yards, while Hodges threw for 305 yards on 25-of-37 passing.

The loss overshadowed a great performance by Thomas Gordon, who had five catches for 123 yards. Blazejowski finished with 229 yards on 11-of-20 passing.

"I'm so blessed to have these guys on my team. They do a good job of getting open and making the grab," Blazejowski said. "Hopefully I'll get another shot to throw them a few balls."

Friday, November 17, 2017

Furman zeroes in on SoCon championship

Furman tight end Andy Schumpert. Photo courtesy of Furman.
Furman makes one of its longer road trips to try to earn a share of its first Southern Conference title since 2013 Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Samford. A victory would be kind of fitting considering how long a road the Paladins have traveled to be in this situation, both this season and within the program as a whole.

It's safe to say not many would've expected Furman to be in this position after opening the season with a 24-23 loss at Wofford. Who knew then that the Paladins might have simply been a missed two-point conversion away from an outright SoCon championship?

It's safe to say even fewer expected Furman to be here the following week after a 34-31 home loss to an Elon team that went 2-9 last season. Who knew then that those first two games would be against teams that are ranked No. 7 (Wofford) and No. 11 (Elon) entering the final Saturday of the regular season? As a potential FCS playoff bid looms for the Paladins, their only two FCS defeats would have to be considered "good losses."

After a loss at FBS member N.C. State left Furman completely off the FCS national radar at 0-3, the Paladins' longest road trip of the season began a remarkable turnaround. Furman rolled out to a 38-0 second quarter lead at Colgate before claiming a 45-14 win.

And the Paladins haven't stopped winning since.

After dismantling rival The Citadel last week, 56-20, and shutting down its strong running game, No. 20 Furman (7-3, 6-1) has a completely different challenge this week at No. 17 Samford (7-3, 5-2) as it tries to share the league crown with Wofford. These Bulldogs attack through the air with standout junior quarterback Devlin Hodges, who ranks fourth in the country in passing with 3,282 yards. Hodges is second nationally with 28 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.

"He gets rid of the ball quickly, and is mobile enough that he can hurt you with his feet even though I don't think he's necessarily looking to run it," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We just need to find a way to make him uncomfortable, either with what he's seeing or trying to find a way to pressure him. He kind of has a lower release point, so we need to get our hands up too.

"Tackling them after they get the catch will also be big, because they're going to get their yards. You've just got to limit the times they can get in the end zone."

Furman counters with an offense that has lit up the scoreboard to the tune of 42.3 points per game during its longest winning streak since 1999. For strictly SoCon games, Furman is No. 1 in scoring offense (39.1 points per game) and No. 2 in scoring defense (19.0), but guess who's No. 1? Samford at 16.3 points allowed per game.

Hodges isn't the only quarterback highly listed in national rankings in this game. Furman's P.J. Blazejowski leads the country in passing efficiency (185.66) and in yards per attempt (11.87), and ranks No. 2 in yards per completion (17.81). Only two quarterbacks in Furman history have topped 170 season passing season passing efficiency ratings - Chris Forcier (172.36 in 2011) and Bobby Lamb (170.89 in 1985). Both led the country in that category.

The key Saturday could be if either team can get pressure on the quarterback. While the Paladins (29) and Bulldogs (26) rank first and second, respectively, in the SoCon in sacks, Samford has allowed 16 sacks and Furman's allowed only five, which leads the FCS. The Paladins haven't allowed a sack since the Colgate game on Sept. 23.

With a lot on the line Saturday and two teams that do a lot of different things well, it could come down to a late field goal. The last time these teams met at Samford two years ago, Jon Croft Hollingsworth kicked a 19-yard field goal on the last play of the game as Furman rallied from a 17-0 halftime deficit for a 20-17 win.

But Furman hasn't had to settle for a field goal attempt in more than a month and has attempted only two - both at Chattanooga - since Sept. 23. Hendrix still has plenty of confidence in freshman Grayson Atkins. A year after leading the state in kick scoring with 101 points at Boiling Springs High School, Atkins leads the SoCon in kick scoring with 66 points on 48-of-48 extra points and 6-of-9 field goals.

"Field goals are the first thing we do every single day of practice after we stretch. Our guys kick it really good," Hendrix said. "I have confidence in both those guys (Atkins and Hollingsworth), but Grayson's had a really good year for us."

Some are calling this an early FCS playoff game, with the winner earning a bid and the loser left on the outside looking in. I respectfully disagree, especially after Western Carolina's bubble likely burst last week with a home loss to Mercer. I think it's just thrown out there to add more hype to a game that really doesn't need any.

I understand every season is different. However, if a 7-4 Samford team that lost at home to ETSU on last year's final weekend can be one of four SoCon teams to make the playoffs, there's no reason Wofford, Furman and Samford shouldn't already have bids secured this year. Having said all that, Saturday's winner should definitely be able to breathe a little easier during the FCS Selection Show at 11 a.m. Sunday on ESPNU.

Top-seeded Furman set for SoCon Tournament

All-Southern Conference first team member Jamila Johnson helped lead
Furman to the SoCon regular season title. Photo courtesy of Furman.
The No. 1-seeded Furman volleyball team looks to take its first step in returning to the NCAA Tournament when the Paladins open play at the Southern Conference Tournament this afternoon at Western Carolina. At approximately 2:30 p.m., the Paladins will face the winner between No. 8 Mercer and No. 9 The Citadel, which kicks off the tournament at 9:30 a.m.

