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. 

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