Sunday, September 24, 2023

Team effort helps No. 8 Furman rip No. 21 Mercer

Jayquan Smith rushes for a 20-yard touchdown in Furman's
38-14 win over Mercer Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Mercer cut Furman's lead to 17-14 midway through the third quarter in Saturday afternoon's Southern Conference opener, there wasn't a high probability of backup quarterback Carson Jones handing off to walk-on running backs Ben Croasdale and Tyler Reid in the Paladins' final two drives.

That's just how dominant Furman's response was.

After seeing what had been a 17-0 lead cut to three, the No. 8-ranked Paladins answered with one long drive and two quick ones to pull away for a 38-14 win in front of 9,387 fans at Paladin Stadium. A disastrous end to the first half for Furman's defense carried over to a long Mercer scoring drive to open the second half. After the 21st-ranked Bears gained 154 yards on those two possessions, they had a total of 16 yards the rest of the way.

"We've had a couple of tough football games that I think prepared us well for a game like this against a really, really good Mercer team. I'm just really proud of the preparation our staff and players did," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I thought we certainly finally played a complete game. It wasn't a perfect game, but it was a complete football game."

While the defense was fantastic outside of those two drives sandwiched around halftime, this was a complete team win in every sense of the word. Eight different Paladins ran the ball for a total of 222 yards. Nine different Paladins caught passes for a total of 165 passing yards.

Quarterback Tyler Huff nearly repeated his SoCon Player of the Week effort from last week, minus the four rushing touchdowns. Furman had four rushing touchdowns again, but they were spread out between running backs Jayquan Smith, Dominic Roberto, Wayne Anderson Jr. and Myion Hicks.

"We didn't have Dom available in the second half and when you look at Jayquan and Myion, I think they were our fourth and fifth guys (on the depth chart at running back) to start the year," Hendrix said. "We really felt like we had five guys we could count on to play well and they both stepped up big in the second half.

"It was just a good team effort all the way around. We were physical up front on both sides of the ball. We ran the ball well and were balanced throwing it. We made them defend the whole field."

Huff completed 20-of-24 passes for 168 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. He was also the Paladins' leading rusher with 82 yards on 11 carries. Smith finished with 46 yards on six carries, while Roberto had 37 yards on eight attempts. Croasdale added 23 yards on three carries. An offensive line boosted by the return of All-American Jacob Johanning helped Furman average 5.4 yards per carry.

"Sitting on the sidelines was out of my control, but it was still frustrating. It was really important to get back today," Johanning said. "Since I got hurt, we had this game circled as potentially the one I could return for. So I just put all my hope into that. ... It was good to be back out there with the guys making any kind of difference I can."

With the presence of Mercer stud returner/receiver Devron Harper, special teams was going to be a key factor Saturday and Furman handily won that battle. Harper entered Saturday averaging 12.3 yards per carry, 12.1 yards per reception and 20.1 yards per punt return. Against the Paladins, Harper had two carries for four yards, three catches for 37 yards and two punt returns for two yards.

Another punt to Harper wasn't returned as it bounced off his chest and was recovered by Furman at the Mercer 13-yard line. On the next play, Anderson ran for a touchdown to push the Paladins' lead to 17-0.

Harper had two kick returns for 45 yards, but didn't have the chance at more thanks to the leg of Ian Williams. Williams, who made his only field goal attempt and all of Furman's extra points, had five of his seven kickoffs go for touchbacks. All seven reached the end zone, the first and last of which first hit the ground past the end zone. On the second one that Harper brought out, he was hammered by Justin Hartwell at the 19-yard line.

 "Coach (Tommy) Spangler does a phenomenal job with that group and they've taken on his personality," Hendrix said. "He challenges them and those guys just keep answering the bell."

The other big play on special teams came with the return of Jack Barton's block party. In a scoreless first quarter, the lone threat was snuffed out thanks to a blocked field goal by Barton. After 10 blocked kicks last season, it was the first this season for Furman. Barton had four of those blocked kicks last year, including Mercer's lone field goal attempt in the Paladins' 23-13 win in Macon.

"The field goal block, that's a unit thing. We always put our head down and know that we've got to get this down, otherwise it's three (points) on the board," said Barton, who also had four tackles including a tackle-for-loss. "We just bow our necks and try to put the guard in the backfield and blow it up. ... I got a little finger on it. I didn't really get a full mitt on it, so it almost went in but we diverted it enough."

When Anderson scored with 1:18 left in the first half, it appeared that Furman was set to take a 17-0 lead into halftime. After Mercer's first two plays of its ensuing drive netted minus-two yards, the Paladins called timeout with 30 seconds left in hopes of adding more. Instead of handing off to make Furman take another timeout, Mercer's Carter Peevy came out firing. He hit a wide open Ty James for a gain of 32. Peevy then ran for 19 yards, before finding James open again for a 26-yard touchdown with 4.9 seconds left.

