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."

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