The Paladins earned the top seed after a huge turnaround from last season's 11-19 team that finished eighth in the SoCon. Picked to finish sixth this season, Furman (20-9) soared to the regular season title with a 14-2 mark in league play.

"All of our girls, from 1 to 14, have been really on board with what we're doing," Furman coach Michelle Young said. "The work and concentration you need to put in to compete at a high level, they've just been working together really well."

In her 18th season as head coach, Young earned SoCon Coach of the Year honors for the fifth time. Five Paladins earned All-SoCon honors, including first team member Jamila Johnson from Greenville. The former St. Joseph's Catholic School standout had a team-high 384 kills and was second on the team in digs with 329. Her 3.8 kills per set average ranked fourth in the SoCon.

Furman's Nicole Mack, Christen Sikora and Meg DeMaar made the second team, while Courtney Hoffman earned All-Freshman team honors.

With three other schools each having two players on the All-SoCon first team, Johnson being the lone member of the regular season champion is a testament to what kind of "team" the Paladins have this season.

"We have a balanced offense and have a lot of people that are contributing," Young said. "Whether its this weekend or that weekend, it's always someone different who can get hot."

A big key to Furman's success this season was dominating on its home court. The Paladins went 9-0 at Alley Gym and only lost two sets there all year. Even during last year's disappointing season, the Paladins went 6-3 at home. Furman has gone 44-5 at home over the last five seasons.

"Alley Gym is a smaller, older gym and we love it. It's our place," Young said. "That was a reason we moved back there a few years ago, while making steady improvements to make it a better venue each year."

While Furman went 6-7 in non-league play this season, it recorded key wins at Georgia Tech and Liberty. Young believes the difficult non-conference schedule only helped her team when SoCon play began.

She's hoping the schedule can continue to help the Paladins should they return home Sunday with the SoCon Tournament title. Furman is going for its fourth NCAA Tournament appearance overall after last reaching the tournament in 2015.

"We always play a pretty tough non-conference schedule because we feel pretty strongly that it's going to help us down the road," Young said. "You're having to really fight hard to even win sets but we feel like when we're in conference (play), we're not going to see anything harder than we've already seen.

"I don't think we've ever won (the SoCon Tournament) as the No. 1 seed, so I know the girls would love to kind of double-down and be able to win both championships."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

And now a word on our sponsor

Tommy's Country Ham House owner Tommy Stevenson receives a birthday
cake from Furman football seniors Logan McCarter and Dillon Woodruff.
When you want to write about someone who means so much to so many people, it can be a little intimidating. No matter how good a writer you are, you're just hopeful your words can honor them in the right way. With that said, here goes nothing.

On the road to recovery
There's a chance this site you're currently on wouldn't exist without Tommy Stevenson. Since you're reading this, you probably already know he's the owner of our sponsor Tommy's Country Ham House. Stevenson has provided a tremendous amount of support - and delicious fried chicken - to Furman and its students and coaches over the years.

I'd originally planned on writing about Stevenson after visiting him at his restaurant on his birthday in late October. As often is the case, freelance gigs, my full-time job and my really full-time job of helping raise a wild six-year old boy got in the way of all the Furman stories I wish I had the time to write here.

So I targeted the week following Furman football's bye. With no football game to recap, I thought that'd be the ideal time to write it. Unfortunately, Stevenson was written about by many other media outlets that week after a medical scare. He suffered an injury after a fainting episode and was taken to St. Francis Hospital's ICU for tests. The next day, Stevenson underwent a successful surgery to implant a pacemaker.

While the Ham House's social media guru Terry Posey kept the community updated on Stevenson's condition, prayers, thoughts and well-wishes poured in. That included a trip to Sam's Club that Posey made while Stevenson was recovering. After the cashier recognized the account as the Ham House's, she gathered other employees who held hands with Posey and prayed for Stevenson's recovery.

Stevenson was allowed to go home the day after surgery, but he wasn't allowed to participate in his 26-year Friday tradition of feeding the Furman football team dinner. He may have been away that evening, but he wasn't off the minds of the Paladins:

A full day of rest was about all Stevenson could stand. He put in a little time at the restaurant Saturday morning before heading over to Paladin Stadium. There, Stevenson posed for pictures with Furman president Dr. Elizabeth Davis and was chauffeured around campus in a purple ATV before settling in to watch his beloved Paladins stomp rival The Citadel 56-20. Talk about a get-well present.

On Wednesday, the Ham House Twitter account shared a letter from Stevenson. He wrote that he was thankful and overwhelmed by the many cards, phone calls and e-mails of encouragement and support. To the Furman football team he wrote, "you made a weakened man stronger with your kindness and a big win over The Citadel!" Stevenson also thanked the hospital staff, the media, Furman University, the Washington Center and his Ham House staff for keeping the restaurant going strong while he was absent.

Stevenson wrapped his letter stating, "It's going to take awhile to regain my strength and adjust to this pacemaker life, but with God's blessing and the thoughts and prayers of so many, I'm certain to get there sooner rather than later. Thank you!"