Mercer got the ball to start the second half. It appeared Furman had that drive stopped near midfield, but a pass interference flag on third down extended the drive. It looked like the Paladins had it stopped again when Mercer faced a third-and-23. But Peevy scrambled for 34 yards for the first down. Three plays later on another third down, Peevy kept for an eight-yard touchdown to cut the lead to three.

There was no panic on the Furman sideline. Instead, the Paladins imposed their will the way a top 10 team should. Furman's next drive went 80 yards on 14 plays and took 7:02 off the clock. The Paladins faced just two third downs on the possession, as they kept getting chunks of yards on first down. It was capped when Hicks plunged into the end zone from a yard out.

That score came with 53 seconds left in the third quarter. Mercer had just one first down - via a pass interference penalty - the rest of the way. Braden Gilby, who earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for his play in last year's Mercer game, had another stellar performance against the Bears. He had a team-high 11 tackles, including one of Furman's three sacks.

Huff hit Mason Pline for his first touchdown as a Paladin on Furman's first drive of the fourth quarter, while Smith scampered 20 yards for a touchdown on the next to close out the scoring. Pline, a 6-foot-7, 260-pound grad transfer tight end who played in a run heavy offense at Ferris State, had four receptions for 30 yards Saturday.

"When we brought him, we saw the potential he had so we knew right away that we needed to get on the same page and get our chemistry right," Huff said. "I think we've done a good job of that through fall camp and as the season has gone along. ... I love throwing it up to the big guy because he always comes down with it. It makes my job easier." 

Furman has a bye next week before hosting The Citadel at 2 p.m. on Oct. 7.

Saturday, September 23, 2023

Paladins' O-line gets a boost for SoCon opener

Furman's offensive line should get a boost Saturday by the return
of All-American Jacob Johanning. Photo courtesy of Furman

When eighth-ranked Furman opens Southern Conference play by hosting No. 21 Mercer Saturday, the Paladins will welcome back a familiar face along the offensive front. All-American right guard Jacob Johanning is set to return to the field for the first time in 2023 after suffering a non-football related neck injury prior to preseason camp. Saturday would be the 31st career start for the redshirt senior, who's Furman's most experienced offensive lineman.

It will be a welcomed addition back to an offensive line that has dealt with other injured players as well this season.

"We started practice August 2. (Sunday) was the first day we had all of our (offensive linemen) available, so I'm excited about that. I know what (Johanning) brings to our football team," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "At the same time, I think the experience we've had guys get these last three games in some tough situations has been great for us."

In last Saturday's win at Kennesaw State, the Paladins (2-1) had a slow start offensively before Tyler Huff's passing seemed to open up things for the running game. In turn, running back Dominic Roberto and the offensive front looked more like what's been seen in the past. Still, there are issues that a healthy Johanning and others should help fix.

Kennesaw State had three sacks last week giving Furman opponents eight sacks this season. Over the final eight games last year, the Paladins allowed only seven sacks.

When Furman tried to run the clock after taking a 28-14 lead in the fourth quarter last Saturday, those running lanes shut down again like they did in the first quarter. After the Owls rallied to tie, the Paladins' offense suddenly came back to life driving down the field for Ian Williams' game-winning field goal.

"Offensive line is a real comfort thing. Just want to be comfortable where your at and with who you're playing next to. You want to be able to build up a level of trust with one another," said center Wyatt Hughes. "Having Jake back is huge for that reason especially because he's someone everyone trusts. He's one of the toughest, most physical guys I've ever seen on a football field. Having that physicality back up front is really going to be a lot of help against a really good defensive front in Mercer."

Defense seeks repeat performance against Bears

Furman's key 23-13 win at Mercer last year was highlighted by perhaps the finest defensive performance for the Paladins all season. Linebacker Braden Gilby won SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors the following week after he had 12 tackles, including three tackles for loss.

Gilby had one of Furman's five sacks as Mercer allowed as many sacks that day as it had all season to that point - Mercer's 10th game. The Paladins allowed the Bears just 50 yards rushing on 30 attempts. While many of the same players will take the field Saturday, Gilby said none of what happened last year will matter.

"We're pretty confident as a defense in fixing stuff from last week. ... Last year, we did bring it to them and we plan on doing the same this year, but that's our week in, week out kind of mindset," Gilby said. "As a defense, we have to have that confidence in ourselves."

Back home in the sun

Saturday's game is set for a 1 p.m. kickoff at Paladin Stadium. It will be streamed on ESPN+ and carried locally on CW Ch. 62. It will be Furman's first home game since the season opener on the last day of August and the first day game of the season.

"You guys know me. You know I'm happy to be kicking off in the daylight and at home. ... It seems like it's been a while since we've played at home, which it has been," Hendrix said. "I think we've been in three really tough ballgames. ... I think that's going to help us (moving forward).

