Saturday, November 16, 2019

Autobid hopes die in another loss at Wofford

Wayne Anderson runs for a 63-yard touchdown in Furman's
24-7 loss at Wofford Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
SPARTANBURG - Another futile trip to Wofford will lead to another nervous selection Sunday in eight days for the seventh-ranked Furman football team. With a chance to lock up the Southern Conference's autobid, potentially take another step toward getting a top eight playoff seed, and earn its first outright league championship since 1990, the Paladins had another letdown at Gibbs Stadium Saturday.

No. 20 Wofford became the first team to stop Furman in the red zone in a high leverage situation all season, and the Terriers did it twice to secure a 24-7 win. It's the Paladins' seventh consecutive loss in Spartanburg. That's the longest road losing streak for Furman against any current SoCon team. Among former yearly opponents, only Appalachian State enjoyed a longer home win streak against the Paladins as Furman lost on each of its last nine trips to Boone.

After clinching at least a share of the SoCon title, Wofford (7-3, 6-1) got to celebrate more an hour later. When Citadel blew a 13-point fourth quarter lead in a 34-33 loss at Chattanooga, that gave the Terriers the league's autobid to the playoffs.

"Give them all the credit. My hats off to Coach (Josh) Conklin, his staff and team. They just played and coached a lot better than we did," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I don't think we had very much energy in the first half.
"Offensively, we couldn't get anything going. ... And then (defensively) they were able to pound it away at us."

Furman (7-4, 6-2) can still earn a share of the SoCon crown should Wofford lose at Citadel next Saturday, but that won't lessen any anxiety the following day during the playoff selection show. The Paladins found out last year that being the league champ doesn't guarantee anything. Still, one would imagine Furman would not fall out of the top 15 following Saturday's loss. When the Paladins received an at-large bid to the 2016 playoffs, they were ranked No. 22 after ending the regular season with a loss at Samford.

Facing a true option-based, run-heavy attack for the second time this season, Saturday was eerily similar to the first when the Paladins fell to Citadel, 27-10.

Against Citadel on Oct. 19: Furman received the opening kickoff and scored on its opening possession, but trailed 7-3 at the half; a Grayson Atkins' kickoff went out of bounds for the first time in his stellar career; Furman allowed 360 yards rushing, but was held to 172; the Paladins had just 44 yards on 5-of-25 passing; Furman lost by 17.

Against Wofford Saturday: Furman received the opening kickoff and scored on its opening possession, but trailed 14-7 at the half; an Atkins' kickoff went out of bounds for the second time in his stellar career; Furman allowed 288 yards rushing, but was held to 167; the Paladins had just 98 yards on 13-of-30 passing; Furman lost by 17.

Part of the Paladins' loss Saturday came in the trenches. Furman leading rusher Devin Wynn, who was averaging 7.1 yards a carry entering Saturday, was held to 56 yards on 15 carries (3.7 per carry). While the Paladins limited Wofford leading rusher Joe Newman to 40 yards on seven carries, tailback Blake Morgan went off for a career-high 147 yards on 22 carries.

"We didn't come out and execute the way we needed to," said Jordan Willis, who had a game-high eight tackles. "It was probably our best week of preparation, but once we got on the field they just wanted it more today.
"We were just waiting for somebody else to make the play today. Nobody took charge and went after it. ... Against the option, everyone has to have eyes on their keys. When one person doesn't, it leads to different explosive plays and we let them have too many."

While Furman had trouble with Wofford's rushing attack, the defense did enough to give the Paladins a chance. The Terriers had been averaging 45 points a game during their six-game winning streak against FCS teams entering Saturday, but had 21 before adding a fourth quarter field goal following the game's lone turnover.

"We didn't play very well on defense, but we did hang in there which I was proud of," Hendrix said.

After Wayne Anderson's 63-yard touchdown run on the fourth play of the game, Furman's offense just sputtered. Meanwhile, Wofford's offense had touchdown drives on its first two possessions before being forced to punt on its other three of the first half.

Mistakes and odd plays hurt Furman's offense in the second quarter. The Paladins crossed midfield on their first drive of the second before two of their three penalties for the game came on back-to-back plays to force a first-and-25 and effectively kill that drive.

After taking possession near midfield on the next drive, it ended on fourth-and-four when Hamp Sisson's pass to Wynn went for no gain. With the wind at their back and 49 seconds left in the half, Darren Grainger went in at quarterback for a drive that began at Furman's 18-yard line. It could be assumed Grainger went in because of his strong arm, but none of his passes got to show it. That drive ended on a third-and-six incompletion to Thomas Gordon that may have gone for three yards had it been caught.

Wofford opened the second half with a 76-yard scoring drive to go up 21-7. Just as the Terriers did on their first drive of the first half, they converted a fourth down on it giving them 12-of-14 fourth down conversions this season.

It appeared Furman was set to answer when it drove down on its ensuing possession and had first-and-goal from the Wofford three. After Wynn was stopped for no gain, Grainger entered the game at wide receiver for the first time ever. As everyone in the stadium might've expected, a jump ball pass was thrown to the 6-foot-4 Grainger. He could never jump though as he was hugged by Wofford's George Gbesee. While there was inexplicably no flag thrown, it was also a rather inexplicable call for a team that has dominated like no other in the red zone all year.

On third-and-goal, Wynn got two yards down to the one. On fourth down, it appeared Sisson may have snuck into the end zone but whistles stopped play as Furman had called timeout. Coming out of the break, Wynn was stopped for a loss of one to turn it over on downs.

"If we get that one in, it's a one-score possession late in the third quarter," Hendrix said. "That's just disappointing and that's on me. We didn't do what we had to do to get it in the end zone.
"We threw the fade route over there and didn't get a call. I'd like to have that one back, but you ought to be able to line up and get a yard. At the end of the day, we didn't block very good."

Entering Saturday, Furman had scored on 34-of-36 trips to the red zone with 32 touchdowns. The only two scoreless trips came in the fourth quarter of blowout wins over Mercer and VMI. After being stopped when going full force for a red zone score for the first time, it happened again in the fourth quarter. On fourth-and-goal at the one, Dominic Roberto was stopped for no gain with 42 seconds left.

While a score there might not have meant much in the grand scheme of things, a 24-14 loss may have been more aesthetically pleasing than a 24-7 one to poll voters. And also to committees who will determine Furman's future following next Saturday's regular season finale against Point.

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