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).

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