|Chinedu Okonya (98) celebrates Furman's win over Elon. Okonya has|
4.5 of the Paladins' 34 sacks this season. Photo courtesy of Furman.
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:
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.
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."