"We didn't play our best football all the time (at Kennesaw), but we're showing we can be pretty good in all areas. ... I think our best game's clearly still ahead of us. We could certainly need it this week if we want to get a win."

Huff honored

Huff was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Week following his four-touchdown performance at Kennesaw. He ran 19 times for 79 yards and those four scores tied a single-game school record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. Huff also completed 24-of-32 passes for 237 yards with no interceptions.

The only other Furman quarterback to run for four touchdowns in a single game was Frankie DeBusk, who did so in a 44-20 win over East Tennessee State in 1989.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Williams' field goal lifts Paladins over Owls

Tyler Huff, left, and Fred Norman celebrate after one of Huff's four touchdowns
in Furman's 31-28 win at Kennesaw State Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

KENNESAW, Ga. - Tyler Huff did something no Furman quarterback has ever done Saturday and kicker Ian Williams did something he's personally never done. Huff put the Paladins in a position to win with four rushing touchdowns and Williams made a game-winning 19-yard field goal with 21 seconds left as No. 7-ranked Furman defeated Kennesaw State, 31-28.

The Paladins (2-1) finished with 159 yards rushing as a team, the second-highest total allowed by the FBS-transitioning Owls over their last eight games. It was a pretty remarkable sum considering that Furman had a grand total of three yards rushing on eight attempts in the first quarter. Saturday was one of those cases of passing to set up the run. Once Huff got cooking through the air, running lanes got less crowded and the offense started to click.

"I'm just really proud of our team. That last one was an awesome drive. We just kind of kept answering," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "I thought we played really well defensively in the first half. ... There's a lot of stuff we've got to clean up and we will. It'll be nice to get back home and play (next Saturday)."

Huff's fourth touchdown gave the Paladins a 28-14 lead early in the fourth quarter before the Owls (1-2) rallied to tie the game. On a 3rd-and-7 play, Gabriel Benyard took a handoff up the middle 49 yards as Kennesaw pulled even at 28-28 with 3:29 left. That marked the second time that the Owls got a big play on third-and-long with a simple handoff up the gut.

Furman, which had one total yard of offense in its previous two drives following Huff's fourth score, suddenly came back to life once the game was tied. Huff completed 3-of-3 passes for 33 yards and ran three times for 25 yards on the drive. His last run came on 3rd-and-2 at the Kennesaw State three-yard line. While he picked up just a yard, he carried the ball from right hashmark to the left.

That ball placement opened the door for the right-footed Williams to kick the game-winner. Typically left-footed Axel Lepvreau handles extra points and short field goals, but with the ball on the left hash and the tight angle from being that close to the goal line it just made more sense to go to Williams. Williams admitted he was hoping the ball might end up on that side of the field.

"I missed that first one (a 46-yard attempt that sailed wide right) in the first quarter, so in the back of my head I was wanting another kick. I've been able to kick a few extra points this year so I've gotten a little bit of a rhythm for those short kicks," Williams said. "I was like 'Let's go. He's going to run it left, so I can play my draw.'

"I actually have never hit a game-winner before. I've hit game-closing field goals (to seal a win), but never a game-winner so that was fun."

Kennesaw, which had nine offensive plays of at least 20 yards Saturday, wasn't dead yet. Williams, who puts kickoffs through the back of the end zone on a routine basis, booted a line drive on this kickoff with 21 seconds left. Benyard fielded the ball at the two-yard line and returned it 35 yards to the Owls' 37 with 17 seconds showing on the clock.

If you thought it was a little unbelievable someone could run a football 35 yards and get tackled in only four seconds, have I got a story for you. As he did about seven other times in the final minute of each half, the referee asked the clock operator to "please reset the game clock" following a play. This time he asked to have it put at 19 seconds. That's right - from 21 before the 35-yard kick return to 19 after it. According to the official, the Owls have a kid fast enough to run a football 35 yards and get tackled in two seconds.

"We make the kick and then we have a line drive kick right to the returner. That wasn't what we had planned on doing," Hendrix said. "That was the one guy we didn't want returning it. I don't know how (only) two seconds run off the clock. I tried to get them to stop the game (and review it). That's impossible for that to happen." 

After the game clock foolishness commenced, the Owls had a nine-yard pass completion and got out of bounds with 14 seconds left. KSU quarterback Jonathan Murphy then took a deep shot into double coverage. Furman's Cally Chizik, who was in front of intended receiver Isaac Foster, went up and grabbed the interception. He maintained his grip on the ball while falling to the ground as Foster tried to rip it away. The two wrestled for the ball after both hit the ground, with Chizik coming out of the scrum with it. Video review confirmed the pick and Furman began to celebrate a road win against a team that's not fully FBS yet, but does currently have more scholarship players than the Paladins.