Now for what I've been meaning to write
For the past 26 years, the Furman football team's Friday evening meal is made up of a variety of healthy portions along a long buffet at the Ham House. While I've followed Furman football my whole life, I was somehow unaware of this tradition. That is, until I got to be a part of it.

While I was fighting cancer in 2006, Furman's Dwight Covington and then-head football coach Bobby Lamb were kind enough to offer me a "VIP" experience for the Chattanooga game that year. I was allowed field access for pregame and postgame activities. I actually got to make my way down to the sideline late in the game to see Scott Beckler's field goal that forced overtime. Then I was standing near the end zone sideline where Cedrick Gipson caught Jordan Sorrells' game-winning touchdown pass in the Paladins' 28-22 win.

Another big highlight that weekend occurred the night before as I got to participate in the fellowship of the team meal at Tommy's. In addition to stuffing myself with great food, I was presented a team-autographed football that night. Looking back, I'm so thankful that I got to shake Tommy's hand as we met for the first time.

Years later, I had the privilege of covering Furman sports for The Greenville News. This was a dream fulfilled after growing up reading Abe Hardesty and Dan Foster's terrific stories about the Paladins. Even though that dream ended in the middle of football season last fall when my name came up in another round of newspaper layoffs, I'll always be appreciative of that opportunity.

When searching for a way to continue covering Furman going into this athletic year, a friend from another media outlet suggested that my chances of doing something for them could be greater if I got a sponsor on board. I knew nothing about getting a sponsorship, but I knew the Ham House was the best place to go try. While the situation with that outlet didn't pan out, I decided to create my own website to cover the Paladins. Stevenson still agreed to be a sponsor and the Furman Sports Report was born.

Showing appreciation
I can't express how appreciative I am for Stevenson's support. It's been essential for helping me travel to cover the team. Plenty of Furman students have appreciated what Stevenson has also done and some of them showed how much on his birthday.

Furman football seniors Logan McCarter and Dillon Woodruff surprised Stevenson with a cake - purple and white, of course - on his birthday on Oct. 24.

Tommy's Country Ham House owner Tommy Stevenson was
presented with this cake on his birthday this year.
"We've had some hard times the last few years, but Tommy's always had our back," McCarter said. "He's never lost faith in us. It's always nice to have someone like that behind you."

When Clay Hendrix played for the Paladins in the mid-1980's, those teams were fed by another huge supporter of Furman, as well as a Paladin and Greenville legend in Vince Perone. Stevenson began feeding the Paladins on Fridays in 1991. Tommy's had only been open six years at that point, but it's been a hit with many a Furman football player ever since. With his typical Friday evening buffet offerings, why not?

"It's all you can eat. We usually put out rib-eye steaks, fried chicken, potatoes au gratin, green beans, slaw, fried okra, banana pudding and rolls," Stevenson said. "The offensive linemen especially like it.

"All the players become my children. I love 'em to death and they're the best. The coaches have always done a great job of bringing in good kids."

While football players game plan for a Saturday opponent all week, Woodruff said you learn quickly how to game plan on Fridays for a supper at Tommy's as well.

"You're always going to leave here stuffed, so you try not to eat as much throughout the day on Friday," Woodruff said. "It's always a good time."

On those Fridays that Furman leaves town by mid-afternoon for a lengthy road trip, other teams may get to enjoy that buffet. Sometimes, such as this week, it may even be the Paladins' bitterest of foes. Furman will likely already be in Alabama in preparation for its game the following day at Samford when The Citadel sits down to eat at Tommy's Friday evening. The Bulldogs will be in the Upstate to take on Clemson the next day.

Stevenson, who graduated from Furman in 1965, has always relished the opportunity to serve. The Ham House opened in 1985. After growing out of that location, Tommy's moved to its current Rutherford Street location 18 years ago. Over the years, plenty of customers have enjoyed Stevenson's meals. He typically makes the rounds of coming by to check and make sure each one is satisfied.

"Every Furman student, whether they play sports or not, gets a discount," Stevenson said.

That kind of service creates customers - and sometimes friends - for life. Stevenson said he enjoys seeing former Furman students that come back to the restaurant 10 or 15 years after they've graduated.

Speaking of old friends
While Stevenson has obviously loved the turnaround that Hendrix has guided Furman on in his first season as head coach, he's also glad to have his old golfing buddy back around.

"Coach Hendrix has been one of my best friends for years," Stevenson said. "We stayed in touch when he was at Air Force, but I'm glad he's back. He did a great job in selecting his staff. It's one of the best Furman has had in years."

Furman coach Clay Hendrix and Tommy Stevenson.
Photo courtesy of Terry Posey.
Stevenson and Hendrix first got to know each other when Hendrix returned to Furman as an assistant under Jimmy Satterfield in 1988. The Ham House has turned out to be a special place in more ways than one for Hendrix. It's where he and his wife, LeeAnn, ended up on what turned out to be a first date ... sort of.

"I'm attending a singles Sunday School class at Edwards Road Baptist Church that (former Furman assistant) Steve Wilson is leading and she visited," Hendrix said. "We met in class and went to lunch that same day and it was at the old Ham House. We walked in and there was (former Furman assistant) Tim Sorrells and his wife Tracy sitting there. All of us that were coaching together at the time just seemed to end up there.

