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:

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