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.

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