"He's been a great friend and an incredible supporter of Furman. He's just one of those guys that does so much and never wants anything in return."

I couldn't put it any better than Coach did.

Thank you Tommy!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Defense helps Furman down Elon

Devin Sibley scored a game-high 23 points and John Davis added 20 as Furman rallied for a 76-67 win over Elon Tuesday night at Timmons Arena. The Paladins won despite shooting 38.5 percent in a battle of top 25 mid-major teams.

Furman (2-0) is ranked No. 17 in this week's Mid-Major Top 25, while Elon (1-2) is 23rd. Sibley provided his usual solid output and Davis gave the Paladins a big lift offensively, but this was an ultimate team effort that changed for the better for Furman on the defensive end.

"To beat a team that good with us shooting 38 percent from the floor is a testament to how hard our guys played," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "They challenge you in every aspect of your defense. We knew it was going to be a battle. We're just happy to come out on the positive side."

After hitting four of its first five 3-pointers, Furman went through a stretch of 12 consecutive misses from beyond the arc. That helped Elon take a 29-23 lead. But over the final four minutes of the first half, the Paladins turned up the defensive pressure to a notch that stuck the rest of the way.

"I thought that (defense late in the first half) was the key to the game. That was our only chance. We had to really lock in defensively," Richey said. "Being good defensively wasn't going to be enough. We had to be great. That was the message at that last media (timeout of the first half)."

Elon opened the second half with a Brian Dawkins' jumper that pushed its lead to 38-33 before Furman went on a 10-0 run sparked by Andrew Brown. After 10 minutes of play in the first half with nothing but two fouls to show for it, Brown hit 3-pointers to start and cap the run as the Paladins led 43-38 with 16:02 left.

The Phoenix rose and took a 52-48 lead with less than 11 minutes to play. However, Furman answered with a 17-2 run that was once again started by a Brown 3-pointer. Davis came up with a steal and a layup that gave the Paladins the lead for good and Sibley followed with a steal and layup of his own. Another Sibley layup and Brown's fourth 3-pointer gave the Paladins a total of nine points in a 90-second flurry of scoring that forced an Elon timeout.

"When we get those kick-out looks off penetration, those are the ones we usually make," Brown said. "We started getting those in the second half and they started to fall."

Furman led 63-54 at a media timeout with 6:54 left. The Paladins sealed the win with a pair of huge possessions down the stretch. Coming out of that timeout, Daniel Fowler had a pair of offensive rebounds on the same possession that led to a Matt Rafferty layup and an 11-point lead. Furman shaved 1:09 off the clock on that trip down the court.

With a little over three minutes left, Furman again had a single possession in which Fowler and Sibley had offensive rebounds. It ended with a pair of Sibley free throws. The Paladins hit 9-of-12 free throws the rest of the way to wrap up the win. Furman was 15-of-19 from the foul line overall.

"The whole dynamic of our team changes when we're rebounding well. That's something we focus on every day because we're never going to be the biggest team on the court," Davis said. "We try to use our strength, speed, attention to detail and use those scrappy plays to get boards. That fuels the team."

Fowler had nine rebounds, including six offensive boards. Rafferty had seven rebounds, while Davis and Sibley each had six as the Paladins outrebounded the bigger Phoenix 38-35. Of those 38 boards, 14 were offensive. Davis also had four steals, while Sibley had two.

"We really challenged our guys on the boards and Daniel really responded. ... He was a monster in the second half," Richey said. "For us to win the rebounding edge tonight was huge. We wanted to get three tip-outs and we were able to exceed that. Kris (Acox) used to do that for us where if he couldn't quite grab it, he would just tip it out and extend possessions."

Elon shot 35.5 percent on 3-pointers last season and made 39.7 percent of its 3-pointers over its first two games this season, including 14-of-33 (42.7 percent) against Duke. On Tuesday, the Phoenix were just 5-of-24 (20.8 percent) from beyond the arc.

"When you can defend like that, play that hard and get out and run on people, I thought we brought a little fatigue to the game tonight," Richey said. "When you saw the two airballs late - with as good a shooters as they have - I thought you could see that they got a little winded."

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Dominant Paladins inch closer to SoCon title

Furman has seemingly improved with one week of preparation throughout the football season. Coming off two weeks to prepare, the Paladins put on an absolute clinic Saturday. Furman annihilated the Southern Conference's No. 1 ranked defense as the Paladins thumped rival The Citadel 56-20 on Senior Day at Paladin Stadium.

Furman (7-3, 6-1) rolled up 544 total yards of offense and averaged 8.5 yards per play in winning its seventh consecutive game for the first time since 1999. The Bulldogs (5-5, 3-5) entered Saturday allowing just 299.4 total yards per game. It's the most yards allowed by Citadel since giving up 577 to Coastal Carolina on Nov. 28, 2015.

Meanwhile, Furman's defense held Citadel's rushing attack to 146 yards. The Bulldogs entered ranked No. 2 in the FCS in rushing with an average of 326.7 yards per game.