"I wasn't too concerned about the review. I was pretty confident about it. ... I was very surprised (there was any fight for the ball). I had no idea he was that close to me," Chizik said. "It was a rough game for me. I'm glad I could bounce back. All glory to God for that."

That was the first turnover of the game for either team and ended a streak of 141 consecutive passes without an interception for Murphy, dating back to the 2021 season opener.

After a scoreless first quarter, Murphy threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Benyard for a KSU touchdown early in the second quarter. On its ensuing drive, Furman answered with a 15-play, 75-yard march for a touchdown. After going 0-for-4 on third down over their first four drives, the Paladins converted 4-of-4 on this one. Huff capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run.

The scoring drive, which was highlighted by a diving 27-yard catch by redshirt freshman Ethan Harris, shaved 7:11 off the clock. Furman's well-rested defense then forced a three-and-out.

On the Paladins' next drive, Huff completed 3-of-3 passes for 27 yards sandwiched around a 14-yard by Dominic Roberto. It ended when Huff rumbled 28 yards for a touchdown as Furman took a 14-7 lead into halftime.

With 1:23 left in the third quarter, the Paladins pushed the lead to 21-7 on a four-yard scoring run by Huff. The big play on that drive came when Huff hit Ben Ferguson for a 40-yard gain to the Owls' eight-yard line.

That began a stretch of four consecutive scoring drives - two apiece for each team. Furman's last one in that run was a 14-yard touchdown run by Huff on a third-and-nine play that put Furman up 28-14 with 12:40 left in the game. He became first quarterback in Furman history to run for four touchdowns in a single game. It was the first four-touchdown performance by a Paladin since Roberto scored four at Western Carolina in 2021.

"I think we just came out a little sluggish, but eventually we turned it on. We started rallying behind the defense because they were playing well. Then it was vice versa. They weren't playing bad by any means, but when they gave up a couple of scores we knew we had to answer," Huff said. "A few of those big plays we hit later on, we tried early but just didn't hit. We just trusted the plays because that's what we prepared for all week."

Huff finished with 79 yards rushing on 19 carries, which includes 19 yards lost on three sacks. Roberto ran 16 times for 73 yards. Huff also completed 24-of-32 passes for 237 yards with no interceptions. A total of 10 different Paladins caught at least one pass.

Murphy finished with 306 yards on 17-of-31 passing for Kennesaw. He also had 63 yards on 15 carries. Benyard had 136 yards receiving on six catches and rushed for 65 yards on six attempts.

"There's certainly some things we've got to do better and that part certainly disappointing," Hendrix said. "But to be able to put the drive together, knock the kick through there ... and Cally came up with the big play at the end.

"We will learn from this, but we're going to enjoy the win. We celebrate wins around here. That one was a tough one to get and we knew it would be."

Furman opens Southern Conference play next Saturday, hosting Mercer at 1 p.m.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

Paladins set for final tune-up before SoCon play

Furman's Luke Shiflett hauls in a touchdown pass against
South Carolina last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

There's plenty on Furman's "to do" list when the Paladins travel to Kennesaw State Saturday to wrap up the non-conference portion of its schedule. Kickoff is set for 5 p.m. and the game will be streamed on ESPN+.

Goal No. 1 each week obviously is to win. A victory Saturday over an Owls program currently transitioning from FCS to FBS would help No. 7 Furman maintain its high ranking in the FCS polls. For fans, it might help heal some old wounds from the only other time the teams met - a 52-42 Kennesaw State win at Paladin Stadium in 2016. While the Paladins made a valiant comeback attempt that day, it came after getting obliterated in the first half to the tune of a 49-14 halftime deficit.

There are a few things Furman coach Clay Hendrix would like to see his team improve on Saturday. At the top of that list are getting more pressure on the quarterback on defense and running the ball more effectively on offense.

Playing a South Carolina team that allowed nine sacks in the season opener, Furman never got close to sacking Spencer Rattler last Saturday. The one time the Paladins got a hit on him, he threw a perfect 47-yard touchdown pass.

"I was really disappointed in the lack of pressure we got on him," Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "We're a pressure team. To do that, you've got to get there. If not, you really hang the back-half (of your defense) out to dry."

Looking at Kennesaw's stats, there appears to be a good chance to work on that. While the Owls (1-1) have made changes with both coordinators - making last year's game films pretty useless from a preparation standpoint, they still like to run the ball. The difference this season is they run the triple-option out of the shotgun.

Two games into the season, Kennesaw quarterback Jonathan Murphy has thrown 34 passes, but has been sacked seven times. That includes five last week by Chattanooga in the Mocs' 27-20 win.

