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."

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