Saturday, October 26, 2019

Defense spurs Furman to business-like win

Furman captain Jordan Willis celebrates a big tackle for loss during the
Paladins' 28-7 win at Western Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
CULLOWHEE, N.C. - It wasn't the most spectacular Saturday this football season for No. 14 Furman, but it sure beat the previous one. After suffering its first FCS loss since last season in nasty weather last week, the Paladins rebounded in similar conditions Saturday. Thanks to a dominant third quarter, Furman pulled away for a 28-7 win at Western Carolina.

After taking a six-point lead into halftime, the Paladins (5-3, 4-1 Southern Conference) outscored the Catamounts 15-0 in the third quarter and outgained them 149-19 to take command. The win, combined with Wofford's victory over Chattanooga, pushes Furman back into a first-place tie in the SoCon with the Terriers.

"It was a business-like win and I like business-like wins," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Tough conditions again, so we've had a bunch of adversity but I thought - after their first drive - our defense played great.
"That's a different team (WCU) when 12 (quarterback Tyrie Adams) plays for them and he hasn't played but half their games. ... I'm just happy to get a win and move on."

Furman drove 45 yards in 37 seconds on its final drive of the first half thanks to two runs and two completions by Darren Grainger. That was capped by Grayson Atkins' 40-yard field goal into the wind. That gave the Paladins a 13-7 lead and little bit of momentum into halftime.

"The last drive (of the first half) on defense and on offense, we just played with a little more of a sense of urgency. I could just see us playing faster," Hendrix said. "We finally got to the quarterback a couple of times and then Darren made a couple of big plays in the two-minute drill."

Western Carolina (1-7, 0-5) started the second half on offense and got near midfield before Taylor Hodge stopped Adams for a loss of two. On the next play, Jonah Tibbs and Landon Lawrence combined for a sack to force a 3rd-and-31 and the Catamounts ended up having to punt.

After advancing from its own 29 to WCU's 36 on nothing but run plays, Furman faced 3rd-and-10. Grainger threw a screen slant pass to Thomas Gordon, who turned it into a touchdown. After the Catamounts were offsides on the extra point, Furman went for two and Devin Wynn ran it in to make it 21-7.

"The best thing today was how we came out in the third quarter and just took control," Hendrix said. "The pass to Thomas was something we haven't done. We caught them in a blitz, executed it and hit the big play."

Furman's defense forced a three-and-out on WCU's next possession, highlighted by Patrick Wells' open field tackle for a two-yard loss on a 3rd-and-7 screen pass. On the ensuing possession, Wynn rushed for 43 of the Paladins' 54 yards, including a three-yard touchdown to push the lead to 28-7 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter. Furman's defense kept up its effort after WCU's first series of the game to keep the Catamounts off the scoreboard the rest of the way.

In Furman's 44-38 win over WCU last season, Adams threw for 424 yards and ran for 48. On Saturday, the SoCon's preseason offensive player of the year was 18-of-22 passing, but for only 108 yards. He had 22 net yards rushing on 12 attempts.

"Our biggest thing was just being disciplined and communicating well on the field," said Furman spur Jordan Willis, who had seven tackles. "We started a little bit slow, but after the first drive we got it going and settled in. We knew if we could contain (Adams), we'd be fine."

Furman started the game by appearing to try to get Grainger going after last week's rough performance. While his first pass fell incomplete, the Paladins' second play was a 36-yard completion to Gordon to the WCU 26-yard line. A blindside block penalty and a sack pushed Furman back and the Paladins' settled for a 55-yard field goal by Atkins. His 18th consecutive make tied the school record for longest field goal held by Jon Croft Hollingsworth in Furman's 16-15 win at UCF in 2015.

The Catamounts answered with a 16-play, 75-yard drive that lasted over nine minutes. Adams ran for a seven-yard touchdown to cap it.

The Paladins put together its lone touchdown drive of the first half and their ensuing possession. The 72-yard drive was highlighted by a 52-yard run by Devin Abrams on a play where it appeared he was initially stopped at the line of scrimmage. Wynn scored from two yards out to end the drive.

Atkins' streak of made field goals ended after a low snap on a 44-yard attempt midway through the second quarter.

While Furman put up more yards in the first half (219) Saturday than it did in the entire game against Citadel (216), it wasn't exactly an offensive explosion. Furman joined North Greenville as the only WCU opponent to be held to one touchdown in the opening half this season. In SoCon play, Catamount opponents averaged 35.5 points per first half entering Saturday.

"Their (WCU) approach today was a little different than some other people. I think we took advantage of it some, but it hurt us a little bit too," Hendrix said. "We just got to continue to clean things up. We're at our best when we're multiple. ... That was something we probably didn't do enough of a week ago - let Darren make some plays with his feet."

After simply running clock in the fourth quarter, Furman finished with 392 total yards, including 296 rushing. Wynn rushed for 87 yards. Corey Watkins had 72 yards on seven carries, while Abrams had 62 yards on five attempts. Grainger was 4-of-10 passing for 96 yards and ran 11 times for 52 yards.

While it had 90 yards on its opening possession and 79 yards on its final possession in the last 3:34 of the game, Western Carolina had 95 total yards of offense on 34 plays in between. Furman, which had not recorded a sack since the ETSU game on Sept. 28, finished with three on Saturday. That was part of nine tackles-for-loss. Braden Gilby led the defense with nine tackles.

"Coming out of halftime, we wanted to start fast in the third quarter because we didn't start the game the way we should have. Everybody needed to be locked in and ready to go," Willis said. "We got that first stop and the offense carried their momentum over from the end of the first half."