Murphy is the Owls' leading rusher with 122 yards on 30 carries and has been an effective passer. He's completed 24 of those 34 throws for 400 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Furman should not face a defensive front like South Carolina's again, but the Paladins are currently averaging 137 yards rushing per game and 3.9 yards per carry. Getting that going this week could be a challenge. Kennesaw has held opponents to 3.6 yards per carry. Last Saturday, the Owls limited Chattanooga standout Ailym Ford to 58 yards on 17 carries. The Mocs did find success passing the ball though as Chase Artopoeus completed 23-of-28 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns.

"I certainly would like to run the football better. I think it's something we're going to have to continue to do," Hendrix said. "I think we played better up front last week than we did the week before.

"We were without two (offensive line) guys in Fred (Norman) and Jake (Johanning). Hopefully we get Jake back soon, but it won't be this week. I think Fred will be ready to go. I think we've built some depth there and will continue to get better."

When Norman was unable to go last week after suffering an arm injury against Tennessee Tech, redshirt junior Blake Hundley made his first collegiate start. He logged a career-high 67 plays against the Gamecocks.

One area that Furman hopes it will continue to thrive in is rushing defense. That will obviously be a key Saturday against a run-based offense. South Carolina became just the second opponent to rush for more than 100 yards in the Paladins' last eight games, but they only had 108 on 39 attempts. That's an average of 2.8 yards per carry. Over those last eight games, Furman's opponents have averaged 2.6 yards per carry.

"They've (Kennesaw) probably been a program for less than 10 years, but they've got to be one of the winningest FCS programs. In transitioning to FBS, I know they've added scholarships so we're kind of playing FBS teams back-to-back," Hendrix said. "I've known (Kennesaw coach) Brian (Bohannon) for a long time. He's been successful everywhere he's been. They have great team speed and will certainly be a huge challenge for us."

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Rattler, late first half fiasco sink Paladins

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff dives forward during the Paladins'
loss at South Carolina Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

COLUMBIA - Furman stood toe-to-toe with South Carolina for most of the first half Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium. But the final minute of it became a complete nightmare for the Paladins. For most of the second half, they never woke up.

Early in the second quarter, Furman led 14-7. South Carolina pulled even midway through the quarter and then added two more touchdowns in the final 43 seconds. The Gamecocks scored two more in the third quarter and pulled away for a 47-21 win.

"We're certainly disappointed with the outcome of the game. I felt late in the second quarter we were right where we wanted to be," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "You're going to have those tsunamis come out you from time to time, you just can't let it get followed by another one. It just snowballed on us.

"I felt like if we could come out in the third quarter with a drive to make it a one-possession game (they would get back in it), but we just couldn't get those chunk plays. Seems like we started every drive at our 20 or 25. Against their talent, it's just hard to string a lot of those plays together."

After getting sacked nine times in a loss to North Carolina last week, USC's Spencer Rattler basically did whatever he wanted Saturday. Rattler completed 25-of-27 passes for 345 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also had a rushing touchdown, was never sacked and only hit once on a pass. On that play, he still threw a perfect strike for a 47-yard touchdown.

It was more of the same when Rattler's backups came on in the second half. USC's four quarterbacks finished with 463 yards on 32-of-38 passing with five touchdowns and no interceptions. That's the fifth-most passing yards allowed by Furman in a single game ever.

Hendrix was surprised and obviously disappointed that Furman could not get more pressure on the quarterbacks.

"We pressure a lot. You certainly would've hoped to have gotten to him a few more times," Hendrix said. "I think really the killer was on two of those long touchdowns, we lost containment of the quarterback. I don't think he ever makes those throws if we don't let him do that.

"I'm proud of our team. They competed, but credit (South Carolina). They did a good job of adjusting from disappointment a week ago. I think they have a chance to have a good football team."

The most disappointing aspect of the last two-and-a-half quarters of Saturday's game for Furman was how dramatically different they were from the start of the game. After USC missed a 50-yard field goal on the opening possession, it took all of 2:49 for Furman to find the end zone.

On Furman's first snap, quarterback Tyler Huff kept for a 14-yard gain. On the next play, wide receiver Joshua Harris took an end around but he pulled up and fired a bomb downfield to Kyndel Dean for a 51-yard gain to the Gamecocks' three-yard line. On fourth-and-goal from the one, Huff got under center, 288-pound backup noseguard Sirod Cook went in at fullback and paved the way for Dominic Roberto to slam into the end zone.

"We practice it (the receiver pass) all the time and after practice, I throw it around a lot," Harris said of his first collegiate pass. "On that particular play, I knew it was a duck but I knew I put enough power on it. After I threw it, I got hit and fell down. I looked to the sideline and saw everybody cheering, so I knew I got it there."

Later in the first quarter, Furman began an 11-play, 66-yard scoring drive. It ended when Huff faked a handoff to his right, rolled to his lift and hit Luke Shiflett for a four-yard touchdown as Furman took a 14-7 lead with 11:57 left in the second quarter.

Like it did after Furman's first score, USC had an immediate response. On third-and-goal from the one-yard line, Rattler - who was 14-of-14 passing at that point - plowed into the end zone as the Gamecocks tied it up.

