Thursday, March 18, 2021

Second-half defense delivers again for Furman

Furman's Devin Wynn trucks an ETSU defender into the end zone
on the go-ahead touchdown Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the second consecutive week, Furman rallied from a double-digit deficit in the second half to pull out a victory Saturday. While big plays offensively obviously put the Paladins on top, neither upset would've been possible without a great defensive showing down the stretch.

After limiting Samford to 41 yards and one first down in the fourth quarter of Furman's 44-37 overtime win on March 6, the Paladins held ETSU to just 119 yards and three points in the second half of their 17-13 win on Saturday. Those three points only came after a controversial roughing the passer penalty on fourth down that extended the drive.

These efforts are just more chapters in a trend for Furman's defense. In the last 12 Southern Conference games dating back to the 2019 SoCon opener, the Paladins have allowed six touchdowns and a total of 64 points in the second half. Twenty of those 64 came in the loss to Citadel in 2019. Of those 20 points, 17 came after Citadel drives that began at Furman's 31-, 12- and 35-yard line, respectively. In the fourth quarter at Wofford last year, a field goal by the Terriers came after a drive that started at Furman's 35.

"It's all about preparation during the week. We wouldn't be able to play like that if we didn't practice well and we had a solid week," said freshman linebacker Nick Kuzemka, who has a team-high 28 tackles and 2.5 for loss this season, after Saturday's win. "We just executed our scheme."

Two big parts of Furman's success on defense this year have been getting off the field after third downs and stopping the run. The Paladins (3-1, 3-1 Southern Conference) lead the SoCon in third-down defense as opponents have converted just 14-of-50 attempts (28 percent) this season. That figure ranks 11th nationally and each of the 10 teams ahead of Furman have played two games or less.

Furman also leads the SoCon and ranks 14th nationally in rushing defense, as it's allowed 82.8 yards per game on the ground. Again, every team ahead of the Paladins nationally has played no more than two games outside of James Madison's three.

"(Defensive coordinator) Duane Vaughn's done a phenomenal job with that group," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "They just continue to get better."

Wynn zeroes in on top 10

Furman senior running back Devin Wynn may have had the play of the day and hit of the day Saturday. The play of the day came on a beautifully executed play in which Hamp Sisson faked an option, pulled back and hit a wide open Wynn down the left sideline for a 27-yard gain. That was the Paladins' first big play and seemed to wake up the offense. A few plays later, Furman finally got on the board when Wynn muscled his way into the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown.

Speaking of Wynn muscling his way in for a touchdown. The Paladins' next drive culminated when Wynn sent an ETSU defender sprawling ass over teakettle into the end zone. Wynn's Herschel Walker-at-Georgia impression gave Furman the lead for good

"I just love Devin," Hendrix said. "He's matured so much and is such a competitor."

Wynn leads the SoCon and ranks 10th nationally with 104.5 yards rushing per game. His 113-yard, two-touchdown performance Saturday leaves him poised to jump into the top 10 of both categories in school history this Saturday when Furman hosts Chattanooga at noon.

Wynn is currently 11th in all-time rushing with 2,375 yards. That's 20 yards behind 10th-place Hank McCloud and 71 behind ninth-place Mike Glenn. Wynn is also 11th in rushing touchdowns with 24, one behind 10th-place Larry Robinson.

Special teams improve

After a bit of a shaky start to the season, kickoff specialist Axel Lepvreau was solid on Saturday. The freshman from La Roche Sur Yon, France, had three of his four kickoffs go for touchbacks. The only one that didn't resulted in ETSU beginning at its own 23 - two yards behind where they would've started on another touchback. Furman leads the SoCon in kickoff coverage with a net average of 43.7 yards per kickoff.

Meanwhile, Timmy Bleekrode remained solid on field goals and punting. Bleekrode nailed a career-long 47-yard field goal to cap Furman's scoring Saturday and is 4-of-4 on attempts this season. Paladin kickers have made 28-of-33 field goals dating back to last season, including 14-of-18 from 40-plus yards out.

Bleekrode put four of his six punts Saturday inside the 20 and had a long punt of 55 yards. The sophomore ranks first in the SoCon and fifth nationally with an average of 44.1 yards per punt.

Lack of sacks

While Furman's defense has played great overall and very well after halftime, Hendrix said he would like to see more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Paladins have a SoCon-worst three sacks this season, all of which came in the 14-13 loss at VMI. Defensive end Dru Seabrook has two of those three, but it currently out with an arm injury. Seabrook missed the ETSU game and is not listed on this week's depth chart.

Changing it up

Furman typically travels on Fridays for road games. However last Saturday, the Paladins made the trip to Johnson City, Tenn. on the morning of for the 1 p.m. kickoff. While things weren't going so well for Furman in the first half, Hendrix said that he didn't feel the travel change was a factor.