Friday, October 25, 2019

Paladins look to get back on track at WCU

After having its eight-game win streak against FCS opponents snapped, Furman
will try to rebound Saturday at Western Carolina. Photo courtesy of Furman
For each of Clay Hendrix first two years as head coach at Furman, the Paladins had a big response when their backs were to the wall. After last week's stunning home loss to The Citadel, Furman is tasked with that again this season.

Unlike the past two years, in which Furman ended the regular season on winning streaks to make the FCS playoffs in 2017 and earn a share of the Southern Conference championship in 2018, the Paladins control their own destiny this time around. Being ranked No. 14 in both FCS polls could possibly allow Furman (4-3, 3-1) to suffer one more loss and still make the playoffs, but after being shunned last season the Paladins certainly want to secure the SoCon's autobid.

While potential showdowns for league supremacy at Chattanooga and at Wofford loom on the horizon, Furman cannot afford to look ahead. Given how poorly last Saturday went, one would expect the Paladins to be quite focused this Saturday when they play at Western Carolina (1-6, 0-4).

"There's nothing that matters anywhere except for beating Western Carolina. That's the only thing that should be on our mind," Hendrix said. "We took a punch and went down. We're sitting over there in the corner and the bell for round eight is fixing to ring. Now how are you going to respond? The fight's not over. ... I'll be surprised if our guys don't respond.
"I think part of our problem a little bit has been worried too much about the big picture and beyond."

Western Carolina goes as its dynamic, record-setting quarterback Tyrie Adams goes, and things have not gone well this season for the SoCon preseason offensive player of the year. A suspension, injuries and playing behind an entirely new offensive line have not equated for the kind of numbers Adams has been accustomed to. He's averaging 56.4 yards rushing per game with four touchdowns, and passing for 157.8 yards per game with six touchdowns and five interceptions.

Furman has been preparing to face either Adams or backup quarterback Will Jones as Adams is dealing with a turf toe injury. Adams played just four snaps in the Catamounts' 59-7 loss at Wofford last Saturday. In last season's 44-38 Furman win in Greenville, Adams threw for 424 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions and also rushed for 48 yards.

As a team, WCU ranks last in the SoCon in scoring offense (18.3 points per game), next-to-last in scoring defense (40.7 points allowed per game), last in total offense (323.6 yards per game) and seventh in total defense (452.1 yards allowed per game).

The Paladins, who average 280 yards rushing per game, could have a particularly juicy advantage there against WCU. Catamount opponents have rushed for 286.9 yards per game, 6.2 yards per carry and 22 touchdowns. Among FCS teams, only Gardner-Webb's run defense (292.1) is worse.

If Devin Wynn, who ranks fifth in the country averaging 7.91 yards per carry, and the rest of Furman's running backs get rolling Saturday, that should make life easier for quarterback Darren Grainger. Grainger is looking to bounce back from a 5-for-25 passing day for just 44 yards in last week's loss. The poor game resulted in Grainger's national passer ranking go from sixth to 27th.

"I think Darren will be fine (confidence wise)," Hendrix said. "I don't know if there's a guy on our team who cares more than Darren Grainger. You could see it in his eyes after that game."

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Furman's rainy homecoming ruined by Rainey

Furman defensive end Jonah Tibbs strips The Citadel quarterback
Brandon Rainey of the ball Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
The first game in the second half of Furman's regular season schedule couldn't have been more different from any in the first half. With a kickoff temperature of 56 degrees, Saturday's homecoming contest against rival The Citadel was far and away the chilliest game this year and the No. 8-ranked Paladins were colder.

It was also the wettest day of the season. While Furman's dreams of an unbeaten run through the Southern Conference and potentially earning an FCS playoff seed were washed away Saturday, rain wasn't the big problem. Rainey was. As in Bulldogs' quarterback Brandon Rainey, who was 100 percent healthy for the first time since their win at Georgia Tech. Rainey had 165 of Citadel's 360 yards rushing as the Bulldogs defeated the Paladins 27-10.

The loss snaps Furman's eight-game winning streak against FCS competition. The Paladins (4-3, 3-1) had previously only trailed FCS teams for all of 13 seconds this season, but trailed Saturday from the 9:10 mark of the first quarter on.

"Hats off to Citadel and Coach (Brent) Thompson. Their football team outplayed us in every way imaginable today," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Obviously, that starts with me. It was an all around frustrating day."

The Paladins took the opening kickoff and had solid drive that culminated in a 48-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins, his 17th consecutive successful try. The Bulldogs answered as Rainey kept for a 48-yard gain on their second play to reach the Furman 25. One of his four pass completions Saturday went for 12 yards on 3rd-and-10 later in the drive, which culminated in a five-yard touchdown run by Clay Harris.

Despite forcing three turnovers and having no penalties in the first half, Furman still trailed 7-3 until the third quarter. That's when Citadel (4-4, 2-2) won a battle of field position. The second half opened when Atkins' kickoff into the wind sailed out of bounds giving the Bulldogs the ball at the 35. Out of 95 kickoffs in his collegiate career, that was Atkins' first that ever landed out of bounds.

On the Bulldogs' first play from scrimmage, Nkem Njoku popped off a 23-yard run to the Furman 42. While Citadel had to punt, it was downed at the Furman five-yard line. After going three-and-out on that drive, the Paladins next drive started at the seven and it also was a three-and-out. This time Atkins' 25-yard punt set up Citadel at Furman's 31-yard line. Six plays later, Dante Smith ran for a four-yard touchdown as the Bulldogs led 14-3.

