|Furman linebacker Braden Gilby had 12 tackles, including three tackles-for-loss
and a sack, in the Paladins' 21-10 win at The Citadel. Photo courtesy of Furman
At the midway point of the college football season, the Southern Conference appears to be split into three sections of three. The unbeaten in league play trio of Chattanooga, Mercer and Samford at the top; Furman, Western Carolina and ETSU in the middle; and The Citadel, VMI and Wofford at the bottom.
Yes, Citadel beat ETSU head-to-head but the Buccaneers scored more points Saturday at VMI (44) than the Bulldogs have all season (40). ETSU is also 14 spots higher than Citadel's 56th ranking in the latest Massey Ratings, so it gets lumped in the middle.
There are actually four SoCon teams in Massey's top 20 as Mercer is eighth, Chattanooga 10th, Samford 14th and Furman 19th. Furman has the chance to stake its spot in that top tier with games against Chattanooga and Mercer down the road, but first it must position itself to do so. That begins Saturday against Western Carolina at Paladin Stadium at 2 p.m.
The Paladins (4-2, 2-1) will be looking to avenge a heartbreaking loss in Cullowhee, N.C. last season when the Catamounts rallied from an 11-point fourth quarter deficit for a 43-42 win. Dominic Roberto rushed for 196 yards that day, but it marked just the second loss in 30 games when the Paladins had a rusher go for at least 175 yards. The only other defeat occurred in 2000 when Louis Ivory ran for 227 yards in a 23-21 loss at ETSU.
"The thing that stood out in that game a year ago was too many big plays (given up) on defense and offensively, we moved the ball really well but didn't score a point in the fourth quarter," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "When you pull the tape measure out, they're a really talented group. They've got height, weight and speed in a lot of places.
"We will have to tackle really well Saturday. Offensively, we will have to find a way to stay on the field and score. ... We still need to find a way to score more points."
Western (3-3, 1-2) leads the SoCon in total offense at 499.7 yards per game, but was held to half that (249 total yards) in a 49-6 loss at Mercer last Saturday. The Catamounts haven't found the end zone in two league road games this season as it was held to four field goals - despite 456 yards of total offense - in a 35-12 loss at Samford on Sept. 24.
Turnovers could be a major factor Saturday. Only one FCS team in the country has lost more turnovers than Western's 18 and no team in the country has forced more turnovers than Furman's 16.
"All offseason and camp, we've really put on emphasis on attacking the ball," said linebacker Braden Gilby, who leads the Paladins in tackles (36) and tackles-for-loss (7). "In practice, older guys will get on younger guys if they're not punching at the ball while tackling. It's an accountability thing."
On the flip side of the turnover conversation, Furman's offense will try to stop its own trend of losing the football. After three turnovers over the first three games this season, the Paladins have lost nine over the past three.
In his first game back since dislocating his left elbow at Charleston Southern two weeks earlier, Furman starting quarterback Tyler Huff had trouble with deep throws on a windy day at Citadel last Saturday. While he completed 14-of-19 passes for 113 yards, Huff had two interceptions. With the wind at his back in the first quarter, Huff was picked off on an overthrown ball intended for Ryan Miller. Late in the second quarter, Huff was pressured and a pass off his back foot to Miller was underthrown and picked off.
"It was good to be back in there. I was frustrated with being injured, but Jace (Wilson) came in and played a great game last week," Huff said. "I'm a little frustrated in how I've played. I feel like I'm holding us back these past two games (Charleston Southern and Citadel) with two turnovers in each. Coach Hendrix and Coach (Justin) Roper have harped on eliminating turnovers and I haven't done that.
"I'm excited by what Coach Roper has for us and he's done an excellent job teaching the QBs. It just comes down to me doing what he's taught me."
Furman played it safe with Huff back in the lineup as it used no quarterback runs, which has been a valuable weapon when Huff has been at full strength. Hendrix said he hopes to get back to more of that moving forward.
"I think a lot of people have to got to remember that Tyler's played about three-and-a-half games in a year-and-a-half. He started so well this year, I think expectations took off," Huff said. "I know there's some things he wants to do better and I think we will do better."
Streaks end, extend
That second quarter interception ended a streak of Furman scoring on its final (non-kneel down) possession of the first half in six consecutive games dating back to last season's finale. Five of those six scores were touchdowns as the other was an 18-yard field goal with Furman comfortably ahead of North Greenville in this year's season opener.
Miller also saw his streak of eight consecutive games with a touchdown catch end as the Paladins did not have a passing touchdown at Citadel. It looked like that streak might have been extended on the game's opening drive as Miller lunged forward with the ball in his right hand crossing the goal line, but he was ruled down at the two-yard line and there was somehow no review.
That set up a new wrinkle on offense on the next play though when Devin Abrams took a direct shotgun snap and carried for a two-yard score. Abrams was flanked by third-string tight end Ty Youngblood on his left and freshman tailback Myion Hicks on his right.
"You try to do something where it's hard to account for all those guys (tight ends and backs in the set)," Hendrix said. "Myion Hicks made a great block at the point of attack. That young guy is going to be a really good player for us. Being able to get it in there (the end zone) on the first try was nice."
Furman did extend one streak Saturday as its defense remained unscored on in the fourth quarter this year. The Paladins have outscored opponents 31-0 in the final period for the season.
Kickoff coverage excels
With Ian Williams' ranking fourth in the country with 25 touchbacks, Furman's kickoff unit has had a pretty quiet job all year. But when called on Saturday, it answered the bell. Williams kicked off into a stiff breeze three times in the third quarter. Every time, Citadel's return was short of the 25-yard line it would've had on a fair catch or touchback.
Opening the second half, the Bulldogs had a 10-yard return from the goal line and an illegal block in the back began the possession at their five-yard line. They had a 19-yard return to the 22-yard line on the next kickoff. Williams' last kick appeared to be headed out of bounds, but the ball took one hop straight up along the sideline at the 15-yard line and was fallen on there by Citadel.
"We made a concerted effort to kick into the wind in the third quarter, because we wanted the wind in the fourth. I think Ian's disappointed (in not getting touchbacks there), but it really created better field position for us," Hendrix said. "We always tell them you can't get complacent about covering kicks just because we assume he's going to kick it in the end zone every time."