"In the era of COVID, I didn't want to deal with a lot of hotel protocols," Hendrix said. "Our kids managed it well. ... It was pretty smooth."

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Little things added up in Furman comeback

Darius Kearse had five tackles and a big interception in Furman's
44-37 overtime win against Samford. Photo courtesy of Furman

Following the second-largest comeback win in school history on Saturday, Furman football coach Clay Hendrix praised his team's guts and pointed out that it was a "team effort" in every sense of the word. Every little detail seemed to matter in the Paladins' 44-37 overtime win against Samford.

The biggest "little detail" likely came on Furman's 73-yard touchdown with less than three minutes to play that helped force overtime. The throwback screen was a terrific call with great execution by quarterback Hamp Sisson and topped by junior tight end Ryan Miller's dazzling speed. But the play might've not gone all the way without an unselfish play by receiver Ryan DeLuca. Only one Samford defender seemed to have an angle on Miller. It was the cornerback Coutrell Plair, who started the play covering DeLuca before peeling away toward Miller.

As DeLuca went near the action, he appeared to have a chance to make a vicious block on Plair. That would've undoubtedly drawn a big reaction from teammates and fans, but also would've undoubtedly drawn a flag. In 21st century football, a big enough hit by an offensive player downfield seemingly always generates a "blindside block" penalty no matter where a defender is hit.

Instead of the big hit/dumb penalty, DeLuca managed to slide his way in front of Plair with his hands held up - to help avoid any kind of blocking penalty. It was kind of like a moving screen. While those are illegal in basketball, they're not in football and DeLuca's helped ensure Miller's touchdown. DeLuca also had 114 yards receiving and a touchdown that helped cut Samford's lead to 37-30 with just over six minutes left.

"That was one of the great things that I imagine not very many people noticed at the time," Hendrix said. "DeLuca got in the way of the last guy who had a chance and it was a corner, so I imagine he can run pretty good too. ... That's a textbook way we coach to block in that situation."

Senior cornerback Darius Kearse had another little thing early in the game when he made a touchdown-saving tackle after running down Samford running back Jay Stanton from behind on a 64-yard run. Outside of that run, Stanton had 22 yards on 17 carries. The Bulldogs went on to score on that drive anyway to take a 24-7 lead after one quarter, but the next big play by Kearse was a definite game-changer.

Samford was leading 34-20 midway through the third quarter and had all the momentum after an interception return to midfield. A third score in as many drives that half could've conceivably given the Bulldogs an insurmountable lead. Two plays later though, Kearse came up with an interception and a 34-yard return to the Samford 30. That led to Timmy Bleekrode 32-yard field goal that cut the lead to 34-23.

"Darius has been a really good leader for us. Obviously, that play was huge," Hendrix said. "Then just the hustle in running the kid down earlier in the game. Darius can run, but he's not the fastest guy on our team. I think there's just a lot of 'want to' there. I'm just happy for him being a fourth-year guy in that first class we signed."

Youth piling up tackles

While Hendrix has called this his first "old" team he's had during his fourth year as head coach, 15th-ranked Furman (2-1, 2-1 Southern Conference) has several underclassmen who are getting plenty of game time. The five leading tacklers for the Paladins Saturday were freshmen and sophomores, led by walk-on redshirt freshman Nick Kuzemka with nine stops. He has a team-high 21 tackles this season.

Sophomore Cally Chizik, who started in place of injured cornerback Travis Blackshear, had a nice day long before sealing the win with a fumble recovery in overtime. Chizik had six tackles, including one for a loss. Sophomore Braden Gilby had six tackles, a forced fumble and a quarterback hurry. Redshirt freshmen Bryce McCormick and Kam Brinson also had six tackles apiece.

"I think we've got some good young talent. We've been able to play a lot of people on that side of the ball particularly. That's the biggest way they get better," Hendrix said. "We've got a little competition in spots for reps in a game. That's another thing that only makes you better and what you love to have."

Kearse had five tackles, as did linemen Cameron Coleman and Matt Sochovka. Coleman, who had 1.5 tackles for loss, and Sochovka spearheaded a fourth-quarter defensive effort that limited Samford to 41 yards and one first down.

"Those guys up front have been really solid. This will be a really big week for them because this (ETSU) bunch is kind of black-and-blue the way they do it," Hendrix said. "The two (running) backs are really good. ... They're going to be something we've not seen so far."

Hendrix said Blackshear, who injured his hamstring at VMI, should return this Saturday at ETSU. Defensive end Dru Seabrook (arm) is likely out this week.

