Sunday, October 23, 2022

Paladins party like it's 1999 in rout of VMI

Furman senior cornerback Travis Blackshear had a 41-yard interception return for a
touchdown in the Paladins' 41-3 win at VMI Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

LEXINGTON, Va. - One week after having what was shaping up to possibly be a "breather" turn downright scary in a 47-40 win over Western Carolina, Furman overcame a sluggish start and 11 penalties to have a true breather at VMI Saturday. Nine different ball carriers combined for 254 yards rushing and 10 different pass catchers helped the Paladins throw for 202 in a 41-3 win over the Keydets.

It's the fourth consecutive road victory for Furman (6-2, 4-1 Southern Conference). That last happened in 1999 when the Paladins posted wins at William & Mary (52-6), Western Carolina (27-19), The Citadel (31-17) and North Carolina (28-3). Saturday also marked the second time this season Furman held an opponent without a touchdown. The last time that happened more than once in a season was also that 1999 SoCon championship squad, which did it four times.

"We've played eight straight games, five of those on the road, so we knew coming here would bring its own challenges. We had a good week of prep and had the chance to play a ton of guys. I was disappointed in the penalties, that we've got to get cleaned up," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "They threw a bunch of different stuff at us and it took a little bit of time to get adjusted, but we didn't panic."

The first quarter-plus of game play was about as bland as the beige backdrops at Foster Stadium. Despite having a target on Dominic Roberto's back following his 252-yard rushing day last Saturday, it was Roberto that popped the cork on what turned out to be a flurry of energy for Furman.

Similar to last week's opening play for Furman, Roberto took a handoff to the right and rumbled 57 yards for a touchdown four minutes into the second quarter. Devin Abrams made a beautiful block to spring the run that pushed Furman's lead to 10-0.

After a three-and-out on VMI's ensuing possession, Furman's do-everything man Wayne Anderson came right up the gut on the Keydets' punt and blocked it. Anderson raced to his left to scoop up the punt at the nine-yard line and returned it to the VMI two. It was yet another big play from Furman's special teams this season and another one for Anderson, who had a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last Saturday.

"We weren't really expecting to block one today because they have a really good punt team, but we found a crease. Credit to the guys out there with me ... even though I know they're all going to say I suck for not scoring on it," Anderson said with a smile. "Whether its running back, receiver, punt returner, punt (coverage), kick returner or wherever I need to go, I'm just happy the coaches have faith in me to be out there."

On the next play, Furman came out in what looked to be a bunch formation except for quarterback Tyler Huff lining up at a wide receiver spot on the left. Receiver Luke Shiflett took the shotgun snap and ran for the score behind a lead block by linebacker Braden Gilby to make it 17-0. Shiflett was flanked by Gilby on the left and Roberto on the right in the two-back set.

"We just try to get our best bodies in there," Hendrix said of Gilby being in on offense. "It's good to find different ways to punch it in."

VMI got on the board on its next possession with a field goal, but Furman answered that three with another seven. After Huff threw a 34-yard pass to Joshua Harris deep over the middle, he hit a wide-open Ryan Miller on a play-action pass for an 11-yard touchdown to give Furman a 24-3 lead with 5:10 left in the first half.

"Being up 3-0, it felt like you were down 10. We just weren't finishing drives and were frustrated, so when Dom popped that (57-yard touchdown) the whole mentality changed," said Huff, who completed 18-of-25 passes for 195 yards with no interceptions. "We had a sour taste in our mouth from last week. We were up 44-20 and should've put the game away offensively ... so coming out here and getting a blowout feels great. It gives us confidence going into a big game next week."

On the second play of the fourth quarter, Kendall Thomas ran for an 18-yard touchdown. His first collegiate rushing score helped push the Furman lead to 34-3. Two plays later, Travis Blackshear put the cherry on to with a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown.

After allowing its first points all season in the fourth quarter last week when Western Carolina erupted for three touchdowns, the Paladins were able to keep VMI (1-6, 0-4) off the scoreboard while emptying the bench in the final quarter.

Gilby and Evan DiMaggio had nine tackles apiece to lead Furman's defense. Xavier Stephens, a Lehigh transfer from nearby Roanoke, Va., had a key sack and a pass breakup on the same series. Furman had four sacks and nine tackles-for-loss as a team. The Paladins had two interceptions as Hugh Ryan captured his team-high third pick in the first quarter

"I was just waiting for that moment. I finally got my first interception of the season and had daylight all the way on the return," said Blackshear. "We didn't play to the standard that we normally play to (last Saturday). The emphasis this week was to get back to who we are. We all had a good week of preparation."

Roberto finished with 104 yards on just eight carries to lead Furman's rushing attack. Abrams had 60 yards on 11 attempts, Thomas had 35 yards on five carries, freshman Grant Robinson ran for 29 yards on six carries and freshman Jayquan Smith made his collegiate debut with 21 yards on four attempts.

Also making his collegiate debut was new No. 2 quarterback Carson Jones. With Furman playing it safe and just running out the clock, Jones completed all three of his passes for seven yards and rushed once for six yards. Miller finished with 71 yards on five receptions.

Furman will host Chattanooga in a SoCon showdown next Saturday at 2 p.m. The Mocs (6-1, 4-0) handed Mercer its first league loss Saturday and are tied atop the league standings with Samford (6-1, 4-0). The Paladins and Bears (6-2, 4-1) are tied for second.

"We're where we want to be. We've got nobody to worry about but ourselves," said Hendrix. "We just need to go have a great week of prep."

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