Friday, December 2, 2022

Paladins shooting for historic win in Texas

Furman safety Kam Brinson leads the FCS with four fumble recoveries this season.
The Paladins are second nationally with 26 takeaways. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Furman football team will be trying to do something the program has never done before in a state where it's never played before Saturday. On Friday, the 11th-ranked Paladins (10-2) boarded a plane to San Antonio for their first flight since a blowout win at Colgate in 2017. On Saturday, they will take on No. 7 seed Incarnate Word (10-1) in the second round of the FCS playoffs. After 1,168 games in 117 seasons since 1889, Saturday will mark Furman's first ever in the state of Texas.

A Paladin victory would be a school-record sixth consecutive win on the road. Furman had won five in a row on the road just once before this season, but a loss at Clemson before that streak started in 1989 and a loss at Florida in 1990 left that run at five. More importantly for the Paladins, a win Saturday would advance them to the FCS quarterfinals next weekend. The winner of Furman-UIW will face the winner of Richmond's game at second-seeded Sacramento State.

Furman coach Clay Hendrix doesn't believe a rare plane flight will have any impact on the good mojo his team has developed on road trips this season.

"Between a three-hour plane flight or a four- or five-hour bus ride, what's the difference really," Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "It will be a different experience for our kids. I'm sure we will have a few that haven't been on an airplane before ... but I don't know that we will change anything in how we prepare."

What the Paladins will have to contend with looks to be the best FCS offense it has faced all season. The No. 5-ranked Cardinals lead the country in total offense (582.4 yards per game), passing offense (383 ypg), and scoring offense (52.9 points per game).

UIW quarterback Lindsey Scott Jr. seems to be the leading candidate to win the Walter Payton Award as he is poised to possibly break multiple national FCS records. His 218.2 passer rating would obliterate the current record for a season of 204.6 set by William & Mary's Shawn Knight in 1993. Scott's 11.56 yards per pass attempt would break the current record of 10.28 set by Eastern Washington's Vernon Adams in 2013. Scott has 50 touchdown passes and has carried for seven more, leaving him four shy of the record for touchdown responsibility currently held shared by Mississippi Valley State's Willie Totten and Fordham's Tim DeMorat. Totten's mark of 61 was boosted by the presence of a receiver named Jerry Rice in 1984. DeMorat tied Totten's record this season.

While Scott has passed for 3,791 yards, that's not all the Cardinals do. UIW ground game averages 199.4 rushing yards per game. Marcus Cooper leads the way there with 1,044 yards and 10 touchdowns, and he averages 7.1 yards per carry.

Besides gaudy numbers, Scott also has experience. One week after defeating Elon's 23-year old Matthew McKay, who had previously played quarterback at N.C. State and Montana State, Furman will try to defeat 24-year old Scott. His journey to UIW included stops at LSU, East Mississippi Community College, Missouri and Nicholls State.

"They have a quarterback who was playing college football before I became head coach (in 2017). That's the world we're in now," Hendrix said. "He's an outstanding player and he's surrounded by good players. It will certainly take our very best effort."

While Furman may have not seen an offense quite like UIW's, the Cardinals may not have seen a defense like the Paladins. Last Saturday's 31-6 dismantling of 12th-ranked Elon marked the third time this season that Furman held an opponent out of the end zone. It's a defense that has seemingly gotten better each week.

The Paladins rank 11th nationally in run defense allowing 107.7 rushing yards per game. Over the past five games, Furman opponents have rushed for just 2.0 yards per carry on 147 attempts.

Third downs and turnovers have been keys to the Paladins' defensive success. After allowing opponents to convert 47.7 percent of third downs last season, Furman's allowing just 32.4 percent this season - 10th best in the FCS. The Paladins rank second in the country in takeaways with 26, including 16 interceptions. Safety Kam Brinson leads the country in fumble recoveries with four.

"They're a little bit of a unique attack, but you don't need to reinvent the wheel. We need to be who we are defensively. Offensively, we need to continue to be balanced and mix it up," Hendrix said. "As different as they are from what we largely see, I think maybe we're different from what they see."

In the latest Massey Ratings, Furman is seventh and UIW ninth. In those ratings, the Paladins' strength of schedule is No. 26 in the FCS while the Cardinals is 58th. If Saturday's game is close, Furman certainly has more experience with those. UIW's lone game decided by less than 13 points was it's only loss - a 41-35 loss at Southland co-champ Southeastern Louisiana. Furman went 6-1 in games decided by 13 points or less and 7-1 against teams in the top 57 in Massey.

That 13-point game for UIW was a 55-41 win over a (technically) FBS team in Nevada, which went 2-10 this season. The Cardinals' lone win against a team with a winning record this season with a 31-14 victory over Prairie View, which went 6-5 and ranks 77th in Massey. All three of those UIW games took place in September after the Cardinals opened the season with a 64-29 win over a Southern Illinois team that went 5-6, but is currently 21st in Massey.

"Our league's done a phenomenal job preparing us for this. I felt that way even more so after Saturday," Hendrix said. "We've played really well down the stretch and I think we've stayed in a physical, attacking mindset. I've said this all year: that's how we have to win games here. We have to out-tough people, physically and mentally."

Ten Paladins set for a homecoming

While Furman has never played a game in Texas, plenty of Paladins did in high school. There are 10 Texans on the roster, including four at running back. Wayne Anderson Jr., who was another Texan running back before shifting to receiver this year, is from Prosper - about a four-and-a-half drive to Incarnate Word.

While that would be one of Furman's longest road trips in the Southern Conference, Anderson said it's close enough to have plenty of family and friends in the stands Saturday.

"I'll just say a whole lot of people are coming," Anderson said with a smile Monday. "I've been talking to a lot of my teammates already asking for more tickets."

Furman legend Bob King also hailed from Texas. King, who was the school's first-ever All-SoCon selection in 1936 and was the Paladins head coach from 1958-72, hailed from Ranger.

Hendrix said playing a game in what's become a recruiting pipeline for Furman can only help that grow. He's more excited about this game for another reason though.

"I'm just really thrilled for these kids. They came here with not anticipation of probably ever playing back home as a Furman Paladin," Hendrix said. "Obviously, there's great high school football there and there are a lot of kids that fit our academic profile, which is relatively small in relation to who we compete against." 

Special teams are still special

While Elon snapped Furman's string of consecutive field goals blocked at four with a pair of 50-plus yarders last Saturday, Jack Rhodes partially blocked a punt giving the Paladins a total of 10 blocks (six field goals, two extra points, two punts) this season. Furman has blocked a kick in six consecutive games.

Jack Barton leads that unit with four blocked kicks this season. His four blocked field goals have him a tied for the FCS record for a season with four others.

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