"What really stuck out to me was how efficient we were on offense. I don't think the first unit ever punted. The other thing is I thought we played great run defense," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Our guys prepared really well and our coaches did a phenomenal job prepping. ... We practiced in the spring for them (Citadel) and we practiced in August for them.
"This win is important to a lot of Furman people and it's important to me. It gives us a chance to win a conference championship next week. That was really the most important thing."

Even though Wofford clinched the SoCon's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs with its win at VMI Saturday, Furman can still earn a share of the SoCon championship with a win next Saturday at Samford.

Saturday's dominant win likely secured Furman an at-large bid to the playoffs, especially with Western Carolina's home loss to Mercer. That likely eliminates the Catamounts from postseason consideration.

Furman has rolled up big offensive numbers during its winning streak while adding tweaks each week. After a bye last week, the Paladins added plenty of wrinkles Saturday. Furman's offensive line often performed a sliding shift before getting set as if they were playing a human version of Frogger. The Paladins' skill position players often shifted into a tight formation out of a shotgun spread and vice-versa. Whatever Furman did, they did it with speed and precision.

The Paladins scored touchdowns on each of their first six drives and stopped Citadel on its first six to lead 42-0 just 72 seconds into the second half. Those six scoring drives lasted 2:06, 1:51, 2:49, 2:16, 3:37 and 1:01.

"A lot of people say 'you don't need to change stuff.' I've always thought you could change things a little bit as long as you keep your guys playing fast," Hendrix said. "Tempo's a big part of what we do and we've got a ways to go there, but I didn't want to get in a slow down game with them."

After the Bulldogs got on the board on its first play of the second half, Furman answered with a 9-play, 86-yard drive that took 4:22 as the Paladins slowed things up a bit. It was capped by a 29-yard touchdown pass from P.J. Blazejowski to Logan McCarter that gave Furman a 49-7 lead with 9:02 left in the third quarter and gave Blazejowski the rest of the day off.

Blazejowski was 11-of-14 passing for 204 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Antonio Wilcox ran 12 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns, while Kealand Dirks had 83 yards and two scores on 11 carries.

"Just establishing that run game early, coming off the ball and hitting them in the mouth was big. Then setting up the play action," senior center Matthew Schmidt said. "We just kept them down and never let them get back up."

While Citadel found the end zone thanks to three long pass plays when the game was no longer in doubt, the Bulldogs' running game never got going. Furman did a fantastic job of stringing out the option and linebackers such as speedy freshman Reynard Ellis were consistently in the right position and made tackles for little to no gain. Ellis led the Paladins with seven stops.

"Reynard Ellis and Tyler Voyles really played that spot well for us," Hendrix said. "Reynard's fun to watch play. He flies around and not a lot bothers him."

In addition to stuffing the run, Furman collected five sacks against a Citadel team that had only allowed five all season entering Saturday. Jaylan Reid led six Paladins who were in on sacks Saturday with 1.5, including his first of the season. Wade Smith also recorded his first sack giving Furman 17 different players who have combined for 29 sacks.

"At practice, we tried to rep it as fast as Citadel runs it. When it came time for the game, it seemed like practice was harder than the game was," Ellis said. "Coaches pushing us at practice really helped us."

Richey earns win No. 1 as Paladins rout BJU

Reigning Southern Conference Player of the Year Devin Sibley led six Furman players in double figures as the Paladins rolled over Bob Jones 101-48 in the 2017-18 season opener Friday night at Timmons Arena.

Furman actually got off to a 1-for-9 start on 3-pointers and trailed 20-16 with less than 11 minutes left in the first-half. But a 26-2 run over a the next 7:35 put the Paladins firmly in control and they never looked back in rolling to a win in Bob Richey's first game as head coach.

After taking a 47-31 lead into halftime, Furman opened the second half with a 19-7 run. The Paladins hit 5-of-6 from beyond the arc during that stretch and shot 66.7 percent, including 10-of-16 on 3-pointers, in the second half.

"It's like you would expect in a first game, I think we came out a little jittery. Give (Bob Jones) credit. They came out with some energy," Richey said. "We just had to settle our guys down and get back to who we are. We really focused on the defensive end and started to drive the ball. As you started to see that, the game turned."

Furman forced 21 turnovers and scored 33 points off them. The Paladins outrebounded the Bruins 50-24, led by Matt Rafferty's career-high 16 boards. It was Rafferty's first game back since Jan. 7 when an injury ended his sophomore season

"I don't care who you're playing, when you get 16 rebounds you're playing really hard," Richey said. "Matt's a warrior."

Sibley was 4-for-4 on 3-pointers and scored a game-high 23 points. Daniel Fowler scored 15 points and Jordan Lyons added 14 off the bench. John Davis (12), Andrew Brown (10) and Rafferty (10) also scored in double figures for Furman.

"It's been a long time since we've played and it's been a really long time for Matt, so it felt great just putting on the jersey for the first time in months," Sibley said. "Once we got going, the butterflies got out of our stomach and we started playing a whole lot better."

Jayson Barnhart scored 16 points to lead Bob Jones (1-4).

Furman will next host Elon at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Friday, November 10, 2017

A few things at stake as Furman hosts Citadel

P.J. Blazejowski is one of 13 Furman seniors who will be honored prior to
the Paladins' game against Citadel Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman.
It's Citadel.
It's Senior Day.
It's trying to help secure Furman's second FCS playoff bid since 2006.
It's trying to stay in contention for a Southern Conference championship.
It's trying to extend the Paladins' winning streak to seven for the first time this century.

