Saturday, November 12, 2022

Paladins set for showdown Saturday in SoCon

Furman coach Clay Hendrix addresses his team following the
Paladins' 24-20 win over Chattanooga. Photo courtesy of Furman

There have surely been bigger single Saturdays of Southern Conference football than this week's, but it's hard to remember since it's been so long ago. The top four teams in the league, all of whom haven't lost to anyone else below them in the standings, square off in the penultimate week of the regular season.

By the end of the day, No. 13-ranked Furman could either be in a three-way tie for first place, alone in second place, a two-way tie for third or alone in fourth place. The Paladins (7-2, 5-1) play at No. 14 Mercer (7-2, 5-1) at 3 p.m., while No. 10 Samford (8-1, 6-0) plays at No. 11 Chattanooga (7-2, 5-1) at 1:30.

All four team resumes are strikingly similar. Each one has a loss to an FBS team from a Power-5 conference. Furman's lone league loss came against Samford on Oct. 1. Mercer's only SoCon loss came at Chattanooga on Oct 22. Chattanooga's lone league loss came at Furman on Oct. 29. Samford can clinch at least a share of the SoCon championship with a win Saturday. A win by the Bulldogs combined with a win by the Paladins Saturday would secure Samford with the league's autobid to the FCS playoffs.

That 24-20 victory for the Paladins over the Mocs vaulted them up the top 25 poll and into the FCS playoff discussion. Mercer rebounded from the 41-21 loss at Chattanooga with a 55-13 win at VMI the next week. The Paladins and Bears each had their bye week last Saturday.

"The bye came at a really good time for us, but we're excited to get back at it this week and excited to go play," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said at his weekly press conference Monday. "It will be an even bigger challenge than Chattanooga because we're going to their place."

Playing Mercer anywhere this season has been a challenge for most. The Bears lead the SoCon and are fifth nationally in scoring offense averaging 40.3 points per game. Mercer is second in the league in scoring defense, allowing 18.9 points per game. It's second in total offense (463 yards per game) and leads the league in total defense (allowing 291.8 yards per game).

Coastal Carolina transfer Fred Payton ranks third nationally in passing efficiency at 181.5 for Mercer this season. He's thrown for 2,242 yards with 28 touchdowns and seven interceptions. All of those picks have come over the last three games, including three apiece at Chattanooga and VMI. Payton has a dynamic duo of wide receiver targets in Devron Harper and Georgia transfer Ty James, who each have caught 10 touchdowns this season. Harper, a Gardner-Webb transfer, also has four rushing touchdowns and has returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown.

Furman will certainly have to play better against Mercer than it did last season. The Paladins got a field goal on their opening possession against the Bears last fall and then went on to a 24-3 home loss. 

"Looking back at last year, I did a poor job of getting us ready to go. We were really struggling offensively with no confidence. Mercer was the aggressor in that game. Sometimes that's not an easy thing to admit, but they were," Hendrix said. "I do think we're a much different team this year."

It's conceivable that Furman could take a relatively close loss Saturday, not fall out of the top 20 next week, beat Wofford to end the regular season and still earn a bid to the FCS playoffs. A victory at Mercer Saturday would seemingly lock the Paladins into a playoff bid no matter what happens against Wofford.

You never know for sure with the playoff committee, especially after Furman was snubbed in 2018 when it shared the SoCon title. This 2022 squad currently has a better resume than that team that went 6-4 overall though.

Senior center Evan Jumper is one of a handful of Paladins who started the school's last playoff game, a 42-6 loss at Austin Peay in 2019. While that feels like an eternity ago given what's gone on in the world since then, Jumper admits that game lingers in the back of his mind. He would love to get another shot at the postseason this year, but he knows he can't afford to think ahead.

"Winning championships and making the playoffs is what you come here to do. So of course, you're always thinking about it but this game is the next step to making the playoffs," Jumper said. "So it's in the back of your mind, but your sole focus is on Mercer."

That focus on Mercer comes with a new level of confidence. That boost was provided by the win over Chattanooga.

"It was incredible. Probably my favorite moment for Furman football during my time here. I don't think teams in years past would've won that game," Jumper said. "I felt like we broke through a little bit and beat some demons."

Safety Hugh Ryan, who was named the SoCon's defensive player of the month for October thanks to his current three-game interception streak, agreed with Jumper about the excitement following the win over Chattanooga. But he added that it makes him hungry for more. Ryan is used to chasing rings this time of year after losing just one game of varsity football at Dutch Fork High, where he won three state championships.

"It makes you want to experience it again and again," Ryan said. "Becoming addicted to that feeling will help us keep chasing our goals."

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