Friday, November 15, 2019

Furman looks to 'leave no doubt' one last time

Hamp Sisson threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns in his first start as
Furman defeated VMI 60-21 last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Saturday will be a day 357 days in the making for Furman's football team. That's how long it will have been since last year's FCS Playoff selection show, in which the Paladins became the second Southern Conference champion to ever be left out of the field.

Ever since that disappointing day, the team's mantra has been 'leave no doubt.' A victory Saturday would do just that. No. 7 Furman (7-3, 6-1) can clinch it's 15th SoCon title and - unlike last season - have the crown all to itself thus ensuring the league's autobid to the playoffs.

To accomplish this, the Paladins must do something they will have not done in 4,796 days - win at Wofford. This year's trip to Spartanburg should once again be a big challenge for Furman, which last won there on Sept. 30, 2006. After opening the season with two losses to fall from the top 10 to out of the polls entirely, the Terriers (6-3, 5-1) are back in at No. 20 after not losing an FCS game since. Only one of those six consecutive FCS wins was decided by less than 15 points - a 35-34 overtime win against Chattanooga.

"We're where we've wanted to be all along - in the last conference game having a chance to win the championship," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "It will certainly a big challenge against a really good Wofford team who was the pretty unanimous pick as the conference favorite coming into the year.
"Statistically, they're one of the best teams in many categories across the board. We're excited to go play. I think we will have a chance to have a great crowd and an incredible environment."

The winner of Citadel (6-4, 4-2) and Chattanooga (5-5, 4-2), who meet Saturday in Chattanooga, could find itself in the title picture with a loss by the Paladins. However, the Furman-Wofford matchup has all the makings of a championship fight between the two best teams in the league.

The Terriers and Paladins rank No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the SoCon in total offense, total defense, rushing offense, third-down conversion percentage and third-down defense. Wofford also leads the league in rushing defense, punt return average, sacks by, sacks against, opponent first downs and fourth-down conversion percentage. Meanwhile, Furman ranks No. 1 in the league in scoring offense, scoring defense, interceptions, punting average, field goal percentage, turnover margin, red zone offense and red zone defense.

After its vaunted option rushing attack was shut down by Kennesaw State in last year's playoffs, Wofford opened this season with a new approach on offense. After scoring 13 and 14 points in those first two losses, respectively, the Terriers got back to their roots of running the ball and have averaged 45 points a game in FCS play since.

Joe Newman has led Wofford's explosive offensive attack. Newman leads the Terriers in rushing with 805 yards (89.4 per game). He has 11 touchdowns and is third in the FCS in yards per carry at 7.5. After going 7-for-17 passing for 114 yards and three interceptions in Wofford's season-opening loss to S.C. State, and completing 3-of-6 for six yards in the game two loss to Samford, Newman's passing has significantly improved. In the seven games since, Newman's completed 45-of-77 throws (58.4 percent) for 816 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions.

"With the nature of good running football teams, you're going to get some good opportunities in the passing game. They've hit a lot of big plays, both running and passing," Hendrix said. "Newman has had a phenomenal year and he is clearly the guy that makes them go. ... I don't know how many times you've watched them where somebody comes free and they can't get him on the ground. He keeps plays alive.
"They've got a number of backs that can make big plays too. ... They're really good up front and really old."

Furman's offense will look to pick up where it left off in last week's 60-21 win over VMI. The Paladins had their third game with more than 600 yards of total offense this season. It was the first one under redshirt freshman quarterback Hamp Sisson, who completed 17-of-22 passes for 277 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions in his first collegiate start. Sisson also ran six times for 39 yards.

Devin Wynn, who's sixth in the country averaging 7.1 yards per carry, accounted for five touchdowns last week and is 18 yards away from 1,000 yards rushing this season. Senior receiver Thomas Gordon is 31 yards away from becoming the leading receiver in school history.

In each of Hendrix's three seasons as head coach, Furman has entered the SoCon finale with a shot at the conference championship. The Paladins needed a little help from other teams to make the playoffs in 2017 and to earn a share of the SoCon title in 2018. On Saturday, the scoreboard atop the hill at Gibbs Stadium will be the only one that matters.

"It's nice not having to count on anybody else. It's right there for us, other than there's a really good team we've got to play," Hendrix said. "It's fun to be able to just focus on one game and not worry about anything else.
"If you take care of business, play well and you're fortunate enough to win, there will be no doubt. If you don't, again you're leaving some doubt for somebody else to make a decision for you."

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