A touchback finally allowed Furman to start a drive away from its old goal line, but this drive was literally three-and-out. On third down, Grainger was sacked and stripped of the ball. Citadel recovered as the Furman 12 and two plays later, Remus Bulmer ran for an eight-yard touchdown to push the lead to 21-3 with 3:33 left in the third quarter.

"A regret I kind of have is I took the wind in the fourth quarter and the third quarter killed us," Hendrix said. "They just completely flipped the field on us."

A Furman offense that had touchdowns on eight of its first nine drives last time out at Samford on Oct. 5 finally found the end zone on its ensuing possession. Devin Wynn's four-yard touchdown run capped a 15-play drive took an agonizing 6:38 off the clock.

Trailing 21-10 with 11:55 left, Furman needed some quick stops and quick scores as the rain began to pour down sideways at Paladin Stadium. The Paladins got neither. Citadel's possession following the touchdown took 13 plays and shaved 7:11 off the clock before Jacob Godek hit a 30-yard field goal. After four consecutive incompletions on Furman's next drive, Godek hit a 46-yard field goal for the final margin.

"I told (offensive coordinator) George Quarles before the game if we're going to make some hay we'd better make it while we've got a chance to throw it around a little bit and we didn't," Hendrix said. "Trying to throw it around at the end of that game (in the weather conditions) was nil, but I don't want to take anything away from them. They just outplayed us in every way, shape and form."

While Furman's defense wasn't as lights out as it had been the past few weeks, limiting an opponent to 27 points could win a lot of college football games in 2019 - especially with an offense like Furman's. However, the Paladins never got things clicking on that side of the ball.

The running game wasn't bad, but wasn't as spectacular as it has been this season. The Paladins had 10 runs of 11 yards are more Saturday, but none longer than 15. More importantly, Furman failed to convert twice on third-and-one and once on fourth-and-one. Meanwhile, Grainger suffered his toughest day as a Paladin as he completed 5-of-25 passes for 44 yards.

"We couldn't get any chunk plays and we just couldn't get anything out of the passing game," Hendrix said. "How we're built, our plan is to hit a lot of those throws and we just didn't hit any of them. Darren had a really tough day, but he didn't get a whole lot of help either."

The Paladins started 0-of-5 on third down conversions before getting a meaningless one in the final seconds of the first half. Furman ended up 3-of-14 on third down and 1-of-4 on fourth. After putting up 647 yards of total offense at Samford, Furman had 216 Saturday. That's the fewest by the Paladins since a 10-7 loss at Presbyterian - in similarly lousy weather - in 2014. The 10-point output was the lowest at home since a 45-0 loss to Samford also in 2014 and also on homecoming.

"Our bunch will come back. I'll be shocked if they don't," Hendrix said. "We've been in this situation the last two years and won out. So that's our goal again."

Friday, October 18, 2019

Furman set to face rival Citadel for 99th time

Furman redshirt freshman linebacker Braden Gilby has
41 tackles this season. Photo courtesy of Furman
After concluding the first half of the regular season in style, No. 8-ranked Furman will look to pick up where it left off when the second half of the schedule begins this week against rival The Citadel. The 99th edition of the Southern Conference's oldest rivalry will kick off at 1 p.m. Saturday on homecoming at Paladin Stadium.

The Paladins (4-2, 3-0 SoCon) are coming off a 58-14 win at Samford on Oct. 5. Furman piled up 647 yards of total offense in the victory, while its defense shut down the Bulldogs' explosive offensive attack.

Saturday's version of Bulldog will offer the Paladins a completely different challenge. While Samford's pass happy attack has it ranked last in the FCS in time of possession at 21:55 a game, Citadel's triple-option offense is second in time of possession, averaging 36:15 per game. Citadel has 441 rushing attempts this season, 90 more than any other team in the country.

"We've invested in heavily in the offseason. It won't be our first time defending the triple option," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We do a lot of the same things ourselves offensively. It's nice when you can go out there give (the defense) a look you're going to see.
"We knew no matter what happened, we were going to have possessions against Samford. This game, you're going to have limited possessions. They go for it a lot on fourth down as well, so you've got to be ready."

While the Paladins have 162 fewer rushing attempts than the Bulldogs, they actually have more rushing yards than Citadel (3-4, 1-2) this season. Furman ranks fourth in the country at 298 rushing yards per game, while the Bulldogs rank No. 13 at 241.1 yards per game. In the blowout win at Samford, the Paladins piled up 460 yards on the ground led by Devin Wynn's career-high 217 yard effort.

Citadel is led by junior quarterback Brandon Rainey, who's taken a beating this season but is still producing. He's second in the country in rushing touchdowns with 13 and leads the Bulldogs in rushing at 72.2 yards per game. Rainey has also been an effective passer as eight of his 36 completions have gone for touchdowns. Raleigh Webb is Citadel's biggest receiving threat as he's caught 18 passes for 373 yards (20.7 yards per catch) and seven touchdowns.

In the Bulldogs' 35-17 win over Western Carolina last Saturday, Rainey ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns and completed 3-of-5 passes for 73 yards and three touchdowns.

"I think they're averaging over 18 yards a completion. They haven't thrown it a lot, but when they have, they've thrown it really well," Hendrix said. "It's the nature of the offense. ... That guy's been blocking, blocking and blocking you. Then he acts like he's going to, but runs by you.
"It just goes back to being disciplined individually."

