Friday, September 30, 2022

Turnovers a key for Furman's deep defense

Kam Brinson celebrates a key fumble recovery in the fourth quarter of
Furman's 24-19 win at Charleston Southern. Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman overcame four turnovers on offense to pull out a 24-19 win at Charleston Southern last Saturday. The last time the Paladins suffered that many turnovers and still managed to win came in a 27-17 victory over Coastal Carolina in 2007.

A big reason why Furman was able to withstand those turnovers was that its defense forced four turnovers as well. Turnover margin for the Paladins this season is at plus-six, which is tied for the second-most in the FCS. Four games into this season, Furman (3-1, 1-0 Southern Conference) has the second-highest total of turnovers in the country with 13. That's already more turnovers than the Paladins forced in the seven-game 2020 season (11) and the entire 2018 season (12).

Two of Saturday's turnovers were important parts of Furman's rally from a 19-10 second half deficit. On the second play of the fourth quarter, Jalen Miller ripped the ball away from a Charleston Southern receiver and Kam Brinson recovered the fumble near midfield. On the Paladins' ensuing drive, Jace Wilson scored what proved to be the game-winning touchdown on a 22-yard scramble.

"We knew we needed to make a play to just get the ball back to our offense. We practice that all week and emphasize punching the ball out," said Miller, whose fumble recovery in the first quarter set up Furman's first points of the game on an field goal. "I just saw my opportunity and thankfully, we were able to get on it."

Late in the fourth quarter, Charleston Southern's final drive reached the Paladins' 21-yard line but it ended on Dominic Morris' interception in the end zone. It was the second consecutive week that Morris made a game-sealing interception in the final moments.

Furman's defensive depth has been highlighted by the turnover numbers. While Morris has those two interceptions, six different Paladins are responsible for the others. Four different Paladins have the unit's five fumble recoveries with Brinson leading the way with two. Additionally, 20 different Paladins have been in on tackles-for-loss.

That kind of depth has paid off in crunch time, as Furman has allowed a combined 100 yards of total offense and zero points in the fourth quarter this season. Two other key stats for the Paladins' defense this season: a 100.08 pass efficiency defense rating that ranks ninth in the country and a 35.7 percentage of third down conversions allowed. Last season, Furman's opponents converted 47.7 percent of its third downs.

"That's one thing our defense prides itself on - having multiple people go out there and there's no drop off," Miller said. "That's so valuable when you get in these tough games. Somebody goes down, the next person goes in, and you don't have to worry about if they can do their job. It lets us trust each other and play a lot more freely.

"The big guys up front don't always get the praise they deserve, but their presence is definitely felt in the back end (of the defense). We're getting turnovers at a high rate because they're pushing the quarterbacks out of their spot and making them get rid of the ball before they're really ready to."

New looks up front on offense

Furman played Saturday without its most experienced (starts wise) offensive lineman as Evan Jumper was out after suffering a mild concussion at ETSU. Starting right guard Wyatt Hughes shifted to center and redshirt freshman Ryan Lamb made his first career start at right guard. Sophomore guard Blake Hundley played a career-high 63 snaps Saturday as well.

"Wyatt stepped in there at center and played really well. He was one of our players of the week," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "Playing that position isn't an easy thing to do."

The line was also missing All-American tight end Ryan Miller for a short time early as he left the game after the Paladins' first offensive play. Miller returned and ended up with 94 yards on six receptions and extended his touchdown streak to seven consecutive games dating back to last year. Some of the missing pieces may have been part of what was an abysmal start offensively for Furman.

After putting together a 93-yard scoring drive late in the first half that gave them a 10-9 lead at the break, the Paladins seemed to finally settle in offensively. Furman possessed the ball for more than 10 minutes in both the third and fourth quarter.

"The biggest thing is our guys didn't panic and stuck together," Hendrix said. "That was an odd day. The number of turnovers we had. We didn't have power on our sideline for half the day. The phones were in and out. We didn't have access to (cooling) fans.

"It got a little warm there in the second half, but we didn't have a single guy cramp the whole day. That's a testament to them and to our training staff. A lot of things went against us, but they found a way to hang in there and get it done." 

The Paladins spent much of the preseason rotating offensive linemen at different spots. Hendrix said a number of the them took snaps at center, which was evidenced as the Fan Day scrimmage where Jumper played exclusively at tackle. Hughes believes that paid off Saturday.

"(Offensive line) Coach (Matt) McCutchan does a great job of making sure everybody knows everything. Any given play, anybody can be the center," Hughes said. "You've got to know what everybody is doing on every single play to be effective in that (offensive line) meeting room."

SoCon the rest of the way

With the non-conference portion of Furman's schedule complete, it's SoCon games the rest of the way beginning with 16th-ranked Samford coming to town Saturday at 2 p.m. While the typically pass-happy Bulldogs (3-1, 1-0) are a bit more balanced this season, Michael Hiers is still second in the SoCon averaging 242.5 passing yards per game.

Most impressively for Samford's new quarterback is that Hiers has 12 touchdowns and just one interception in completing 84-of-122 passes this season. Samford's Jay Stanton is fifth in the league in rushing at 71.5 yards per game.

"Coach (Chris) Hatcher has done a phenomenal job with that offense for years and years. ... Where they seem to always have that one or two ultra-dynamic guy, it's more of a really good group of receivers this year," Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "Clearly the difference you see in them is on the defensive side of the ball. They've got a lot of the same players, but they've had a major influx of transfers. Many of them are playing for them, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. I think the entire secondary may be transfers.

"The thing that stands out to me, having watched them the past two days, is how hard they're playing defensively. They've been really opportunistic."

The Bulldogs are coming off a rather bizarre win. Samford allowed Western Carolina to pile up 32 first downs and 456 yards of total offense on 90 plays, but cruised to a 35-12 win. The Catamounts' 12 points came on four field goals.

"The name of the game is to score points and keep them from scoring points and they're doing a great job of that," Hendrix said. "We lead the league in time of possession and they're last in the league, but it doesn't matter if you're not scoring points like you should be scoring."

If Furman can post its fourth consecutive win in the series Saturday, it would give the Paladins two wins over top 20 teams this year for the first time since 2011.

Injury update

Obviously, concussion protocol is impossible to set a timetable for a return. Jumper is listed as possibly starting at center this Saturday with an "or" designation with Hughes at center. Hughes and Hundley have the "or" as the starter at right guard.

Starting quarterback Tyler Huff's dislocated elbow on his left (non-throwing) arm will keep him sidelined for a "short period of time" according to Hendrix.

"It may be a kind of a week-by-week thing," Hendrix said. "I think the way Jace came in and played Saturday gives him a lot of confidence and he's a guy we've won a bunch of football games with. He's played against a lot of these teams we've got coming up on our schedule."

This week's depth chart lists Wilson as the starter and heralded freshman Carson Jones as the backup. A reminder that players can participate in four games and still redshirt.

Travis Blackshear, who got banged up two weeks ago at ETSU and missed the game at CSU, is listed as a possible starting corner with the "or" with Morris.

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