Yep, there are just a few things on the line Saturday at 2 p.m. when the Paladins host Citadel as the SoCon's oldest rivalry has its 97th meeting.

No. 21 Furman (6-3, 5-1 SoCon) is looking to stay near the top of the SoCon standings as the Paladins and Wofford are the only teams with one league loss. The Terriers (8-1, 6-1) can lock up the SoCon's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs with a victory Saturday at 0-10 VMI.

Therefore the Paladins likely need to win out to earn a share of the SoCon championship and add a league-best 14th title year to the exterior wall of the old locker room at Paladin Stadium. Furman has two very different challenges in getting there with the Bulldogs on Saturday and a road trip to face the Bulldogs of Samford next Saturday. In SoCon play, Citadel leads the league in rushing offense (304.4 yards per game), while Samford leads in passing offense (375.7 yards per game).

First things first though as Furman goes for its seventh consecutive win Saturday - a feat last accomplished in 1999. With a bye last week, the Paladins have had two weeks to prepare for Citadel's potent triple-option attack. Furman has also had two weeks to add more wrinkles to an offense that will be facing a Bulldogs' defense that ranks No. 1 in SoCon play, allowing just 313.1 yards per game.

While Furman's dynamic duo of fullbacks Kealand Dirks and Antonio Wilcox have combined for more than 1,000 yards rushing during the six-game winning streak, they have gotten there through tweaks to the offense seemingly each week. Those tweaks have helped Furman average a league-best 36.3 points and a whopping 6.5 yards per play in SoCon games. The Paladins are second in league play in total offense (453.2 yards per game).

In other words, the offensive minds of new head coach Clay Hendrix, new offensive coordinator Drew Cronic, new associate head coach George Quarles and the rest of the staff have meshed well. Unlike many coordinators, Cronic works from the sideline while Quarles works as the eyes from above in the press box.

"We've had a few hiccups and we make those adjustments as we go, but for the most part it's gone smoothly. We're all on the same page," Hendrix said. "I've always been on staffs where everybody has gotten along, but this is as cohesive a group staff-wise as I've ever been around - offensively and defensively.
"I think there's something to be said for guys that are winners and guys that are smart."

Hendrix said when he was seeking an offensive coordinator he was intrigued by Cronic's ability to take the wing-T "to another level." Cronic joined Furman's staff after serving as head coach at NAIA member Reinhardt, where his squad averaged 51.1 points and 550.6 total yards a game last season.

"Watching some stuff Reinhardt did, I thought it was a good mixture of stuff I wanted to do," Hendrix said. "That's how it all started. Then George had become a (shot)gun RPO (run-pass option) guy who was really innovative offensively."

Hendrix and Cronic also coached together on Bobby Lamb's staff from 2002-06. Hendrix said Lamb hired Cronic over current Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, who was at Valdosta State at the time.

"I'd recruited Kirby in high school and it was obvious he was going to be a good coach, but he's a defensive guy. We needed a receiver coach. Drew had been coaching at James Madison at the time, but he's from Georgia and that's kind of how he got with us," Hendrix. "He's really demanding of our guys, and a no-nonsense, smart coach."

Receivers/special teams coach Brian Bratton was a player during the years Hendrix and Cronic coached together under Lamb. Bratton, who was the lone offensive assistant retained from Bruce Fowler's staff, is also quite involved in the game plan. Early on, he obviously helped get new coaches familiar with the players he'd already been around.

"He has an extensive background in the passing game and yet he was a guy that played one of those slots (in an option-style offense) when he was here. It's rare to find a guy that has the background in both," Hendrix said. "And then shoot, you've got (offensive line coach) Pete (Lusk), who played offensive line at Air Force, and (running backs coach) David (Sims), who played fullback and quarterback at Georgia Tech.
"I wanted to take the stuff that I knew was the hardest to defend and prepare for. The difference was that we could get just as good of players as we're playing against. We couldn't get that at Air Force."

Bratton's work with receivers has paid off in some big ways on offense this season. Quarterback P.J. Blazejowski has thrown a touchdown pass of at least 44 yards in seven different games this year. Furman's three leading receivers - Logan McCarter (20.2 yards per catch), Thomas Gordon (18.9) and Andy Schumpert (20.1) - have turned in long receptions all year.

Blazejowski, one of 13 seniors who will be honored prior to Saturday's game, has thrown for 1,595 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. He ranks second in the FCS in passing efficiency at 179.7, leads the country in passing yards per attempt (10.85) and is second in yards per completion (17.72).

"The goal is to win. You don't always know how you're going to do it, you just try to go execute and this week we ran the ball," Blazejowski said after Furman rushed for 363 yards in a 28-6 win at Western Carolina on Oct. 28. "Hopefully we can just keep it rolling."

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Men's basketball set to begin Richey era

2016-17 SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley. Photo courtesy of Furman.
The Bob Richey era for Furman men's basketball begins Friday night when the Paladins host Bob Jones in the 2017-18 season opener. For the first time in nearly 40 years, a new Furman men's basketball coach will be inheriting a program that's coming off a very successful season.

