Saturday, September 28, 2019

Defense lifts Paladins past ETSU

Furman's DiMarcus Clay returns an interception on ETSU's final offensive
play in the Paladins' 17-10 win Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Furman coach Clay Hendrix said ETSU's defense would present the 15th-ranked Paladins with its stiffest challenge yet - outside of Virginia Tech. As it turns out, that wasn't just "coach speak." But on a day when the Buccaneers routinely locked up Furman's offense, the defense kept providing the bail money.

For the second week in a row, the Paladins defense held an opponent under 300 yards of total offense as Furman held on for a 17-10 win at Paladin Stadium Saturday. Furman (3-2) improves to 2-0 in the Southern Conference for the first time since 2011.

"I'm thrilled to get a victory. ... I told them it was going to be exactly like it was. I knew it was going to be a fight," Hendrix said. "Defensively, just a phenomenal job by our guys. They just continue to get better and better.
"You've gotta find a way to win games like that and good teams do."

After putting up 45 points and 600 yards of total offense in last Saturday's win over Mercer, Furman looked to pick up where it left off after receiving the opening kickoff. But on a cloudy day in front of a sparse crowd, the energy level seemed a little low as the Paladins went three-and-out to start the game.

However, Furman came back with a nine-play, 80-yard drive on its next possession. On a day when Darren Grainger's cannon arm misfired a few times, it was on point when he zipped a pass to a well-covered Ryan DeLuca in the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown.

After a three-and-out for ETSU (2-3, 0-2), Furman's offense went back to work. The Paladins were at the Bucs' 15 again going the opposite way in the second quarter when they ran a similar play as the touchdown. This time, the ball slipped off DeLuca's fingers for an incompletion and Furman ended up settling for a 28-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins. Atkins' 15th consecutive made field goal established a new SoCon record.

It appeared more like business as usual for the SoCon's No. 1-rated offense as Furman led 10-0 and looked for more as it got the ball back with 11 minutes left in the second quarter. But a massive hit that resulted in a turnover seemed to shake up the Paladins. On 2nd-and-2, Corey Watkins easily got the first down and was looking for more when he was blindsided by ETSU's Artevius Smith. The Bucs recovered the ball at the Furman 42 as Watkins laid on the field motionless for a couple of minutes before leaving the game.

After the turnover, it took all of four ETSU runs to get on the board as Cameron Lewis ran for a six-yard touchdown. It remained a 10-7 game going into halftime.

"The fumble was huge," Hendrix said. "I really felt like we were getting ready to kind of take the game over.
"We didn't respond very good on defense. We missed a couple of tackles, they go down and score and the whole game changed."

ETSU tied the game on a 34-yard field goal by Tyler Keltner midway through the third quarter.

After going 3-of-10 passing in the first half, Grainger's first pass of the second half came on Furman's third possession after halftime. Grainger nearly slipped down for a loss after the snap but regained his stance and fired a deep ball to DeLuca, who fought through the defender and somehow made a 40-yard catch to the 11.

"I got past the corner and I thought it was going to be a little late, but I obviously didn't see Darren slip. He did a great job of recovering and making a play," DeLuca said. "He put it up there and I definitely thought there might have been interference, but I just tried to make a play."

Three plays later, Devin Wynn ran for six yards on 3rd-and-6 on the final play of the third quarter. For Furman, which entered Saturday ranked No. 1 in the SoCon in third down conversions at 49 percent, it was the first third down conversion of the game. Wynn scored from a yard out to open the fourth quarter to as the Paladins took a 17-10 lead.

Furman's defense came up with a pair of turnovers in the fourth quarter. Cally Chizik forced a fumble that Parker Stokes recovered at the ETSU 37. Two plays later, Grainger fired to the end zone but was picked off by Smith. With 3:06 left in the game, Furman's DiMarcus Clay intercepted Trey Mitchell's pass on third down.

"We just continued to talk about having more energy, especially in the second half," said captain Jordan Willis, who had 10 tackles. "We seemed kind of flat coming out, but once we picked it up everybody just continued to keep going and let loose."

With the Bucs still having all three timeouts, Furman needed at least a couple of first downs to run out the clock. The Paladins avoided disaster on the first play as Wayne Anderson fumbled an option pitch but recovered it. That was the last pitch of the day, but the ball did go in the air one more time when Grainger hit Avery Armstrong for 13 yards on 3rd-and-11. On 3rd-and-4, it appeared there was supposed to be a handoff but Grainger kept it and rolled to his right for a gain of four and a first down. Furman then kneeled out the clock.

"I think I said something to (offensive coordinator) George (Quarles) about that play (option pitch), but we didn't crack the safety. If we had cracked the safety, we might have had a big, big play," Hendrix said. "We executed that (3rd-and-11) about as well as you could execute it. ... Then (on 3rd-and-4) luckily, Darren made a heck of a play.
"I was proud we didn't have to send our defense back onto the field."

While ETSU was held to 290 yards, it outgained Furman by 22 yards and had a seven-minute edge in time of possession. The 268-yard total for the Paladins are the fewest in a victory since a 221-yard effort in a 17-3 win over S.C. State in 2015.

Watkins, who never returned after taking the big hit, finished with 58 yards on five carries to lead the Paladins. Wynn, who sat out the first quarter, and Devin Abrams each had 43 yards on 11 carries. Grainger was 6-of-14 for 97 yards passing and rushed for 24 yards on seven attempts.

"Offensively, we've had a lot of people tell us how good we are. When you have days like today, you get brought back to earth a little bit," Hendrix said. "It's nice to learn that lesson and still get a win."

Amir Trapp set his career-high for tackles in a game by the end of the first quarter Saturday and finished with 11 to share the team lead with Braden Gilby. Travis Blackshear and Elijah McKoy each had eight. Dru Seabrook got his team-leading fourth sack this season. That came on third down and forced an ETSU punt from its 16-yard line in a 10-10 game. After Trapp made a fair catch at the Furman 49, Grainger hit the 40-yard pass to DeLuca on the next play.

In addition to breaking the SoCon record for consecutive made field goals, Atkins was vitally important in the field position battle. He averaged 42.6 yards on five punts and put three of those inside the ETSU 20-yard line.

"Everybody's accountable for just doing their job. My job is to pin them inside the 20 and make my field goals when they come up," Atkins said. "Shout out to my coverage team because a lot of those inside the 20 have been downed. They've done an incredible job making me look good."

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