Furman should be fully aware of the threat Webb is. During last year's game in Charleston, Webb hauled in the longest pass in school history as his 91-yard touchdown gave Citadel a 17-14 lead heading into the fourth quarter. With reserve quarterback JeMar Lincoln, who's since transferred, the Paladins rallied for a 28-17 win that day - their 60th victory in the series.

A 91-yard pass play notwithstanding, Furman's defense was terrific that day. It held Citadel to 157 yards rushing - 125 fewer than Citadel was averaging entering that day - on 46 attempts. A similar effort by a Furman defense that's allowed 34 combined points in SoCon play, including three in the second half, could make for a happy homecoming.

"I knew when I came back here, one thing you have to do to win a championship is defend the option because you're going to see it several times," Hendrix said. "You've got to just do your job.
"They're going to get their yards rushing. I'd rather look at what they're getting per rush. ... It's eliminating big plays, creating some negative plays and getting them off the field. You'd better be ready to play four downs."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Paladins rise to No. 8 in both FCS polls

Furman's Darren Grainger (4) and Devin Wynn (22) rank among
the national leaders in some FCS statistical categories.
Having a bye the week after your most dominant performance of the season may be seen as unfortunate timing for some football teams. However, Furman coach Clay Hendrix believes his team's off week smack dab in the middle of its 12-game regular season was just right.

Furman practiced in full pads last Tuesday and Wednesday, and lifted weights and watched film on Thursday before taking the weekend off. The Saturday off coincided with the school's fall break. That gives Paladins a couple more days off from class as they resumed their normal weekly schedule in preparation for the 99th meeting against rival The Citadel Saturday at Paladin Stadium.

"I thought it came at a good time for us. We've had a tough six-game schedule. I could tell our kids were excited to have the chance to get away, and I think they're excited about the rest of the season and about playing this week," Hendrix said at his weekly press conference Monday. "We tried to get a little better physically, mentally and academically. I thought it was a really productive time."

The Paladins returned to practice Monday as the eighth-ranked team in the country in this week's FCS' Coaches and STATS polls. It's the highest-ranking the Paladins have had since being ranked No. 7 prior to their first-round loss at Montana State in the 2006 FCS playoffs.

"We love being there (highly ranked), but Georgia probably loved being there too Saturday. They're not there anymore because they didn't take care of business," Hendrix said. "We're in a good spot. If we can take care of business, play well and win football games, everything kind of takes care of itself."

Furman piled up 647 yards of total offense in a 58-14 win at Samford its last time out. The offensive production marked the highest point total posted on the road by the Paladins since a 63-21 win at Chattanooga in the 2003 season finale.

Meanwhile, Furman's defense continued its dominant run thus far in SoCon play. The Paladins slowed down a Samford offense that had been averaging 43.4 points per game. They held ETSU - which was averaging 24.8 points - to 10, and Mercer - which had been averaging 42.7 points - to 10. Furman has allowed just 10 points combined in the second half against FCS competition, including three points - an ETSU field goal - in SoCon play.

"I'm really proud of our defense and the progress they've made there over the last few weeks," Hendrix said. "They probably haven't gotten enough credit for the job they've done, particularly in conference games and really since the Georgia State game.
"They're a group that's playing with a lot of confidence right now."

Paladins ranked elsewhere
In addition to ranking in the top 10 in both polls this week, Furman also ranks in the top 10 nationally in several statistical categories. In FCS stats, the Paladins rank:

  • No. 2 in red zone offense at 95.7 percent. Furman has scored on 22 of 23 trips to the red zone with 20 touchdowns this season. The only scoreless trip came when the Paladins led Mercer 45-10 late in the fourth quarter and used simple handoff plays to run out the clock.
  • No. 2 in rushing yards per carry at 6.41.
  • No. 3 in punt return defense at minus-0.29 yards per return. Opponents have a total of minus-two yards on seven returns.
  • No. 4 in rushing offense at 298 yards per game.
  • No. 6 in fewest penalties at 4.17 per game.
  • No. 10 in third down conversions at 50 percent.
  • No. 10 in fewest penalty yardage at 38.5 per game.
Individually, Furman redshirt freshman quarterback Darren Grainger ranks third in yards per completion (16.51), fourth in yards per attempts (9.84) and sixth in passing efficiency (174.9). Junior tailback Devin Wynn is No. 3 in rushing yards per carry at 8.41.

Thanks to his part of Furman's stellar punt return defense, junior Grayson Atkins ranks second in net punting (42.7 yards per punt). He's fourth in kickoff touchbacks with 25. Having not missed a field goal for a school-record 16 consecutive attempts, he obviously has made 100 percent of them this season. However, his five attempts aren't enough to register among the national leaders in field goal percentage.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Paladins third in SoCon men's hoops polls

Furman senior Jordan Lyons was selected to the All-SoCon
preseason team announced Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - Each of the past three men's basketball seasons, East Tennessee State, Furman, UNC Greensboro and Wofford have finished somewhere between first and fourth in the Southern Conference standings. According to the league's coaches and media, that's the expectation again this season.

One year after dominating the rest of the league, ETSU, UNCG. Furman and Wofford are the consensus picks to finish first, second, third and fourth, respectively, in the SoCon preseason polls released Monday. Those four teams went a combined 47-1 against the other six teams in the 2018-19 season. Furman picked up four first-place votes out of 30 in the media poll. ETSU got 20 first-place votes, while UNCG had six.