After guiding the Paladins to a share of their first Southern Conference regular season championship in 26 years last season, Niko Medved left to become the head coach at Drake. Prior to Medved, the last Furman men's basketball coach who left to become head coach at another Division I school was Joe Williams. After five NCAA Tournament appearances in eight seasons at Furman, Williams left in 1978 to coach Florida State.

Richey, who's been an assistant for the past six seasons, takes over the head coaching duties of a team that returns four of five starters. That includes 2016-17 SoCon Player of the Year Devin Sibley, who's the preseason pick to win it again this year.

With those numbers no doubt in mind, the SoCon media tabbed Furman as the No. 1 team in the SoCon preseason poll, while the SoCon coaches picked the Paladins to finish third.

Lofty expectations are being taken in stride by Richey as he enters his debut as a collegiate head coach.

"Those things (preseason polls) are fun, but that's not something we put a whole lot of attention into," Richey said. "We've got the best player in the league and we've also got some good players around him, so I told the team 'this is what you created.'
"We can't run from it or hide it. It's what we've built. We've just got to figure out ways to get better every single day."

That mindset was evident as Richey helped Medved completely turn around the program the last four years. The Paladins' record improved every year under Medved, culminating in a 23-12 overall record and a 14-4 mark in the SoCon last season. Furman had a 10-game win streak, tied the school's single-season record for wins, and reached the semifinals of the CIT last season.

For the Paladins to continue to improve the program this year, Sibley should be a big part of it. Sibley followed up Stephen Croone's SoCon Player of the Year honor in 2016, by giving Furman back-to-back winners last season. Sibley's on this year's Lou Henson Award Preseason Watch List. That award is presented to the top mid-major player in the nation.

Sibley averaged 17.7 points per game last season. He's joined in the backcourt by fellow seniors John Davis III (8.9 ppg) and Daniel Fowler (10.9 points 4.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists per game). Fowler and Sibley each made the preseason All-SoCon team.

"I was fortunate enough to be the primary recruiter of Devin out of high school and then when he got here, I was his position coach. Now I get to coach him as the head coach, so I've kind of been through every phase with him," Richey said. "It's been really rewarding to see his maturity, his development and his commitment. ... He never thinks he's doing anything good enough, which is why he's a great player."

The biggest departure, literally and figuratively, from last season in Kris Acox. Acox broke the school record for field goal percentage last season, shooting 62.8 percent. He finished as the all-time leader in field goal percentage for a career at 61.3 percent and scored 1,051 career points.

Junior Matt Rafferty looks to fill that void in the post after coming back from back surgery that cut his 2016-17 season short. He has a fully clean bill of health entering this season. In 50 career games, including 30 starts, Rafferty's averaged 7.8 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. 

All 10 SoCon teams kick off the season Friday. Some of the differences in the preseason polls, such as Mercer being picked to win the league by coaches and finish sixth by the media, indicate that it could be a wildly unpredictable and entertaining season.

"It's so even across the board. A lot of times, it's not about who is the best team. It's about who plays the best on that given night," Richey said. "They've got Citadel picked eighth, but there's not a coach in our league who's going to feel like playing those guys this year. ... (Western Carolina) Coach (Larry) Hunter has coached probably more than anybody in the league, but they're supposed to be the ninth-best team. It's not like you're just going to go up to Cullowhee and walk out with a W.
"Every single night is going to be a war. It always is."

Friday's tip-off at Timmons Arena is set for 7 p.m.

Paladins sign four
Mike Bothwell, Jaylon Pugh, Jalen Slawson and Andrew Taylor signed with Furman on Wednesday.

Bothwell is a 6-foot-3 guard from Willoughby, Ohio, who averaged 21 points, 7.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game in leading Cornerstone Christian Academy to a state title last season. Pugh is a 6-1 guard from Cartersville, Ga. who's scored 1,247 points entering his senior year at Cartersville High.

Slawson is a 6-7 forward from Pinewood Prep in Summerville, who's averaged 15.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. Taylor is a 6-2 guard from Corbin, Ky. Entering his final season at Corbin High, which also produced Furman legend Frank Selvy, Taylor has scored more than 2,000 points in his career. He's averaged 29.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Wyke earns SoCon Men's Soccer top honor

Furman's Laurence Wyke has earned Southern Conference Men's
Soccer Player of the Year honors. Photo courtesy of Furman.
The Furman men's soccer team had six players earn All-Southern Conference status this season led by SoCon Player of the Year Laurence Wyke. Wyke, a junior and transfer from Trinity University, leads the Paladins with nine goals. The junior midfielder ranks second in the SoCon in goals and total points (220).

Wyke has also played a role in Furman's nine shutouts this season. He's the first Paladin to earn Player of the Year honors since Coleton Henning in 2011 and is the 13th winner in school history.

Wyke was joined on the All-SoCon first team by senior Kevin Edelmann. SoCon coaches also placed freshman Cole McLagan, junior Danny Kierath, senior Kyle McLagan and freshman Ben Hale on the All-SoCon second team.

Cole McLagan and Hale also made the SoCon All-Freshman team.

