Friday, November 1, 2019

Paladins set for key battle at Chattanooga

Furman freshman linebacker Braden Gilby (43) and other Paladins wrap up
Western Carolina quarterback Tyrie Adams. Photo courtesy of Furman
While Wofford steps out of Southern Conference play this week for a trip down I-85 to Clemson Saturday, 13th-ranked Furman will look to cut the number of teams with one conference loss to two when it plays at Chattanooga at 2 p.m. It's the first of what could prove to be some big Saturdays in November. The Paladins (5-3, 4-1) and Terriers (5-2, 4-1) are tied for first place in the SoCon, each a half-game ahead of the Mocs (4-4, 3-1).

Chattanooga suffered its first conference loss in agonizing fashion at Wofford last Saturday, 35-34, in overtime. After taking a 28-21 lead with 2:08 to play, the Mocs' kickoff landed out of bounds giving the Terriers the ball at their own 35. Wofford had pass completions on two third downs and a 4th-and-10 as part of a 13-play scoring drive that ended on a touchdown with 19 seconds left. In overtime, the Mocs' potential game-winning two-point conversion pass was dropped by a receiver who had crossed in front of another open receiver.

"I think if you watch that game Saturday, I'm sure they're thinking they should've won," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "On the two-point play, that kid probably catches that ball nine-and-a-half out of 10 times. ... I kind of see them a lot like us. I think they were really challenged early in the year with their schedule.
"I think our guys certainly understand the importance of this week. They're all important, but if you win a few more, they become even more important."

In a conference filled with very different offenses, Chattanooga may be the most balanced the Paladins will see. The Mocs have rushed for 1,516 yards (189.5 per game) and passed for 1,448 (181 per game) this season, although the running numbers have received a boost of late as freshman Ailym Ford has burst on the scene.

At 5-foot-9, 205 pounds, Ford is a powerful back who's handled a workload like not many running backs are tasked with these days. He ranks seventh in the FCS with 893 yards and has run for nine touchdowns. In SoCon play, he's averaging 161.8 yards rushing and 30.5 carries a game.

"I think he's (Ford) maybe the best back we've played against - counting Georgia State and Virginia Tech," Hendrix said. "He's a smaller version of the Mercer kid (Tyray Devezin). He's not nearly as big, but he's a little more explosive and he breaks tackles against everybody. He's a hard guy to tackle and a hard guy to simulate."

Teams can't simply load up to key on Ford though. Not with 6-5, 240-pound fifth-year quarterback Nick Tiano taking snaps. He's thrown for 1,384 yards this season with seven touchdowns, but does have nine interceptions. Despite starting his career at Mississippi State, Tiano ranks in the top 10 in UTC school history in passing yards and touchdowns.

"He's a big guy, but a good athlete. He doesn't run it a lot, but he made a couple of big plays with his feet against Wofford," Hendrix said. "They're just solid in all phases and playing with a lot of confidence."

As a team, the Mocs have thrown 11 interceptions this season. In a game that could be a grind like last season's 16-10 Furman win in Greenville, the turnover battle could be a key. In last week's 28-7 win at Western Carolina, the Paladins' string of five consecutive games with at least one interception on defense ended. It was just the second time this season that Furman didn't force a turnover.

The Paladins did record three sacks last week for their first notches in that category since having one against ETSU on Sept. 28. It was part of another stellar performance by a defense that has responded very well after allowing opening-drive touchdowns in each of the last three games.

"We're certainly addressing that. We've got to start faster," Hendrix said. "I think on their (WCU) second series, Jordan Willis made a big hit on one of the ball the threw out in the flat. That kind of seemed to get us going and we were pretty solid after that."

On offense, Furman will try to put together back-to-back strong running games. After rushing for 163 yards at Virginia Tech, Furman had 410 against Mercer, then 171 against ETSU, then 460 at Samford, then 172 against The Citadel before 296 last week.

Meanwhile, Darren Grainger will look to continue to get back on track. While he completed just 4-of-10 passes last week, he made those four count. One came on Furman's opening drive that led to a field goal. The next two came on a two-minute drill as the first half ended on a key field goal by Grayson Atkins to push the Paladins' lead to 13-7. The last was a perfect tunnel screen that Thomas Gordon turned into a 36-yard touchdown.

"I think we all realize we have to be much better in the passing game. It's something we're working really hard at," Hendrix said. "I think all the pieces are in place to be really good in that phase.
"I thought we had a great two-minute drive. There was 37 seconds left in the half after they missed the field goal. I don't think a lot of guys could do what Darren did on that drive."

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