Gilby, who made seven starts as a freshman last season, could return to the starting lineup this week with the absence of Jalen Miller. Miller is suspended for the first half of this week's game after being called for targeting in the overtime session. While replays showed it was the correct call, it was a bit of a bad luck for Furman. There was no flag on the play and the Samford player who was tackled on the play was jogging off before abruptly crumpling to the ground. There was an injury timeout and then the Bulldogs lined up to run the next play. Just before the snap, officials stopped play for a video review.

Another odd Saturday

While it wasn't quite as strange at the VMI game a week earlier, there were some oddities Saturday. The very first play of the game and the very last play game had the same result - a critical Samford turnover. Both times, it was a matter of a Paladin shoving a Bulldog into their teammate to force the fumble. Samford had no fumbles in between that opening kickoff and final play of overtime.

After being sacked nine times at VMI, Sisson wasn't sacked against Samford.

For the second week in a row, a seemingly lifeless Furman offense came to life in its final possession of the first half. The Paladins' last drive of the first half this season:

  • vs. Western Carolina: 14 plays, 93 yards, TD with 21 seconds left
  • at VMI: 14 plays, 80 yards, TD with 15 seconds left
  • vs. Samford: 9 plays, 75 yards, TD with 31 seconds left
For the third time in as many games, Furman had at least 82 offensive plays with 84 for 525 yards of total offense. The Paladins, who have had 104 more offensive plays than their opponents this season, are averaging a 38:02 in time of possession.

Furman's rally from a 17-point deficit tied for the second-biggest comeback for a win in school history (since 1973) and the biggest ever at Paladin Stadium. The Paladins trailed 17-0 at Samford in 2015 before recording a 20-17 win. Furman's biggest comeback was from a 35-14 deficit at Davidson in a 63-55 win in 1979. 

Miller, Bleekrode, Sisson honored

Ryan Miller was named SoCon offensive player of the week after his 96-yard, two-touchdown performance. Bleekrode is the SoCon's special teams player of the week. Bleekrode connected on each of his three field goals and five extra points, while also averaging 47.2 yards on five punts.

Sisson was named the SoCon's student-athlete of the week. Sisson overcame a rough start with a brilliant fourth quarter and finished with 277 yards passing and three touchdowns, while rushing for another score. The redshirt sophomore has a 4.0 GPA in health and exercise science.

Owen calls it

In December, Sisson and linebacker Elijah McKoy were elected team captains by teammates. Before this season, Furman added four more captains - running back Devin Wynn, offensive lineman Jordan Harris, DeLuca and strong safety DiMarcus Clay.

On Saturday it was No. 29, senior spur Jack Owen, who went to midfield for the pregame coin toss though. No. 29 for Samford is freshman Mitchell Owen, Jack's brother. Their uncle played football at Wofford.

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Sack-happy VMI stuns Paladins

Dru Seabrook had a pair of sacks in Furman's 14-13
loss at VMI Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

A common thought in the world of football is that a team improves the most from week one to week two of a season. In this bizarro season of football in the spring, perhaps that's now just a bizarre theory. Improvement certainly wasn't the case for Furman on Saturday.

After completely dominating Western Carolina to open the season, the Paladins bumbled their way to a 14-13 loss at VMI. The Keydets doubled their win total in the series since 1980, improving to 2-26 against Furman since then. It was VMI's first win against Clay Hendrix, as a player, assistant or head coach, and none of the previous meetings had sniffed being close. In Hendrix's three years as head coach entering this season, Furman beat the Keydets by scores of 42-10, 49-13 and 60-21.

The biggest head-scratcher Saturday came in protection. Outside of one sack by Western Carolina, Furman quarterback Hamp Sisson was barely touched in the opener. On Saturday, he was sacked nine times. There have likely been decades where VMI didn't total nine sacks against Furman. It's the most allowed by the Paladins in a game since 1996, when Clemson piled up 12. Nothing against the Keydets, but I doubt there were any Anthony Simmons types on defense Saturday like there was for Clemson back in '96.

"There were just so many negative plays. ... Some of them surely could've - and should've - been avoided, but they made some good calls," Hendrix said after Saturday's game. "You've got to give them a lot of credit. Sometimes, you just don't have a hat for a guy. I just think it was a combination of a lot of things."

During his weekly coaches show Monday, Hendrix said after reviewing the game film there could be no complaints about his team's effort.

"I can't fault our kids' effort. They played hard and competed to the very end. ... This one is really on me," Hendrix said. "We've got to do a much better job, particularly offensively, of having a plan and making adjustments. As coaches, we've got to give them a better opportunity to be successful."

Those negative plays were a stunning sight to behold for all parties involved Saturday.

