Sunday, September 18, 2022

Furman's defense turns the lights out on ETSU

Kam Brinson (3) celebrates one of four turnovers Furman's defense had in the
Paladins' 27-14 win at No. 18 ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. - Things weren't always pretty for the Furman football team at 18th-ranked East Tennessee State Saturday night, but anyone expecting such a thing likely forgot about recent meetings between the teams. It appeared Saturday's game would be the fifth consecutive decided by seven points or less in the series, but a Dominic Roberto touchdown run in the final minute capped a 27-14 win for the Paladins.

While Furman put up nearly 400 yards of total offense in a respectable showing at Clemson last Saturday, reigning Southern Conference champion ETSU got upset at The Citadel, 20-17. Those two results had nothing to do with what took place this Saturday though, outside of making for a mad Bucs team scrapping like hell to try to not fall to 0-2 in the SoCon.

"I don't think we played our best, but man what a gut check by our entire football team," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Every game we've had with them has been like this and I knew this one was going to be the same way. They were wounded dogs and they came out fighting in a tough place to play. I don't think they've lost here since the last time we played here.

"We can - and we'll have to - play a lot better, but to come on the road and get a win ... I couldn't be prouder of our kids for finding a way."

The win snapped ETSU's eight-game home winning streak and dropped the Bucs to 9-2 in night games at Greene Stadium. Even at only a 13-point spread, Saturday marked the second-most lopsided SoCon loss for ETSU over the past five seasons. The Bucs (1-2, 0-2) were the highest-ranked team Furman has knocked off since a 34-14 victory over sixth-ranked Wofford in 2018. It's the highest-ranked home team the Paladins have topped since at 28-27 win at No. 15 Elon in the opening round of the 2017 FCS playoffs.

Defense led the way for Furman (2-1, 1-0) Saturday. The Paladins forced four turnovers, had three sacks, nine tackles-for-loss and most importantly contained ETSU star running back Jacob Saylors. Saylors, the preseason pick for SoCon Offensive Player of the Year, entered this season with a school record average of 6.6 yards per carry. Against Furman Saturday, he averaged 2.8.

After rushing eight times for 45 yards in the first quarter, Saylors had five carries for 11 yards in the second, five rushes for minus-1 yard in the third and one carry for minus-1 yard in the fourth. As a team, ETSU ran for 80 yards, 63 of which came in the first quarter. Saylors also caught five passes for only nine yards.

"I thought we got better defensively as the game went on. Usually, it's the other way," Hendrix said. "Saylors is a big part of their offense, so it was a key. ... There was a bunch of adversity out there and it was kind of like 'who's going to flinch?' and our kids didn't. Our depth really paid off for us tonight."

The first turnover came on the second play of the game after Matt Sochovka tipped a pass that Hugh Ryan intercepted at the ETSU 27. Tyler Huff, who had gotten off to such brilliant starts in his first two games as a Paladin this season, didn't enjoy the same kind of start Saturday. Furman's first possession lasted all of three incompletions and the Paladins settled for a 44-yard field goal by Ian Williams.

Comparatively speaking, Huff only had two incompletions in the opener and it took 18 passes for him to have three incompletions at Clemson.

After a 75-yard touchdown pass for ETSU on its next possession, Furman looked to answer as it marched from its 25 to the Bucs' 30. But that drive ended when Huff was sacked from behind and lost a fumble.

On the second play of the second quarter, Ryan forced a Saylors' fumble and Kam Brinson recovered at the ETSU 45. Roberto popped an 18-yard run on the next play, but the drive stalled and the Paladins again settled for a 43-yard field goal by Williams.

Most of the first half had to be frustrating for Furman's offense. Fed up with field goals, Hendrix went for it on 4th-and-2 at the ETSU 17 midway through the second quarter. Roberto took a shotgun handoff and was stuffed for a gain of just one. Other drives ended on third-down throws short of the first down stick.

Furman still trailed 7-6 when a 15-yard punt return by Cally Chizik set the Paladins up at their own 47. With only 1:05 left, Furman was kind of forced to take some deeper shots and it paid off. Huff hit Wayne Anderson on a 20-yard throw to start the drive. He fired a 15-yard dart to Anderson in the end zone to end it and Furman took a 13-7 lead into halftime.

"That certainly was a huge drive," Hendrix said. "That (two-minute offense) is something we've worked and worked and worked at since we started camp and it paid off."

The Paladins put together their best drive midway through the third quarter.  The 14-play, 89-yard march was capped by a three-yard touchdown pass from Huff to Ryan Miller. It's the sixth consecutive game that Miller has caught a touchdown. ETSU answered with a touchdown on its ensuing possession and Furman led 20-14 entering the final quarter.

The teams traded a total of six punts in the fourth quarter. But the sixth one came after a Furman drive that took the clock down from 6:47 to 2:08 and gave ETSU the ball at its own 20. Hendrix admitted that memories of last year's game, when the Bucs drove 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown with nine seconds left, crossed his mind.

But there was no repeat of that heartbreak. ETSU appeared to have a 22-yard gain on 3rd-and-9, but was flagged for offensive pass interference. On fourth down, Tyler Riddell's pass was intercepted by Dominic Morris at the Bucs' 46 with 59 seconds left. Morris probably should've just knocked it down, but a fellow Dominic made it a moot point. Roberto, who was keyed on and bottled up much of the night, finally busted through for a 46-yard touchdown on the next play to seal the win.

"After last year's game, we've had this game circled all offseason," said Ryan, who finished with a team-high eight tackles, to go along with his interception, forced fumble and pass breakup. "We knew it would be a tough, physical game and we relish that opportunity. We went out there and played hard and did what we had to do.

"I thought in the second half, we kind of shut down the running game and made them one-dimensional. Once we did that, we could really get after them up front."

Huff had 218 yards on 24-of-40 passing with the two touchdowns and no interceptions. He led Furman in rushing with 98 yards on 13 carries. Roberto finished with 80 yards on 10 attempts. Joshua Harris posted career-highs in receptions (eight) and receiving yards (98).

The Paladins play at Charleston Southern next Saturday at noon.

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