Friday, December 1, 2017

Furman-Wofford set for Round 2 in Round 2

Chinedu Okonya (98) celebrates Furman's win over Elon. Okonya has
4.5 of the Paladins' 34 sacks this season. Photo courtesy of Furman.
Perhaps the biggest game in the Furman-Wofford series comes 128 years after the first meeting Saturday at Gibbs Stadium. The Deep South's oldest rivalry resumes for the 92nd time, but for the first time ever in the FCS Playoffs. Saturday's winner advances to the quarterfinals against the North Dakota State-San Diego winner next weekend.

The Paladins (8-4) will try to avenge one loss a week after avenging another against Elon in the opening round. Furman lost the season opener at Wofford, 24-23, on a missed two-point conversion with 46 seconds left.

Playing the preseason Southern Conference favorite - who went on to live up to those expectations - that close on the road in Clay Hendrix's first game as head coach turned out to be a positive sign of things to come for Furman. But quite a few Paladins who were essential in the team winning eight of their last nine games either didn't play or had little impact in the season opener:

RB Antonio Wilcox - 150 carries, 790 yards, 14 TD, 5.3 ypc
RB Kealand Dirks - 152 carries, 720 yards, 9 TD, 4.7 ypc
TE Andy Schumpert - 27 receptions, 572 yards, 9 TD,  21.2 ypr
LB Reynard Ellis - 79 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 1 interception
LB Elijah McKoy - 70 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss
CB Darius Kearse - 34 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 4 PBU, 6 PD
CB Bradford Lemmons - 20 tackles, 2 PBU, 2 PD

(DNP - did not play)
RB Antonio Wilcox - 10 carries, 23 yards, 1 TD, 2.3 ypc
RB Kealand Dirks - DNP
TE Andy Schumpert - 1 reception, 13 yards, 0 TD
LB Reynard Ellis - DNP
LB Elijah McKoy - DNP
CB Darius Kearse - DNP
CB Bradford Lemmons - 0 tackles (played very little)

In addition to those listed above, Furman's offensive line will also have a different look Saturday from the opener. On that night, Reed Kroeber (left tackle), Chris Breedlove (right guard) and Bo Layton (right tackle) each made their first career start as did Schumpert, who shifted from receiver to tight end in the preseason.

While seniors Terrell Bush and Matthew Schmidt were All-SoCon mainstays at left guard and center, respectively, the rest of the front was tweaked during the season. Kroeber shifted to right guard with Andy Godwin inserted at left tackle. Jacob Conrad has started at right tackle as Layton has been sidelined by injury.

That offensive front has helped pave the way for a Furman running game that ranks 10th in the FCS at 240.1 yards rushing per game. They've also allowed the fewest sacks in the country with six.

"We're still a work in progress, but we've made really good strides up front," Hendrix said. "We didn't run it as good early in the year as I wanted to. I think a lot of that was figuring out how to go about it. I think in weeks 4, 5 and 6 we started feeling more comfortable in how to attack and knowing what our strengths are in the running game.
"If you can run it, then all of a sudden your defense gets better because they have to practice against it all the time."

That strong running game has offered up big play opportunities in the passing game and P.J. Blazejowski has cashed in. The senior captain has thrown for 2,204 yards, 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He's second in the country with a passing efficiency rating of 176.6. Seven of Blazejowski's touchdown throws have gone for at least 57 yards.

Schumpert has established a new record for Furman tight ends with his nine touchdown catches, two shy of the overall school record for touchdown receptions. Schumpert (21.2) and teammates Thomas Gordon (19.1) and Logan McCarter (18.6) easily rank 1-2-3 in the SoCon in yards per reception.

Furman's young defensive unit, which has 15 freshmen and sophomores on this week's two-deep depth chart, has improved throughout the year. The Paladins have developed depth on the defensive side of the ball that wasn't there in the opener. That night, Wofford's offense dominated the fourth quarter wearing down Furman to the point that the Paladins' late two-point conversion attempt was almost a given.

True freshmen Ellis and McKoy were pressed into duty after Furman lost three inside linebackers for the season in the first three weeks. Kearse and Lemmons joined the starting lineup at each cornerback following Furman's 56-35 win over ETSU, which threw for 434 yards. Defensive improvement this season has been highlighted by Furman's 34 sacks, which have been collected by 16 different Paladins. The previous two seasons combined, Furman had just 20 sacks.

"Defensively up front, we've been able to rush the passer because you can roll a few more guys (in and out) because of the depth we've built," Hendrix said. "For a lot of the guys, that (opener) was the first game they'd ever played in college."

Hendrix said that experience built since week one has not been limited to the players. He expects another barn-burner Saturday afternoon.

"That goes for all of us. That was my first game as a head coach and the first time we were together as a staff," Hendrix said. "You would think you'd always improve, but I think ours was a little bit more drastic because of where we started (0-3).
"I think it's going to be two pretty even teams and it will come down to who can execute and take care of the ball. I think the difference in the (first) game was we were twice inside the (Wofford) eight (yard line) and got three points. That's what's hurt us the last two weeks as well."

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