It was still 14-14 when Furman began a possession with 6:19 left. This is when things started going downhill for the Paladins (1-1). On the first play, Huff connected with Shiflett for a gain of 11 yards. After Shiflett was tackled, a flag flew in and the call was offensive pass interference against Ben Ferguson. That curious call essentially ended the drive before it began.

On South Carolina's ensuing possession, the Gamecocks faced fourth-and-two at the Furman 41. USC coach Shane Beamer let the play clock run down to one and the game clock run down to 56 seconds before calling timeout as the sold-out home crowd booed in disapproval. Coming out of the timeout, the offense stayed on the field and Rattler completed a five-yard throw. On the next play, Rattler had all day to throw and hit a wide-open Luke Doty in the end zone for a 36-yard touchdown. USC faked the extra point, but Furman snuffed it out to keep the deficit at 20-14 with 43 seconds left.

"Fourth-and-one (two) and they throw it on us, but made a great throw and catch," Hendrix said. "On the next play, we run into each other and give up the big touchdown."

On a third-and-two for Furman on its next possession, Roberto was ruled short of the first down. Furman challenged and the play stood. After Furman's punt, USC took over at its own 25 with 23 seconds left. On the first play, Rattler completed a 53-yard pass down the right sideline. Two plays later, a pass interference call - which Furman should've tried to get on the 53-yard completion - against Travis Blackshear moved the ball to the seven-yard line with seven seconds left. On the next play, Rattler hit O'Mega Blake in the end zone for a touchdown as USC took a 27-14 lead into halftime.

"I didn't want to give them the ball back, so we ran a power play (on third down) and I thought we got a terrible spot. I thought we had the first down," Hendrix said. "We covered the punt well, but then once again we lost contain. We gave him three or four more seconds to heave it down there."

In hindsight, Furman should've interfered with Blake as well rather than give up the score. Hendrix said that mindset of purposely drawing a flag is hard to get into for defenders.

After that fiasco, it was vitally important for Furman to get things back in order after getting the ball to start the second half. The Paladins converted a pair of third downs on a 10-play drive, but a second sack of Huff basically killed the drive at midfield.

Ryan Leavy's punt was downed at the South Carolina 10, but on the first play Rattler threw deep for a 46-yard gain. Three plays later on third-and-eight, Rattler threw another bomb. This one went to Xavier Leggette for a 42-yard touchdown. That pushed the lead to 34-14 and even though there was still 8:36 left in the third quarter, it sure felt like the game was over. That was definitely the feeling on the USC sideline as Rattler took the rest of the night off.

"We just couldn't get anything going (in the third quarter)," Hendrix said.

Furman did have one last highlight to make the score a bit more respectable. After Luke McLaughlin recovered a fumble at the USC 16, backup quarterback Carson Jones threw a touchdown to tight end Brock Chappell. It was the first collegiate touchdowns for Jones, a redshirt freshman, and and Chappell, a true freshman.

Huff completed 14-of-24 passes for 129 yards with the one touchdown and one interception. After that 14-yard run on the first play, Huff had seven attempts for one yard the rest of the way as he was sacked three times. Roberto was held in check by USC all night as he finished with 20 yards on nine carries. In addition to his 51-yard pass, Harris caught six passes for 73 yards.

In his fourth career game at Williams-Brice, Hugh Ryan led Furman's defense with a game-high 10 tackles. It was his first loss at USC's stadium as the Irmo native was part of three state championship teams at Dutch Fork High.

"It was an awesome atmosphere and it was pretty cool to be back here again. I just wish the defense could've played better," Ryan said. "We've got some issues on defense that we've got to get fixed. They came to the forefront today. We can't let it be a negative. We've got to make it positive by learning from it."

Furman next plays at Kennesaw State next Saturday at 5 p.m.

Saturday, September 9, 2023

Paladins taking confidence to Columbia

Furman defensive tackle Matt Sochovka
Photo courtesy of Furman

Furman players know the challenges they will face Saturday when the Paladins take on South Carolina at 7:30 p.m. Williams-Brice Stadium will surely be electric for a night game and USC's home opener. They will also face a team looking to atone for a rough showing in a season-opening loss to North Carolina last week.

They also know the opportunity those challenges bring. Any win against an FBS school makes waves throughout the FCS. One against a team from Power Five conference, much less an SEC foe? That makes shockwaves. It's a chance to over validate Furman's current No. 6 ranking in both FCS polls and take a big step towards being recognized as a national power again. There's a reason why North Dakota State has played only one FBS team since 2016. That one was Arizona last year, who rallied for a 31-28 win to snap NDSU's six-game winning streak against FBS opponents.

