Friday, November 29, 2019

Paladins set for chance to prove they belong

Devin Wynn has rushed for 1,121 yards and 14 touchdowns
this season for Furman. Photo courtesy of Furman
The bottom line when it comes to postseason play is always the same - survive and advance. That's what No. 16 Furman will look to do Saturday when it begins it's 18th trip to the FCS (I-AA) Playoffs at an 17th-ranked Austin Peay team making its FCS postseason debut.

"(Making the playoffs) is an extremely hard thing to do, and we're certainly excited to have a chance to play for a national championship," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his Monday press conference. "We're just trying to find a way to win a football game and extend your season another week. That's our true focus going forward."

But there could something broader at stake for the Paladins Saturday, who've found themselves on the playoff bubble each of the past three seasons. Two years ago, Furman got in and won at Elon of the revered Colonial Athletic Association before falling at Wofford in round two. Last year, the Paladins became the second Southern Conference champion ever to be left out of the field despite a 20-point win over the league's automatic qualifier.

After being ranked in the top 15 most of the season, Furman made it this year but was one of the last four teams to receive at at-large bid. In the glory years of the SoCon, a top three finish meant there was no bubble in sight. You were in. But when Appalachian State and Georgia Southern chose greener ($$$) pastures and Wednesday night football over playing for a national championship any time in the foreseeable future, it seems they took national respect for the SoCon with them.

A better example of how the SoCon is currently viewed nationally may be found in Wofford. The Terriers opened the season in the top 10, had experiments on offense that did not go well and started 0-2 to fall out of the polls. All they've done since is win eight consecutive FCS games by an average of 24.5 points per game. Their only loss since Sept. 14 was at Clemson and except for North Carolina, they scored as many points (14) as anybody else on the Tigers' schedule.

Being one of the hottest teams in the FCS wasn't enough to secure Wofford a national seed though. Instead, a South Dakota State (8-4) team that lost to a then 4-7 South Dakota team on the last day of the regular season got the No. 7 seed, while Central Arkansas (9-3) got the No. 8 seed despite a 34-0 home loss to unranked Southeastern Louisiana three weeks ago. Central Arkansas' resume also included one-point wins over Abilene Christian (5-7) and Northwestern State (3-9).

One would hope that turning the SoCon's national perception around could be boosted by Furman and Wofford winning on Saturday. While the Paladins are taking on the Governors for the first time ever, the Terriers will be hosting Kennesaw State and trying to avenge a second-round loss to the Owls last season.

Conference reputation and the Furman program's playoff experience won't mean a hill of beans when the kickoff happens at 1 p.m. The Paladins will be tasked with stopping what appears to be a high-flying offense.

Austin Peay features the second-leading receiver in the FCS in DeAngelo Wilson, who's caught 68 passes for 1,246 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. While Wilson averages 18.3 yards per catch, teammate Baniko Harley averages 18.2 yards per reception. Harley's caught 43 passes for 782 yards and six touchdowns. Meanwhile, Kentel Williams has rushed for 773 yards and nine touchdowns and quarterback JaVaughn Craig has 547 yards rushing and eight touchdowns for the Governors. Craig has thrown for 2,567 yards with 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.

"Schematically, they're a little bit like Western Carolina offensively. They're a shotgun team and the quarterback is athletic," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "(Not allowing big plays) really will be a key Saturday. I think that's the biggest reason we've been so good in scoring defense (18.8 points allowed per game).
"That will continue to be a goal of ours - make them (drive) the length of the field. It's hard to do that (offensively) without something happening - a penalty, turnover or a negative yards play. Hopefully we will continue that trend."

On the other side of the ball, a key matchup will be Furman's nationally fifth-ranked rushing offense (275.8 yards per game) against Austin Peay's nationally sixth-ranked rushing defense (86.5 yards allowed per game).

Furman had already seen some film of the Governors thanks to common opponents, which were played consecutively in September. Austin Peay used a pair of second half interception returns for touchdowns to win 48-34 at Mercer on Sept. 14 before losing at ETSU, 20-14, on Sept. 21. On Sept. 21, the Paladins had a 45-10 win over Mercer and followed that with a 17-10 win over ETSU, which went on to finish in last place in the SoCon.

"They're really talented on both sides of the ball. I was impressed by seeing them then (on film) in all phases of the game and they've certainly had a great year. They won their conference championship, which is always a great feat," Hendrix said. "It will certainly be a challenge for us to go to Clarksville (Tenn.) and play, but I know we're awfully excited about going. We've been a good road team all year. I think our kids do a great job of preparing, which will give us a chance to go play well."

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