|Furman 5-foot-8 corner Amir Trapp deflects a pass intended for Mercer's 6-2|
receiver David Durden in the Paladins' 45-10 win. Photo courtesy of Furman
A win in either of those games last year would've given Furman the outright SoCon championship and saved a whole lot of heartbreak on the FCS version of "Selection Sunday." Instead, the Paladins settled for a share of their league-best 14th football title and became just the second SoCon champion to not receive a bid to the FCS playoffs.
Last season's loss at ETSU was particularly painful for Furman. After taking a 13-6 lead into halftime, the Paladins seem unfazed by a 50-minute lightning delay that extended the break. Furman scored touchdowns on two of its first three possessions of the second half to push its lead to 27-6 with 8:19 left in the third quarter.
Then everything went belly up for the Paladins. The Buccaneers switched quarterbacks and senior Austin Herink threw for more than 200 yards over the last quarter-and-a-half. Meanwhile, Furman's offense completely disappeared with respective drives of five, nine, minus-10, minus-3 and six yards the rest of the way as ETSU rallied for a 29-27 win.
"I remember that feeling sitting on the bus after that game. If we would've just made one play anywhere...," Furman coach Clay Hendrix recalled. "They just played better than we did. At the end of the day, they made more plays than we did.
"I don't know how much that will play a part (Saturday), I just know they're a pretty good team coming in here."
The good news for Furman is Herink - who threw for a school record 434 yards in Furman's 56-35 win over ETSU in Greenville two years ago - is now a graduate assistant. The better news is the Paladins are on a completely different level from last September. This is especially true on offense where Hendrix says the difference is "night and day."
Because of injury and the weather cancellation the week before, last year's ETSU game marked Harris Roberts' first meaningful snaps at quarterback. Hendrix has said that it took the half the season last year for Furman to figure things out, especially when it came to developing an identity on offense.
This year, Darren Grainger has looked like more like a seasoned veteran rather than a redshirt freshman. Grainger has thrown for 694 yards and six touchdowns with just one interception, while rushing for 149 yards and four touchdowns. Coming off its 600-yard performance last Saturday, which included 410 yards rushing, Furman leads the SoCon in total offense at 469.5 yards per game.
"We're not remotely close to that same team that went up there last year," Hendrix said.
The Paladins should be tested Saturday by an ETSU unit that ranks No. 2 in the SoCon in total defense (343.8 yards allowed per game), No. 2 in rush defense (140.8) and No. 3 in pass defense (203). The Bucs (2-2, 0-1) are led by SoCon preseason defensive player of the year Nasir Player, who leads the team in sacks (1.5) and quarterback hurries (4).
That defense shined last week in ETSU's 20-14 win over Austin Peay. The Bucs didn't allow a point in the second half and held the Governors to 79 yards of total offense after halftime. The week before, Austin Peay won at Mercer 48-34.
"They're a physical, fast group with a lot of good players," Hendrix said. "They have a physical running game on offense, so they get to practice against that. That shows up in how they play (defensively)."
Like ETSU last Saturday, Furman's defense also posted a second half shutout in the Paladins' 45-10 win over Mercer. In handing the Bears their most lopsided FCS loss ever, Furman allowed just 283 yards of total offense, forced four turnovers and had two sacks. Mercer entered last week averaging 42.7 points and 432.3 yards per game and had only allowed two sacks for the season.
What particularly stood out is the improvement shown by Furman's pass defense since the 48-42 shootout loss at Georgia State. Furman 5-foot-8 corner Amir Trapp held his own against Mercer's 6-2 David Durden. Trapp had three pass break-ups while limiting Durden, the Bears leading receiver, to six catches for just 54 yards. Meanwhile on the other side, Travis Blackshear helped hold Tucker Cannon to two catches for 17 yards. Cannon entered last week with 13 receptions for 285 yards (21.9 per catch).
Also for Furman's pass defense last week, Bryan Okeh, DiMarcus Clay and Hugh Ryan each had their first collegiate interception, while Dae'One Wilkins had two break-ups and Darius Kearse had one.
"Amir's a guy who's really competitive. The Durden kid is a heck of a player and Amir took that as a challenge. He's played some really good football for us in the short time he's been here. For him, it's just about staying healthy," Hendrix said. "Travis doesn't play like a lot of corners from a tackling standpoint. He's had some big hits for us.
"I thought our secondary easily had their best day - maybe one of the better days that I remember having around here."
An intangible that might be interesting to track Saturday could be the weather. The game is set for a 1 p.m. kickoff, just like every other Furman home game this year. It will mark the earliest kickoff this season for ETSU, which hasn't started a game before 7:35 p.m. in September.
Temperature at 1 p.m. is forecast to be 84 degrees with a heat index of 90, and both those figures are predicted to rise throughout the afternoon. Hendrix made no bones about why he likes the early afternoon kickoffs this week.
"Our conditioning is one of the reasons I like to play at one o'clock. I think we're in really good shape and our depth has been good," Hendrix said. "I think we're playing through a few more bumps, bruises and dings than we could have in the past, so we've been a little more durable. We try to play a physical style on both sides of the ball."