While the Paladins return four starters off a team that won a school record 25 games last season, the question that Furman coach Bob Richey has undoubtedly been asked about the most is who's replacing the one that's not. There's no doubt that Matt Rafferty turned his great career into a Hall of Fame one with a brilliant senior season, but this is the same question this program has grown accustomed to answering in a positive manner lately.

This time of year in 2016, it was who was going to replace Stephen Croone. In 2017, it was Kris Acox. In 2018, it was the big four of Geoff Beans, John Davis III, Daniel Fowler and Devin Sibley, who all helped install the fancy engine in the old clunker that Croone began restoring.

"The key to that is nobody saw any of those coming. You go all the way back to Stephen's senior year and we won - at that time, what seemed like a whopping - 19 games. Then everybody thought we were going to take a step back, and then all of a sudden guys emerge," Richey said. "Then Kris leaves and it's 'we don't really have a big guy,' but we had those seniors and a guard-led team. Matt and Andrew (Brown) were kind of the behind-the-scenes glue to that group. And then (last year), nobody saw it coming with Matt either.
"The wildest part when you look back on all this is the one that everybody's taking about the most now is Matt. But he was the one that people saw (coming on) the least."

Richey said the biggest reason there's been no decline, only continued elevation the past few years, is because of the foundation of the program is based on being a true team.

The reason last year's offense ran everything through Rafferty was because how well he could produce in every facet of the game. Richey believes that even when you lose a player like that, it can open up new avenues for success.

"We've got to try to get out and run a little bit more this year. We didn't want to necessarily wear Matt down last year doing that," Richey said. "That gives us a different dimension. There's no doubt we will lose different things (without Rafferty), but there's also some things this team is going to gain. I'll be interested to see how that manifests itself once we start to play."

Next year at this time, the question surrounding Furman basketball will likely be who's replacing Jordan Lyons. Lyons, the Paladins' lone senior, made the preseason All-SoCon team after averaging 16.2 points per game and hitting 34.7 percent of his 3-pointers.

Lyons became the first Paladin since 1969 to score at least 50 points in a game when he had 54 against North Greenville when he tied the NCAA record with 15 3-pointers. Lyons had a team-high 17 points in the Paladins upset win at reigning national champion Villanova.

"Jordan's worked really hard this offseason to get his game even more complete," Richey said. "We've seen growth in his game every year and I think this year, we're going to see the best version of him. There's no doubt in my mind he's going to be one of the best players in the league.
"Jordan has earned what he's earned as an all-conference guy. ... Nobody's talking about your Noah Gurley's, your Clay Mounce's and your Alex Hunter's, which is great. We're good with that. We want to showcase what we have during the season.
"Nobody saw it coming last year either. We just keep our head down and keep working."

Furman opens the season Nov. 5 at Gardner-Webb before taking on 2017-18 Final Four participant Loyola-Chicago in the home opener Nov. 8.

Coaches predict Furman women to win SoCon

Furman's Le'Jzae Davidson (10) and Celena Taborn were selected to the
preseason All-SoCon team announced Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman
ASHEVILLE, N.C. - With four starters returning for a team that finished just a few points shy of a Souhern Conference women's basketball championship last season, Furman has been picked to win the 2019-20 title by the league's head coaches. The Paladins, who received six out of eight first-place votes in the coaches poll, were picked to finish second by the league's media. The polls were released Monday at the SoCon's annual media day.

Mercer, which defeated Furman 66-63 in last year's final, was the media's choice to finish atop the standings for a third consecutive season. The Bears haven't lost to a SoCon team since the 2017 Tournament final.

Coaches may often consider being a preseason favorite to be a double-edged sword because of the pressure that comes with it, as well as the bulls-eye for other teams to shoot for. For Furman coach Jackie Carson, it certainly beats the alternative.

"The alternative is 10 years ago we were picked dead last and second-to-last in the two polls, so I'm very proud of where the program has gone in the last nine years," Carson said. "The nerves haven't hit yet. We're just enjoying the moment of having the respect of our peers in the conference, knowing how well we've built the program back up."

The Paladins are coming off a 19-14 season in which they went 9-5 in SoCon play and participated in the women's NIT for the second time in school history.

When it comes to feeling pressure for Furman, last year's tournament final run should provide the Paladins with a "been there, don't that" mentality. Coming so close to its first title since 2000 should provide plenty of motivation. After seeing a five-point fourth quarter lead disappear in last year's championship, Furman had three shots a game-tying 3-pointer over the final 20 seconds but couldn't get any to fall.

"That game was one of the best I've ever been a part of as a coach. It will probably be one of the best our girls will be involved in as a player. We were just on the wrong side of it," Carson said. "I think that game made us hungry and it's made us work harder in the preseason.
"That was a very young team with 13 freshmen and sophomores and we only have two seniors this year."

Two of Furman's four returning starters made the preseason All-SoCon team in Le'Jzae Davidson and Celena Taborn. Davidson led the Paladins and finished fourth in the SoCon in scoring last season at 16.4 points per game. The senior was the top free throw shooter in the SoCon at 84.4 percent last season and enters this season as Furman's all-time leader in 3-pointers with 235.

Taborn came back from double knee surgery last March to average 11.5 points and 5.6 rebounds per game last season. The junior shot 64.2 percent from the floor to lead the league and establish a new school record.

"Le'Jzae is just a competitor. She shows up day in and day out. She loves the big moments and we love giving the ball to her. I think she's found a way to way more efficient and be even a bigger weapon than she has in the past," Carson said. "I don't think many people realize the tremendous pain Celena played in all last season. It was really hard for her to bounce back (from the surgeries).
"She did a lot in the preseason to transform her body and we gave those knees some rest. She's just been phenomenal. I look forward to her having a great year and getting back to that stride she had after her freshman year."