The Paladins (1-0) are also fully aware of Furman's history when it comes to these games. While Furman has gone 0-7 against FBS teams since beating Central Florida in 2015, winning those games was the norm back when Dick Sheridan was building an elite FCS (then I-AA) program. In Furman coach Clay Hendrix's playing days, the Paladins went 4-0 against FBS (then I-A) teams. That streak started with a 28-23 win over South Carolina in 1982.

Hendrix said the landscape of college football has changed quite a bit over the last 40 years.

"The financial commitment is so drastically different. ... They've got 25 more scholarships and we don't have a single guy on our team that they recruited. I don't think we have one that they offered a walk-on spot to, but that's what's unique about our sport. ... It's the greatest team sport there is and they can only put 11 out there at a time," Hendrix said. "It's (USC) a vastly different place than it was in 1982. I wish we were playing that team, but that was a good Furman team that went down there and played to.

"But we put this game on our board as a goal of ours. We haven't talked much about it until this week, but this is the most important game on our schedule - this week. I know our kids will be excited to go play in a huge, huge challenge."

Having started in a game in this kind of environment should help Furman's second-year signal caller, Tyler Huff. Last season at Clemson, Furman outgained the Tigers 386-374, but that didn't translate on the scoreboard as the Paladins lost, 35-12. Huff hopes his offense can get off to a similar start as it did in Death Valley, albeit with a different result.

"Our first drive at Clemson, we drove it all the way down, had a really good chance to score in the red zone and kind of slipped up a little bit. But I think that first drive gave everybody confidence," Huff said. "I think we have the same goal this week, just be comfortable going out there. They're not unbeatable by any means. It's a tall task for sure, but it's something we can definitely manage. We're all excited to go prove that."

Veteran defensive tackle Matt Sochovka said he found a little more inspiration for this week's task at hand with Colorado's season-opening win over 2022 FBS national runner-up TCU. New coach Deion Sanders overhauled the Buffaloes' entire roster, which including the addition of 10 players from his former school - FCS member Jackson State. Those include Sanders' son, quarterback Shedeur, who broke nine school records after throwing for 510 yards and four touchdowns last Saturday.

When asked about the difference between FCS and FBS following the game, Sanders said, "the only difference between FCS and this level (FBS) is the D-line gets off blocks if you try to scramble up faster. That’s it."

After the Gamecocks (0-1) were held to minus-two yards rushing as a team last week, thanks in large part to nine sacks by North Carolina, Sochovka knows he and his defensive line mates will be challenged in the trenches.

"Looking at film they make your guys tap on the perimeter. They like their guys in space. Especially against us, I think they're going to try to do a lot of that because last year at Clemson our downfall was tackling in space. That's going to be a major key," Sochovka said. "Given what happened last week with their run game, we know we're going to get a heavy of the run game because they want to prove a point.

"Last week, Tennessee Tech did a lot of kind of smoke and mirrors and motions stuff. This week, you know what South Carolina's going to do. They're going to run their stuff and they think they have the athletes to do it. So from a preparation standpoint, it's almost easier and you can play a little faster because you know what's coming. We're really excited for the challenge up front for this week."

Saturday's game will be televised on the SEC Network.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Special teams a key in Furman's opening win

Furman's Ben Ferguson hauls in a 45-yard pass that sparked a big fourth quarter
in the Paladins' opening win over Tennessee Tech. Photo courtesy of Furman

While Furman's defensive effort, highlighted by six turnovers, was the well-deserved main story of the Paladins' opening night 45-10 win over Tennessee Tech last Thursday, special teams was also a key.

  • Ian Williams did his usual thing on kickoffs. Of his eight, only one was returned and five bounded through the back of the end zone for touchbacks.
  • Joshua Harris returned a punt 32 yards to the Tennessee Tech 45-yard line. Five plays later, Dominic Roberto ran for a nine-yard touchdown to push Furman's lead to 21-3 late in the first half.
  • True freshman Colton Hinton had a 29-yard kickoff return with 39 seconds left in the first half. A couple of illegal procedure penalties foiled Furman's two-minute drive though. It ended with Williams missing a school-record 58-yard field the fell just short and just wide to the left.
  • Ryan Leavy had all four of his punts go over 50 yards, averaging 51.2 yards per punt for the game. His net average is 49.8 yards per punt as Tennessee Tech had just six return yards.

Leavy's punt average ranks No. 1 in the FCS one week into the season, but that somehow didn't earn him Southern Conference Special Teams Player of the Week honors. Based on his comments in the postgame press conference, Leavy doesn't seem like the kind of player who's thirsty for accolades though.

"It's my job to punt the pigskin down the field, so I'm going to do my job," Leavy said to the smiling approval of teammates and Furman coach Clay Hendrix seated next to him. "If these boys (offensive, defensive teammates) can put as much blood, sweat and tears in it as they do, I can punt a ball down the field."

