Friday, September 13, 2019

Paladins set to face another FBS challenge

Furman freshman quarterback Darren Grainger runs
against Georgia State. Photo courtesy of Furman
Another week, another FBS test for Furman. This Saturday will be quite a different challenge though. After losing a shootout at a Georgia State program in its 10th year of existence last week, the 13th-ranked Paladins take on power-five FBS member Virginia Tech at noon Saturday.

Last week, the Paladins (1-1) faced a team not all that different from them - outside of the 20-something difference in scholarships. On a hot night in Atlanta, that difference played a role in Furman's 48-42 loss as the Paladins sorely missed injured starting cornerback Quandarius Weems as well as running back Carson Maples.

It's a different story this week.

"We have quite a few players on our team who got scholarship offers from Georgia State," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We don't have anybody who received one from Virginia Tech. I don't think we have a player on our team that was offered a walk-on spot at Virginia Tech.
"The bodies will be bigger. ... The team speed will increase. We'll go from (playing in front of) 20,000 to whatever (Lane Stadium) holds."

Saturday will mark Furman's third game at Virginia Tech in the past 11 years. The Paladins fell 42-3 to the Hokies in 2015 and lost 24-7 in 2008. Two games this season isn't much to judge from but based on the Paladins' production thus far, another single-digit point showing Saturday would be a surprising disappointment.

Furman has tallied 1,035 yards of total offense and scored 88 points over the first two weeks this season. Thanks to injuries, a tough schedule and a cancelled game, the Paladins didn't score its 88th point last season until Oct. 13. It's the most points scored in the first two games of a season since 2004, when Furman opened with wins over Presbyterian (52-7) and Samford (45-10).

It's not just the gaudy offensive numbers the Paladins have put up, the way they've went about it has given defenses plenty to prepare for. After Furman rushed for 369 yards in week one, Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said during Saturday's postgame press conference that he anticipated more option runs from Furman. Instead, the Panthers got a first-hand look at quarterback Darren Grainger's powerful arm.

"The strength of our offense is we are pretty multiple in what we do," Hendrix said. "We've certainly shown we can throw the football."

Grainger was 16-of-25 passing for 311 yards and four touchdowns - to four different receivers. He also rushed nine times for 53 yards and a score to collect the fourth-highest single game of total offense (364 yards) in school history. The performance earned him the FCS national freshman of the week and Southern Conference offensive player of the week honors.

The numbers speak for themselves. What they don't show is the poise in the pocket and the confidence Grainger exudes. Most of his stats Saturday came after taking a vicious hit from a GSU defender who was ejected for targeting.

"I'm always going to compete until the end. I'm not getting taken out by a little injury or nothing like that," Grainger said. "I just love these guys so much, nothing's going to take me out."

During his limited time last season, Grainger had some turnover issues. Even while taking snaps from rotating centers this year, Grainger has protected the ball and made good decisions on throws. Furman's lone turnover this season came on an ill-advised wide receiver pass in the fourth quarter last Saturday.

"Sometimes guys don't want to run it, or they decide too early to run," Hendrix said. "I think Darren's been pretty good going through his progressions. He's a really aware kid of what's going on around him and the most important thing is taking care of the ball."

Grainger simply hasn't looked like a freshman with three career starts under his belt. Especially one who only played a year of quarterback in high school.

"Darren's a dog. He's young, but he can throw that ball for sure," said senior Thomas Gordon, who caught eight passes for 163 yards and a touchdown last week. "We just want to keep on getting better. We work on our connection every day. The sky's the limit for him."

Defensively, Furman may not be challenged by a true dual-threat quarterback for the first time this season Saturday. However, Virginia Tech quarterback Ryan Willis did run for 354 yards and four touchdowns last season. The 6-foot-4 senior also threw for 2,716 yards with 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 2018.

This year, Willis has thrown for 616 yards with six touchdowns and three interceptions. Hendrix expects Virginia Tech (1-1) to try to run the ball more Saturday. Thus far, the Hokies are averaging just 114.5 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per carry.

"We will probably continue to see offenses try to spread us out. ... I think they'll probably try to run it more just because of their size," Hendrix said. "We're really not that far from doing some really good things defensively. ... We've got to tackle better and do the things that we have total control over.
"One of our problems is when we get in a bad spot and we start trying to do somebody else's job. Next thing you know, you're not doing your job very well."

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