Furman (12-4-3) opened the SoCon Tournament last Saturday with a 7-1 win over VMI. Wyke and Kierath each had a pair of goals to lead the Paladins, who outshot the Keydets 27-2. Third-seeded Furman advances to play No. 2 seed UNCG on the Paladins' Seagraves Field at Stone Stadium Friday at 6 p.m. The SoCon championship final will also be at Furman at 1 p.m. Sunday. It will be streamed by ESPN3.

Women's season ends with upset
The Furman women's soccer team saw its tremendous season come to an abrupt end last last Friday when Western Carolina upset the top-seeded Paladins 2-0 in the SoCon Tournament semifinals. The loss snapped a 12-game undefeated streak for Furman, which finished with a record of 13-3-2.

The Paladins were shut out despite a 19-11 advantage in shots, including a 10-6 edge in shots on goal. The two goals were the most allowed by Furman since its previous last loss, a 3-2 overtime defeat against UAB on Sept. 1. The Paladins' three losses were the only times they allowed at least two goals in a game all season.

"It's a disappointing way to have our season end, but we must give credit to Western Carolina," Furman coach Andrew Burr told "They played very well tonight and their keeper made some nice saves. It hurts for our seniors, but we appreciate all that they have done for Furman soccer during their careers."

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Defensive improvement validated at Western

Furman's Reynard Ellis tackles Western Carolina's Detrez Newsome
 during the Paladins' 28-6 win. Photo courtesy of Furman.
Now that I've had a few days to dry off from the frog-strangling rains at Western Carolina Saturday, here's some reflections and notes from Furman's 28-6 win over the Catamounts.

While there were some mighty impressive offensive performances from the Paladins' 600th win in school history and sixth consecutive victory this season, the biggest factor Saturday may have been the defense. It's a unit that somehow overcome injuries and youth to get better each week.

Furman (6-3, 5-1) held the eighth-highest scoring team in the country 33 points below its average and to 120 fewer total yards than its average. The Catamounts (6-3, 4-2) averaged 4.3 yards per play after entering Saturday averaging 6.5 yards per play. As a result, the Paladins have the SoCon's top scoring offense (36.3 points per game) and scoring defense (18.8) in conference games.

After a silly personal foul prevented Western from going three-and-out to start the game, it appeared Furman's defense was in danger of allowing a lengthy opening drive for a touchdown for the first time since each of the first three games (all losses) this season. But on 4th-and-2 from the Paladins' 12-yard line, Catamounts' star running back Detrez Newsome was stuffed short of the 10.

Later, P.J. Blazejowski made a rare error resulting in just his third interception this season. On the very next play though, Chris Washington forced Newsome to fumble and Furman's Bryan Okey recovered. Two plays later, Kealand Dirks ran 53 yards for a back-breaking touchdown that made it 21-0. The defense came up with another stop on a 4th-and-2 play in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.

Yes, the weather was miserable. Yes, Western Carolina lost star quarterback Tyrie Adams in the second quarter. Even with those factors, I doubt many people would've bet that 28 points would be enough to beat the Catamounts in Cullowhee.

Freshman Dillon Vann became the 15th different Paladin to record a sack this season Saturday, extending Furman's SoCon-leading total to 24 sacks this year. That's the largest number of Paladins with a sack since the 2001 national runner-up team had 38 sacks by 16 different players over their 12-2 season.

It's a defense that's relying on quite a few guys that were playing high school ball last season.

"In the third quarter, I counted seven freshman playing (defense) and six of them are true freshman. Now they've played nine games so they aren't freshmen anymore," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Chad Staggs and his staff have done a phenomenal job of bringing those guys along and changing schemes from week-to-week as needed to give them a chance to be successful."

Wilcox honored
Following Antonio Wilcox's career-high 202-yard rushing performance - and his seventh touchdown in the last four games - he was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Week. He also earned honorable mention FCS National Performer of the Week honors by the College Football Performance Awards.

Wilcox's performance marked the most rushing yards by a Paladin since Jerodis Williams ran for 239 against Western Carolina in 2012. Dirks added 119 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns in Saturday's win. It's the second year in a row that Dirks and Wilcox have both rushed for more than 100 yards against Western Carolina.

After combining for 122 yards rushing and two touchdowns over the first three games this season, the fullback duo of Dirks and Wilcox have combined to run for 1,002 yards and 14 touchdowns over the six-game winning streak.

Furman ranked No. 23
Furman made its first appearance in STATS FCS (media) Poll since Sept. 20, 2014 at No. 23 this week. Wofford, which is tied with the Paladins atop the SoCon standings, is No. 8, while Samford fell to 15th and Western Carolina to 24th.

The FCS Coaches Poll continues to be a head-scratcher as Furman received 20 votes this week - 26 fewer than Western Carolina.

The Paladins vaulted into the Athlon Sports FCS Power Poll, compiled weekly by FCS guru Craig Haley, at No. 17 this week. Furman is 13th in the Sagarin computer rankings and No. 16 in the Massey composite poll.

Blazejowski on watch list
Blazejowski is one of 36 FCS players on the College Football Performance Awards' FCS National Performer of the Year Watch List. The winner will be announced on Jan. 10.

Blazejowski has thrown for 1,595 yards and 14 touchdowns, and rushed for 225 yards and a score, this season. The senior captain is third in the country in passing efficiency (179.7), second in yards per completion (17.7), and No. 1 in yards per attempt (10.85).