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.

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