Furman will have an exhibition against Converse at Timmons Arena on Nov. 2 before opening the regular season at Clemson on Nov. 6.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Furman turns SoCon showdown into beatdown

Devin Wynn had touchdown runs of 75 and 89 yards and a 61-yard touchdown
reception in Furman's 58-14 win at Samford. Photo courtesy of Furman
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - Less than three minutes into Saturday's showdown for first place in the Southern Conference, No. 14-ranked Furman found itself trailing an FCS opponent for the first time this season.

Evidently, the Paladins didn't take kindly to it.

After Samford easily drove down the field for a touchdown on the opening series of the game, the Paladins trailed for all of 13 seconds. That's how long it took for Devin Wynn to take an option pitch 75 yards untouched down the left sideline for a touchdown on Furman's first offensive play. That was the first of nine consecutive scoring drives, eight of which went for touchdowns, as the Paladins rolled to a 58-14 win.

"I just had a lot of confidence in our guys. I thought we'd play well," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I just thought the firmness with which we played today - the way our backs ran, how we blocked, Darren (Grainger) and defensively getting after those guys.
"I thought we'd only played one complete game and it was time for us to play another one. That one was pretty complete."

In snapping a three-game losing streak to Samford, Furman (4-2) moved to 3-0 in the SoCon. The only other team without a conference loss is Chattanooga (3-3, 2-0). The Paladins piled up 647 yards of total offense, the third-highest total in school history and the second 600-yard performance in the last three weeks. The other came in a 45-10 win over Mercer, the Bears' most lopsided loss to an FCS opponent. Saturday marked Samford's most lopsided loss in a SoCon game.

After Wynn's run helped tie things up at 7-7 just 3:11 into the game, it appeared the game was destined to be a shootout. But Furman's defense wasn't having that. After getting pushed around on Samford's opening 11-play, 75-yard drive, the Paladins defense forced back-to-back three-and-outs. Furman's offense followed those with a 38-yard touchdown from Darren Grainger to Thomas Gordon and a two-yard touchdown run by Devin Abrams.

"It was huge," Hendrix said of the early three-and-outs for Samford. "I was really proud of how the defense responded in the second half as well."

Samford got a couple of first downs on its next drive and reached midfield, but was forced to punt. While it flipped the field, it also set the table for Wynn to add to his career day. On the next play, Wynn took a handoff up the middle and raced 89 yards for a touchdown and the rout was on. That gave Wynn 174 yards in the first quarter, tying Jayson Foster's SoCon record for most rushing yards in a quarter.

"Just like the first one, it was like the Red Sea parted. The o-line did a phenomenal job and the coaches made another great call," Wynn said. "(The first run) was an amazing, great feeling because I've never had that one long play in my career at Furman. To get that off my back felt great."

Against the No. 1-ranked offense in the SoCon, Furman couldn't afford to let up and it didn't. The Paladins' two drives in the second quarter combined to take more than 10 minutes off the clock. They ended on Grainger-to-Gordon touchdowns connections of 17 and 25 yards, respectively, and the Paladins took a 42-14 lead into halftime.

It was more of the same after halftime. On the fourth play of the third quarter, Grainger avoided a sack and found Wynn standing all alone about 30 yards down the middle of the field. Wynn hauled it in and ran to the end zone for a 61-yard touchdown catch.

Furman was getting further into run-out-the-clock mode after Grainger was shaken up on a run on the next drive. He didn't return, but appeared to be okay. While their touchdown streak ended, the Paladins settled for a 46-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins. Atkins boomed it through the uprights extending his school record to 16 consecutive makes.

Samford got inside Furman's 10-yard line on each of its third quarter drives. But those ended on Jordan Willis' nine-yard tackle-for-loss on fourth down and an interception by defensive tackle Mike Sochovka. Sochovka batted the ball in the air then made a terrific diving catch before it hit the ground.

In its four games against FCS opponents this season, Furman has allowed just 10 combined points in the second half.

"The biggest thing is communication on the field," said Willis, who finished with six tackles, including three for a loss and a forced fumble. "We weren't finishing those first few games, so we've just been preaching, 'finish, finish, finish.'"

Wayne Anderson wrapped up the scoring when he capped an 11-play, 84-yard drive with a nine-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Furman emptied the bench throughout the second half as a total of 62 Paladins saw action. The final highlight of the day for the Paladins happened on their lone punt with less than five minutes to play. Rather than Atkins, who ranks second in the FCS in net punting, freshman Timmy Bleekrode got the call. His first career punt went 53 yards and was downed at the one-yard line.

"I just told them (in the locker room) the best thing about all of this is I think we can play even better," Hendrix said. "We will be challenged in different ways throughout the year, but they've been working good. It's an awesome way to go into a bye week."

Wynn finished with a career-high 217 yards rushing, the highest rushing total by a Paladin since Jerodis Williams ran for 239 against Western Carolina in 2012. The 89-yard touchdown run tied Williams for the second-longest in school history from that same game. Corey Watkins ran 10 times for 85 yards.

Grainger was 6-of-9 passing for 183 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Gordon's three touchdown catches tied the school record for a single-game, most recently done by Patrick Sprague against Citadel in 2007.

