Friday, November 18, 2022

Paladins hope to boost resume against Wofford

Furman defensive end Jack Barton has blocked three kicks and
broken up four passes this season. Photo courtesy of Furman

While the Furman football team's last two games may have been the biggest of the season considering who it played and how it did, those results only make every next game bigger. So when the 12th-ranked Paladins host Wofford in the regular season finale Saturday at noon, it will also be a big one for plenty of reasons.

After improving to 3-1 against FCS ranked teams this season following wins over Chattanooga and Mercer, the Paladins have secured second place in the Southern Conference. Furman (8-2, 6-1) could still gain a share of the conference title with a win combined with a Mercer win at Samford. A victory would also give Furman nine wins for the first time in 17 years. This is also a rivalry game and just Wofford's second visit to Paladin Stadium in Furman coach Clay Hendrix's six-year tenure.

The Terriers lost their first six games this season, but have played inspired football since head coach Josh Conklin abandoned ship. Two days after Conklin quit, Wofford had a respectable 28-14 loss at Samford and have gone 3-1 since then. After scoring 50 points over those first six games, the Terriers have scored 142 points in their last four games.

"We've got a Wofford team coming in that's clearly playing their best football of the year. They're really about where I thought they'd be. Their schedule was really front-end loaded," Hendrix said. "They're playing their best football, but we are too."

As for Furman's aspirations beyond Saturday, the Paladins very likely clinched an at-large bid to the FCS playoffs last week at Mercer. They probably don't want to test that theory with a loss to an improved, but still 3-7 Wofford squad. Instead, Furman will try to boost its playoff resume. Earning one of the eight seeds, which guarantee a first-round bye and a second-round home game, may be a long shot but it's not an impossibility.

A team that could end up having an impact on Furman's seed chances is Samford. All FCS projections currently have the Bulldogs as anywhere from a fifth to an eighth seed. It makes me wonder if a Samford loss at home to a Mercer team that the Paladins just beat on the road could flip Furman to a seed and the Bulldogs to a non-seed. On the other hand, a Samford win might only boost the Paladins' resume. In that scenario, Furman's only two losses would be to a one-loss Clemson team and a Samford team with no FCS losses.

For more on Furman's playoff possibilities, here's a story I wrote for The Greenville News this week:

'Cujo' the secret to special teams' success

If there was ever a player of the game for a defensive end who only had three tackles, Jack Barton could've gotten it last week in Furman's 23-13 win at Mercer. The Bears' second possession began at their own three-yard line following a great punt by Ryan Leavy. On the first play, Barton batted Fred Payton's pass up in the air and just out of Braden Gilby's reach for what would've been an interception in the end zone for a touchdown.

After Furman broke out on top 10-7 with a touchdown late in the first half, Mercer looked to swing momentum back with a field goal on the final play of the half. Barton busted through up the middle and easily blocked the 30-yard attempt. It was Barton's third blocked kick of the season, tying Matt Sochovka for the team lead.

After the Paladins took a 17-7 lead midway through the third quarter, Mercer drove to the Furman 33 in desperate need of points. On a third-and-nine play, Barton batted Payton's pass back to Payton who caught it for a 10-yard loss and the Bears punted on the next play. On the final play of the third quarter, Barton and Xavier Stephens combined for a sack on a Mercer third down. That helped lead to a field goal that gave the Paladins an insurmountable 23-7 lead.

"I'm so proud of Jack Barton. He started the year on the second team defensive line, but then J.J. (Jeremiah Jackson) went down and just to see how far he's come," Sochovka said. "In the offseason, he was working his tail off getting bigger. Now everything's coming to fruition with all these plays he's making. He's just playing free and having fun."

While that batted ball back to Payton doesn't count as a pass breakup since it was caught, Barton is still one shy of the team lead with four pass break-ups. As a team, Furman has 41 PBUs this season. That's the most in a year since the 1990 squad had 50 in 14 games. Sochovka and Barton have gotten the glory on the Paladins' kick blocking unit, but Sochovka says there's another real MVP of the unit.

"Cujo, Cameron Coleman, is the unsung hero of it all. Big zero anchors the middle and lines up on the guard. Me and Jack are kind of in the gaps and Cujo takes all the heavy lifting for us by knocking them (blockers) back," Sochovka said. "He doesn't show up on the stat sheet, but what he does for me and Jack is awesome."

A different kind of Senior Day

Prior to Saturday's game, Furman will honor its senior players. It doesn't necessarily mean fans won't see those seniors again next season though.

"Senior Day's a little different than it used to be. I think we'll have some guys that will be recognized Saturday that will actually be playing next year," Hendrix said. "I've just left all that up to them."

Gilby earns SoCon weekly honor

Furman linebacker Braden Gilby earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 12-tackled performance at Mercer. He had three tackles-for-loss and one of the Paladins' five sacks, which doubled the total allowed by the Bears this season. Gilby leads Furman with 71 tackles on the season, including 13.5 for-loss and four sacks.

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