Friday, November 8, 2019

Paladins set to host improved Keydets

Devin Abrams rushed for a career-high 118 yards and two touchdowns in
Furman's 35-20 win at Chattanooga last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman
Following Furman's win at Chattanooga last week, Coach Clay Hendrix told his team how proud he was that every Southern Conference game it's played in his three years as coach has mattered. The further along the schedule the Paladins go this season, the more they matter including Saturday's home game against VMI at 1 p.m.

A win over the Keydets would be a big one in many ways for ninth-ranked Furman (6-3, 5-1). It would keep the Paladins in first place in the SoCon standings. The only other team with one conference loss is Wofford, which plays at Mercer. If Furman and the Terriers each win Saturday, it would essentially set up a SoCon championship game between the two next Saturday in Spartanburg. Although, Citadel could have something to say about that when it hosts Wofford in the final week of the season.

There's also the matter of the FCS playoffs. Furman is ranked ninth and 10th in this week's FCS STATS and Coaches polls, respectively. The Paladins are also ninth in the first poll released by the FCS Playoff Committee, which was announced on Wednesday. Being in that position with three games left, it would seem that a win Saturday - and another versus Point in two weeks - could essentially clinch a playoff bid for Furman. A loss to Wofford, which is currently ranked in both FCS polls, would seem unlikely to plummet the Paladins down the polls and out of playoff contention.

However, everyone knows how Furman was snubbed last season. The Paladins don't want that to happen again and the goal is obviously to win every game and the SoCon title. Furman has also positioned itself as a serious contender for one of the FCS' eight first-round byes should it win out.

For any of those future events to matter, only Saturday's game against VMI currently matters. The not-as-good news for Furman is that this is not the same VMI team that you can typically check off in the win column before the season even starts. At 4-5, VMI has matched its highest season win total in the last 16 years as the Keydets went 4-7 in 2008 in the middle of their 11-year SoCon hiatus. At 3-3 in the SoCon, VMI has matched its highest league win total for the fourth time in the last 40 years. That includes the 1981 team which was the last to post a winning record at 6-3-1.

"This is probably the best VMI team that I remember ever playing against," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "They're doing a lot of great things offensively. ... They present you some problems defensively because they give you some unusual looks.
"They've been in every game and have lost some close ones and won some close ones. It'll be a big challenge, but we're certainly excited to be in this position again of playing a meaningful game in November."

After facing the fourth-leading rusher in the FCS last week in Chattanooga's Ailym Ford, the Paladins face the third-leading rusher this week in Alex Ramsey. Ramsey has rushed for 1,078 yards and 20 touchdowns, four more than anyone else in the country, this season. Perhaps the most ironic thing about Ramsey's numbers is that VMI ranks 86th in the country as a team in rushing offense.

That's partly due to the fact that the Keydets still have a pass-heavy offense. Quarterback Reece Udinski has thrown 375 passes, third-most in the FCS, and has only suffered one interception. That was one of five turnovers made by the Keydets in their 43-35 home loss to Western Carolina last Saturday.

Udinski established an FCS record with 368 passes without an interception before last week's turnover. While he leads the SoCon at 292.3 yards passing per game, is second with 16 touchdowns and has only thrown the one pick, Udinski ranks sixth in the league in efficiency at 136.7.

"The biggest difference in their team right now is their running game is so different. Ramsey's a really, really good player. He's a bigger back who breaks tackles," Hendrix said. "Udinski's been phenomenal all year."

It looks like starting cornerback Amir Trapp (shoulder) could return this week after missing the last three games. That would be a nice boost to a defense that ranks No. 1 in the SoCon allowing 360 yards per game. In SoCon play, the Paladins have allowed 324.5 yards and only 14.7 points per game.

On the other side of the ball, Furman appears to have a good chance to continue to get back on track offensively. VMI ranks next-to-last in the SoCon and 113th in the country (Samford is 114th) in total defense allowing 467.6 yards per game.

Redshirt freshman Hamp Sisson appears to be set to make his first collegiate start after coming off the bench to spark Furman's offense last week. After entering with the Paladins down 9-0 midway through the second quarter, Sisson directed the offense to touchdowns on five of his seven series.

Just as Sisson took advantage of his opportunity last week, so did Devin Abrams. As the Paladins worked to get the fullback position more involved, Abrams carried for a career-high 118 yards and two touchdowns. Abrams was especially impressive on Furman's final drive of the day, which is capped with a 31-yard touchdown run on fourth down in the game's final seconds.

"The way you want to finish a game, that's about as good as you can draw it up. There were six minutes to go when we got it back and they had all three timeouts," Hendrix said. "It was certainly nice to finish the game like that."

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