Furman's 58-point total is the most ever allowed by Samford in FCS play and the most for the Paladins since a 62-21 win over Presbyterian in 2011. The 14 points Furman allowed marks Samford's lowest output at home since a 24-9 loss to Chattanooga in 2011.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Paladins set for first-place battle at Samford

Senior captain Jordan Willis has a team-high 40 tackles
for Furman this season. Photo courtesy of Furman
In its first two Southern Conference games this football season, 14th-ranked Furman has allowed 10 points apiece. If that happens again on Saturday at Samford, chances are extremely high that the Paladins (3-2, 2-0) will have a happy bus ride home from Alabama.

Realistically, 11 points shouldn't be nearly enough for either team in this showdown for first place in the SoCon. After Furman's offense faced what could prove to be its biggest test this season in last Saturday's 17-10 win over ETSU, the defense could be in for its biggest test this week as Samford (3-2, 2-0) leads the SoCon in total offense (442.6 yards per game). Saturday will be a matchup of the league's No. 1 scoring offense against the No. 1 scoring defense as the Bulldogs average 43.4 points per game and the Paladins allow 21 points per game.

While the leading career passer in FCS history, Devlin Hodges, has finally departed, Samford's offense really hasn't changed. The Bulldogs have the second- and seventh-leading passers in the SoCon in starter Chris Oladokun and Liam Welch and are averaging 299.2 passing yards per game.

Welch started Samford's season-opening loss to Youngstown State before being relieved by Oladokun, and the South Florida transfer has started every game since. In addition to his 63 percent completion rate, 11 touchdown passes and four interceptions,  Oladokun can cause problems with his feet. He's Samford second-leading rusher with an average of 49.6 yards per game and has six touchdown runs.

"Defensively, it's almost a 180 after going against a team (ETSU) last week that turned the game into an inside drill," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "(Samford) Coach (Chris) Hatcher has a proven track record with quarterbacks and he's got a system he believes in that's certainly been really good for a long time.
"They're really big up front, almost building a little wall there and they get (the pass) out quick. Certainly you've got to find some ways to pressure them and we didn't do a very good job of that last year."

One thing not entirely clear this week is the health of Oladokun, who left last week's game against The Citadel and didn't return. Welch led a wild comeback as Samford rallied from a 38-24 deficit with six minutes to play and won 61-55 in four overtimes. For what its worth, Oladokun is still listed as the starter on Samford's depth chart in this week's game notes.

In Greenville last Saturday, Furman's defense held an opponent under 300 yards of total offense for the second consecutive week as ETSU had 290. Of particular note were the tackle totals for Furman's secondary, many of which came on run support.

Cornerback Amir Trapp established his career-high tackle day by the end of the first quarter with six and finished tied for the team lead with 11. Spur Jordan Willis had 10 tackles, including one for a loss. CornerTravis Blackshear had eight tackles. Trapp and Blackshear led the team in solo tackles last week with six and five, respectively. Corner Quandarius Weems had three solo stops off the bench in his first action since getting banged up in the season opener.

While their assignments will be much different this week, the tackling effort put forth by the defensive backs should give the group and coaches confidence. That boost could be important in this matchup that should see many of them on the field at the same time.

"People think corners don't want to tackle, but ours do a good job of it. We've needed them to be able to do that and they have," Hendrix said. "They're going to be spread out all over the field this week and a lot more space opportunities. The game won't be played in a phone booth (like the ETSU game) this week."

On the other side of the ball, Furman's offense will take its shot against a Samford unit that ranks last in the SoCon in rushing defense (264 yards allowed per game) and next-to-last in the league in scoring (38.8 points allowed per game) and total defense (458.4 yards allowed per game). Those numbers are skewed by the fact that the Bulldogs have played two games that have gone to multiple overtimes and have played run-heavy teams in Wofford and Citadel. Samford's defense has allowed 5.3 yards per play and 4.2 yards per carry, which rank second-best in the SoCon in both of those respective categories.

In its other SoCon win this season, Samford needed only one second half score to defeat Wofford in Spartanburg, 21-14. Last week, Citadel rushed for 266 yards against the Bulldogs but that came on 95 attempts for a 2.8 yards per carry average. Of the Citadel's seven pass plays, six went for completions of a total of 196 yards and two touchdowns. So while Samford has appeared to limit the run against teams that do very little besides running, it could be susceptible against passing and more balanced offenses.

There are a couple of other areas where the Paladins might have an advantage Saturday. Furman has a SoCon-best 12 sacks this season and Samford has allowed 12. In turnover margin, the Paladins are No. 2 in the SoCon at plus-two, while Samford is last in the league and 120th in the FCS at minus-eight. The Bulldogs have thrown eight interceptions and lost two fumbles, while their defense has two interceptions and no fumble recoveries.

After winning its first season opener since 2015 and sitting at 2-0 in the SoCon for the first time since 2011, Samford is another demon Furman will look to exorcise. The Bulldogs have won the last three meetings against Furman to become the only SoCon team with a winning record against the Paladins as they lead the series 11-10. Since the start of the 2016 season, seven of Furman's nine SoCon losses have been decided by seven points or less. The other two are Samford's wins in Greenville - 38-21 win in 2016 and 38-25 last season.

While that skid hasn't been brought up a ton, Hendrix said it's obviously something that players are well aware of.

"I think as a competitor when you're unsuccessful against somebody, you want to change that," Hendrix said. "Two years ago, we go down there for the last game of the season with a chance to win the conference championship and lose 26-20. ...  A year ago, we had the chance to go up three scores and the next thing you know the ball is going the other way (on a turnover) and the game totally flipped. That game turned about as quickly as any I can remember."

