Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Third-and-long: What, Furman worry?

Darren Grainger's elusiveness helped Furman convert quite a few third
downs in its 45-10 win over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
It's hard to imagine a more demoralizing feeling for a defensive player than doing your job on first and second down, only to give up a first down on third. It's got to be especially frustrating on third-and-long situations. Those hard times are exactly what Furman put on Mercer during the Paladins' 45-10 win at Paladin Stadium Saturday.

Furman has converted nearly half (24-of-49) of its third downs this season. That 49 percent showing leads the Southern Conference and ranks 17th nationally. If not for Saturday's lopsided score, that percentage would likely be even higher. The Paladins (2-2, 1-0) were 7-of-12 on third down Saturday despite not converting any of their three in the fourth quarter. With a 35-point lead going into the fourth, Furman was more invested in running the clock than anything else.

Of those 7-of-9 conversions in the first three quarters, six came on plays where the Paladins needed at least six yards. The success they had could largely be attributed to the decision-making, patience and quick feet of redshirt freshman quarterback Darren Grainger.

On Furman's 12-play touchdown drive in the first quarter, it faced 3rd-and-10 at the Mercer 28. After finding no open receiver, Grainger took off for a gain of 17. On their next drive, the Paladins had 3rd-and-12. Perhaps recalling what Grainger did on the previous third-and-long, Mercer's defense lost track of tight end Ryan Miller who was running free down the right sideline when Grainger hit him in stride for a 41-yard touchdown pass.

Furman had 3rd-and-13 on their last drive of the first half. A designed pass again turned into a run as Grainger scrambled for a 21-yard gain. Three plays later, Dominic Roberto ran for a two-yard touchdown and the Paladins pushed the lead to 28-7.

"I've been on both sides of that, so I'm glad he's on our side," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said of quarterbacks scrambling for first downs. "We tell our offensive linemen, 'just give him a chance.' Whether its a protection deal or a chance to make a play with his feet."
"That ability changes everything. ... He's had good anticipation for that kind of stuff and I think he's a real confident kid. He can recover sometimes because of his arm strength too."

Midway through the third quarter, Grainger rushed for five yards on 3rd-and-3, but was sacked for a loss of 14 on the next play. Mercer's lone sack led to a 3rd-and-24 situation. While they didn't convert, the Paladins made something out of it when Grainger hit Avery Armstrong for a gain of 14. That set up a 41-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins to make it 38-10.

Furman faced 3rd-and-6 on its final play of the third quarter. Grainger pitched on the option to Corey Watkins, who raced 83 yards for the final score of the game.

"We've historically been a good third-down team, but I would say most of that's probably because we've had a lot of third-and-shorts," Hendrix said. "You always hope to not have a lot of (third-and-longs), but certainly his feet bring a whole new dimension.
"You feel like you've got a chance."

Atkins honored again
For the second time this season, Atkins earned SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week honors. In addition to extending his school record streak for consecutive made field goals to 14, Atkins averaged 51 yards per punt thanks to a 69-yarder that rolled out of bounds at the six-yard line.

Perhaps more important than any of that was the job Atkins did on kickoffs. Mercer's David Durden entered Saturday ranked second in the country at 40.3 yards per kick return, but he had just three returns for 52 yards (17.3 per return) against Furman.

Four of Atkins' seven kickoffs went for touchbacks, while another was a perfect onside kick recovered by the Paladins - which they got to keep after a review this week. The three that Durden fielded were returned to the Mercer 29-, 19- and 14-yard lines, respectively.

"We did a great job in covering (kickoffs). That's something we've stressed and done a good job of that all year," Hendrix said. "Coach (Corico) Wright has done a great job with that kickoff team, instilling a demeanor in them, and we've obviously got a great kicker. I think they were kinda wanting (Durden) to bring one out and they did a good job of getting after him."

Red zone perfection ends
With a 45-10 lead and less than five minutes to play Saturday, the Paladins weren't likely to trot out Atkins on fourth-and-goal at the Bears' seven-yard line and they didn't. While it was the right thing to do, it snapped Furman's perfect run in the red zone this season.

The Paladins have scored on 15 of their 16 trips inside the opponents' 20-yard line this season, with 14 touchdowns. Furman's 11 rushing touchdowns in the red zone is tied for tops in the country.

Vann suffers injury
Hendrix said that junior bandit Dillon Vann (knee) would likely be out a while after he was carted off the field Saturday. It's a tough break for the team player, who switched from offense to defense this season after switching from defense to offense prior to last season.

Not much change in polls
After moving down a total of four spots following close losses to FBS opponents over the past two weeks, Furman remained No. 15 in this week's FCS Coaches poll following the blowout win. The Paladins moved up one to No. 16 in the FCS STATS poll.

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