"I was definitely surprised - Furman is really good up front," VMI coach Scott Wachenheim said. "To play the way we did defensively was amazing given the quality of our opponent."

While VMI was certainly most deserving of a win Saturday, Furman outgained the Keydets 358-268 in total yards and had a 13-minute edge in time of possession. The 70-yard advantage in total yards is shocking considering the fact that the Paladins lost 70 yards on the sacks.

Furman could just never prolong momentum from drive to drive. After slogging on VMI's drenched natural playing surface which was covered in snow 24 hours earlier, the Paladins got on the board late in the first quarter when Wayne Anderson caught a screen pass in traffic, broke one tackle and raced 33 yards to the end zone. Anderson's great play gave a the feeling of one that would snap Furman back into the form it had shown a week earlier.

On their next possession, the Paladins drove from their own 18-yard line to VMI's 34. On third-and-five, Sisson was sacked and Furman was forced to punt.

VMI tied the game after a great catch by Michael Jackson on an 11-yard, fourth-down toss by SoCon Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Reece Udinski, but Furman responded. With just 4:17 left in the half, Furman marched 80 yards on 14 plays in 4:02 on a drive capped by Sisson's eight-yard touchdown pass to Ryan Miller. The extra point sailed wide right though and the Paladins led 13-7 at the half.

"We missed that extra point, kicked two kickoffs out of bounds and got a penalty on a punt return that backed us up," Hendrix said. "In games like that, those are big."

No one could've imagined how big that miss would turn out to be. After a drive like that and with Furman getting the ball to start the second half, there had to be a feeling - again - that the Paladins were going to get rolling. And Furman did roll from its own 25 to VMI's 31 to start the second half, but on fourth-and-six Sisson was annihilated by an unblocked VMI blitzer for yet another sack.

On the very next play, Darius Kearse gave the ball back to the Paladins with a terrific interception. Two plays later, speedy freshman Kendall Thomas took an option pitch 42 yards to the VMI 35, but a holding penalty made it officially an 18-yard run and brought up second-and-two. That turned into third-and-11 after VMI's seventh sack and an incompletion later, Furman had to punt.

"It seemed like several times we'd get second-and-short and next thing you know, it's third-and-long," Hendrix said. "I told our coaches that if we had taken a knee and just got zero on the negative plays, we might have won the game."

After VMI took a 14-13 lead with a touchdown late in the third quarter, the Paladins opened the fourth by driving to the Keydets' 37. On fourth-and-four, Sisson's pass was knocked backwards - off a VMI lineman's helmet - and caught for a 10-yard loss.

With all the negative plays and frustration of the day piled up, Furman still had a chance to win it. It's last drive began at it's own 11 and naturally began with a sack and then a false start. On third-and-11, Sisson hit senior Ryan DeLuca on a 40-yard pass to midfield. On the next play, the Paladins were flagged for holding and then allowed VMI's ninth sack. But on third-and-14, DeLuca came up with a 24-yard reception to VMI's 31.

"DeLuca had a heck of a game. He just kept making plays," Hendrix said. "He was great even in the things we asked him to do in the blocking game. We just need to give him a little more help."

Two plays later, Furman faced third-and-three at the VMI 24 with 50 seconds left. After DeLuca's career-high day of seven receptions for 149 yards, the final time he touched the ball was a cruel, yet fitting end to one of the most absurd games in Paladin history. As DeLuca went in motion, the ball was snapped, deflected off the side of his body, hit the ground and was pounced on by VMI's Carter Johnson for Furman's first turnover of the game.

"I thought we had a good play call. It was similar to one we scored on earlier. At the end of the day, it was just poor execution," Hendrix said. "The timing got thrown off. ... We were probably a little late getting the call in and getting lined up."

Sisson somehow managed to take every snap despite the pounding and finished with 232 yards on 17-of-26 passing. Devin Wynn rushed for 93 yards on 21 carries, while Thomas finished with 50 yards on four attempts.
Furman's defense allowed just 20 yards rushing and was by no means torched by Udinski, who will play at Maryland this fall. The unit was led by freshman linebacker Nick Kuzemka with eight tackles. Dru Seabrook had a pair of sacks to give him 10 in his career, while Adrian Hope added one to his third-highest total in school history with 22.5.

"I thought our defense played really well. ... When we give up 14 points, I think we can beat anybody at any level," Hendrix said. "We just need to regroup and look back at what we did. It wasn't our day, but I don't think we all of a sudden became a bad team."

Furman, which fell seven spots to No. 17 in this week's STATS Perform poll released Monday, will host Samford this Saturday at 1 p.m. The Paladins beat the Bulldogs 58-14 last season, but are looking to snap a three-game home losing streak in the Samford series.