Downtown to host some Furman hoops again

Furman Athletic Director Jason Donnelly speaks during a press conference
at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday morning.
In the first event ever held at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, Jerry West scored 29 points to help the No. 1-ranked West Virginia men's basketball team rally from a six-point second half deficit and defeat Furman, 76-67, on Dec. 1, 1958. That season-opening victory was the Mountaineers' 37th consecutive Southern Conference win.

In the last college basketball game ever held at the Auditorium, Davidson rallied from a 10-point deficit with seven minutes to play and defeated Furman, 88-79 in overtime, on Feb. 26, 1996. That season-ending victory was the Wildcats' 17th consecutive win as they became the first team to go undefeated in SoCon play since Furman in 1975.

In the 38 years between those defeats, the Paladins' old home court saw a lot more Furman wins than losses. Now the Paladins are winning again and are headed back downtown again, for a few games at least. A press conference was held at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena Thursday morning to announce that Furman would hold three men's games and one women's game there this season.

"Weekends at the Well will only heighten the Arena's relationship with Furman University, as well as put a spotlight on the success of their basketball programs," BSWA General Manager Beth Paul said. "We look forward to reconnecting Paladin basketball to downtown Greenville and to creating a best-in-class experience for Furman's student-athletes, coaches, athletic staff, faculty, alumni, fans and students."

The "Weekends at the Well" schedule has Furman facing Winthrop on Dec. 14 at noon, UNC Greensboro on Jan. 11 at 7 p.m. and Wofford on Feb. 22 at noon. Prior to the UNCG game, the Furman women's team will face Samford there at 4:30.

Since the former Bi-Lo Center opened in 1998, the Furman men have played 19 games there. These three games will be the most the Paladins have played in a regular season there and be their first games there since an 80-77 overtime loss to College of Charleston on Feb. 19, 2007.

Furman is looking at this as a way to strengthen the connection between the school and the city of Greenville. It may also attract new fans to a product that's been very entertaining of late. The Paladin men were ranked in the top 25 for the first time ever last season and finished with a school-record 25 wins. Meanwhile, the Paladin women won 19 games and fought a Mercer team that hasn't lost to a SoCon team in three years down to the wire of last season's SoCon women's championship.

"We have a historic tradition of being part of this city. ... This is our opportunity to get back in the city and really further our brand," Furman Athletic Director Jason Donnelly said. "We've got a phenomenal basketball product with both of our men's and women's teams. They're both ready for this opportunity."

Paul opened Thursday's press conference before Donnelly spoke. Furman President Elizabeth Davis and Greenville Mayor Knox White also shared their thoughts. Those in attendance included Furman men's and women's head coaches, Bob Richey and Jackie Carson, along with Furman staff and cheerleaders.

Davis spoke about the many connections Furman continues to make with the city and downtown area and pointed out that 7,000 alumni reside in the area. White touched on the history Furman basketball made in downtown, including Frank Selvy's 100-point game at the old Textile Hall, Furman's home court prior to Memorial Auditorium.

"Some great things happened at the old Auditorium. Those memories are still out there and the stories are still told, but they never thought it would happen again downtown," White said. "So thank you to everyone who made this possible and for getting it down so quickly. ... I have no doubt the community will be all in on painting the town purple."

Making this collaboration happen was a big priority for Donnelly, who only began his AD duties in August. It was also a case of "been there, done that."

"Three games here this season is actually perfect. I've got to be honest. I borrowed this a little bit from a blueprint I did at Villanova. There we played on campus in a 6,500-seat arena and we'd also play downtown at the Wells Fargo Center in a 20,000-seat arena," Donnelly said. "The goal here is to have three great games here this season, to pack the house and have a great environment.
"We're still committed to a great on-campus environment at Timmons Arena, but to have three to five games here annually against the right opponents is the goal for the future."

The Well will always be a special place for Carson. It's where her legendary playing career wound down as a senior in 2000 when the facility hosted the SoCon Women's Tournament. She led the Paladins to double-digit wins in all three of their SoCon Tournament games year as they cut down the nets for the second time in school history.

"The feel around this arena when you're playing in it is incomparable. I can't wait for our girls to experience it," Carson said. "I think it truly shows we're Greenville's team and I would love for everyone to come see what our women's program is all about.
"We have a very passionate group of almost like internal fans. This opens a door for more."

As the Furman men have continued to pile up wins during Richey's coaching tenure, Timmons Arena has transformed into one of the toughest places to play in the league. The atmosphere, especially when a Wofford comes to town, has reached a level that the most optimistic Furman fan could've never imagined the once downtrodden program could reach.

Richey is confident home-court advantage won't be lost. In fact, he has visions of creating an even greater home court advantage in what could become the Paladins home away from home. That vision includes a Furman basketball game at The Well becoming an obvious choice for folks visiting downtown on a Saturday.

"Jason thinks big and I like that. ... There's risk to everything, but there's reward to everything. I'd rather talk about the reward because we've shown - through the four or five sellouts at Timmons last year and the energy we had in the postseason (home NIT) game - that we can take this to a new venue," Richey said. "Let's not put limiting beliefs on this. If you're saying 'this place is too big,' or 'we're going to lose home-court advantage,' that's not the train of thought that we're trying to get here. That's what permeated us for a long, long time.
"I challenge our fan base and supporters. When you hear about this, you've got to get behind it. Let's go do something big together. That's just how all this works. Somebody's got to step up and say, 'we can go do something that people don't think we can do.' That's what this program has been able to do a few times over the last few years. ... I just look at this as another opportunity to do that."