Friday, October 28, 2022

Furman set for showdown with Chattanooga

Wayne Anderson had a kickoff return for a touchdown in Furman's win over Western Carolina two
weeks ago and a blocked punt in the Paladins' win at VMI last week. Photo courtesy of Furman 

"Statement Saturday" has nearly arrived for Furman football. After making the FCS Stats Top 25 for the first time this week, the 24th-ranked Paladins will try to earn their first statement win of the season Saturday. That's when No. 7 Chattanooga visits Paladin Stadium for a 2 p.m. kickoff on homecoming.

Saturday will mark the highest-ranked team to visit Furman since 2018 when the Paladins topped sixth-ranked Wofford, 34-14. The Mocs (6-1, 4-0 Southern Conference) are coming off an impressive 41-21 win over Mercer, which dealt the Bears their first SoCon loss. Furman (6-2, 4-1) is coming off its fourth consecutive road win, and first blowout in FCS play, with a 41-3 victory at VMI. Chattanooga is sixth in this week's FCS Massey Ratings, while the Paladins are 19th.

"We've certainly got an ultra-talented and well-coached Chattanooga team coming in here. That's a pretty good combination," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "They've had a heck of a year and coming off a heck of a win, but it's pretty exciting around here to have them coming to our place. It's been a while since we've had one like that here."

What's at stake Saturday:

  • A win should vault Furman up the rankings. It could move high enough to possibly withstand a close loss at Mercer two weeks later and stay in the FCS playoff conversation - depending on how other league games shake out. After the loss at Chattanooga, the Bears (6-2, 4-1) moved down five spots to No. 16 in the FCS Stats poll and down three spots to No. 9 in Massey.
  • A loss Saturday would likely knock Furman out of the top 25. A win at Mercer would probably put the Paladins back in the poll, but not necessarily the top 20. A victory over Wofford in the season finale would likely move Furman around the 20th spot.
The SoCon currently has three teams in Massey's top 11 as Samford is 11th. The Bulldogs (6-1, 4-0), who are No. 13 in the FCS Stats poll, play at The Citadel Saturday while Mercer travels to VMI. Furman and Mercer each have byes next week before they face off in Macon on Nov. 12. Also on Nov. 12, Chattanooga hosts Samford. Mercer plays at Samford in the regular season finale on Nov. 19.

Based on recent history of the FCS playoff selection committee, four SoCon teams aren't making the field. Three wouldn't even be a safe bet.

Hendrix briefly touched on some frustration with the polls. Furman has proven that it's still much harder to get in the poll than to get out. It was seemingly the first or second team among "others receiving votes" for many weeks before cracking the top 25 this week. Of particular note, Hendrix mentioned the rankings that followed Furman's 35-12 loss at Clemson.

After outgaining the Tigers 384-376, Furman went from 30th in FCS Stats (if the poll stretched into others receiving votes) to 37th the next week. Conversely, UT-Martin dropped from No. 18 to No. 21 this week after getting annihilated at Tennessee, 65-24, Saturday. The Skyhawks (4-3), who are No. 31 in Massey, trailed 58-7 less than two minutes into the third quarter.

"I think people got more credit for playing a bad, Division I non-scholarship team than we got for going and competing at Clemson the way we did," Hendrix said. "At the end of the day, it doesn't matter. We've put ourselves in a good position.

"If we can get it done, we will have gotten it done. If we can't get it done, then maybe they were all correct."

Back to things Furman can control. All of its focus is on this week and trying to come up with its first complete game in FCS competition this season. While the Paladins cruised to victory at VMI, they had 11 penalties. That's the most they've had in a game since 2013. Oddly enough, they knocked off Appalachian State 27-10 that day.

"We've got some things to clean up. We had a couple of frustration penalties and that's not who we are," Hendrix said. "We can't be that and we won't allow that. ... We'll have to play exceptionally well this week against this team."

Furman will definitely have to play better than its atrocious last meeting against the Mocs. Last fall, the Paladins were held to six first downs and had the ball for less than 21 minutes in a 13-3 loss at Chattanooga. Nearly a third of Furman's 151 yards of total offense that day came on one play - a 44-yard run by Devin Abrams.

"With five minutes to go, it was a one-possession game ... but we did absolutely nothing offensively the entire day," Hendrix said. "I think we're certainly a different team than we were a year ago, but they're significantly better offensively too."

Another defensive struggle could take place Saturday as the teams are first and second in the league in scoring defense. The Mocs rank eighth nationally surrendering 16.4 points per game, while the Paladins are 20th allowing 19.4 points per game. While Furman recorded its seventh fourth quarter shutout Saturday, Chattanooga has been even stingier in the final period. The Mocs have outscored opponents 62-3 in the fourth this season.

Saturday's game will also feature the two leading rushers in the SoCon during league play. Ailym Ford's averaging 140.5 yards per game and has six touchdowns in Chattanooga's four conference games, while Dominic Roberto is rushing for 124.4 yards and is averaging 8.1 yards per carry against SoCon foes. He also has six touchdowns in Furman's five league games. In his last 11 games dating back to last season, Roberto has rushed for 1,301 yards.

"I think we have a lot of the same philosophies on both sides of the ball. When you go to tackle Ford, you'd better bring a buddy with you. He's a hard guy to tackle and knock off his feet," Hendrix said. "Dom had two carries (against Chattanooga) a year ago. It was really after that game that we made the decision to 'get this guy involved.'

"Dom's always been a great worker and a great kid. ... For us, we've kind of figured out how to use him and that's continued under (new offensive coordinator) Coach (Justin) Roper."

Furman could have an edge in special teams, where it has excelled this season under new assistant Tommy Spangler. Two weeks ago, starting slot receiver Wayne Anderson had the Paladins first kickoff return for a touchdown since 2018. Last week, he had Furman's first blocked punt since 2018.

Ian Williams is third in the country with 36 touchbacks and he and Axel Lepvreau have combined to connect on 12-of-15 field goals. After averaging less than 19 yards per kickoff return each of the past three seasons, the Paladins are 12th nationally at 25.7 yards per return this year.

"A lot of credit goes to Coach Spangler and the culture he's created in that group," Hendrix said. "I've been really pleased with what we've done on special teams. Hopefully we can continue to build upon that because I think that will be a big part of this game too."

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