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.

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