Three of Leavy's punts came during an otherwise mundane third quarter, which helped flip the field and rescue Furman from some rough starting field position. Leavy's punts had enough hang time to allow for the Paladins get downfield. That was evident on the last one which saw Hugh Ryan rip the ball away from the returner and Nicky Kuzemka recover at the 12-yard line. That led to the lone points of the third quarter - a 32-yard field goal by Williams to push the lead to 24-10.

"That (punting) was huge the other night. We were struggling offensively and we come out for the second half and our first two possessions are inside the 10. ... Coach (Tommy) Spangler does an unbelievable job with our special teams and preparation," Hendrix said. "We feel really good about our kicking game. We've got about as good a long snapper (Julian Ashby) as there is at any level, and we're kicking, punting and covering it well."

Ferguson sparks big fourth quarter

After that offensively-challenged third quarter, Tennessee Tech was still hanging around trailing 24-10. With Furman in need of a spark to create some breathing room in the fourth, sophomore receiver Ben Ferguson delivered.

Ferguson got ahead of two defenders and quarterback Tyler Huff hit him in stride for a 45-yard gain to the Eagles' 15. That led to another nine-yard touchdown run by Roberto to begin what became a 21-point final quarter for the Paladins.

"My self-reflection of last year was the lack of big plays in the passing game. That's obviously directly on me, so my whole goal this offseason was to attack downfield and practice that more with our guys," Huff said. "I think a lot of my guys and I are on the same page now with those deep balls. I think that will just open up our offense way more."

Stephens gets big man pick

Noseguard Xavier Stephens, who led Furman with 4.5 sacks last season after transferring from Lehigh, made the most of his first career start Thursday. He held on to an interception while falling on his back for one of the Paladins' four picks.

It's the first interception by a Furman defensive lineman since 2019, when the guy next to Stephens had one. On the defense's final play of a blowout win at Samford that season, defensive tackle Matt Sochovka had a pick.

"The 'big man pick' always means a little bit more. The funny thing is Xavier dropped one of those last year at ETSU. For his birthday this year, I sent him the clip and said 'happy birthday, butter fingers,' " Sochovka said. "When he caught the pick Thursday he was kind of giving me some junk back, but it was awesome. Just to have picks on all four levels - safety, corner, linebacker and d-line - was really cool."

Achina out for the season again

Linebacker Amaah Achina, who earned the starting job at the spur as a redshirt freshman last year, has unfortunately suffered another season-ending injury. He had foot surgery Tuesday morning after getting hurt in the opener. This one comes after his missed most of the 2022 season when he was injured in week two against Clemson.

"I really hate that for Amaah and all he's been through since that injury last year," Hendrix said. "He was doing good things for us and he will be a good player when he has the chance to come back."

Hendrix said wide receiver Wayne Anderson, left tackle Pearson Toomey and most others who left during the Tennessee Tech game with injuries should be good to go Saturday at South Carolina. As of Tuesday, Hendrix said the status of new starting right tackle Fred Norman Jr. is questionable. Norman, a grad transfer from ETSU, is another who left last Thursday's game and didn't return. If Norman can't play, junior Blake Hundley is projected to make his first career start.

Saturday's game will be televised on the SEC Network with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m.

Friday, September 1, 2023

New football season, same thieving Paladins

Furman's Jack Barton leaps in front of Tennessee Tech's Ethan Roberts, forcing an errant pass that
was intercepted by Xavier Stephens in the Paladins' 45-10 win Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman

No team in the FCS forced more turnovers (29) or had more interceptions (18) in 2022 than Furman. One game into the 2023 season, it appears the Paladins are determined to maintain their kleptomaniacal ways. Sixth-ranked Furman scored 31 points off six turnovers, including four interceptions, as they rolled over Tennessee Tech, 45-10, at Paladin Stadium Thursday.

While it wasn't as dominant as it was in a 26-0 win at Tennessee Tech two years ago, Furman's defense was solid all night and obviously opportunistic. The offense was sluggish for much of the night, but both units saved their best for last. With the Golden Eagles barely hanging around and trailing 24-10 entering the fourth quarter, Furman finally landed the knockout blows. The Paladins outgained the Eagles 178-18 and outscored them 21-0 in the final quarter.

"I'm really pleased with how we finished. I don't know about anybody else, but I knew it was going to be a tough football game against a veteran group," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "With the exception of that (touchdown) drive before half, we played really well defensively.

"We probably had three offensive linemen playing their first meaningful snaps of their career. I think that group will take a little bit of time and we will figure out what we need to do. When we go back to watch the tape, it will be the little details we didn't do very well."

The interception tone for the night was set early on and in style. On the fifth play of the game, Travis Blackshear jumped a route and had nothing but turf in front of him for a 43-yard pick six. That was Blackshear's 10th career interception, three of which have come against TTU, and the third one he's returned for a touchdown.

"It all starts with preparation. Everything you do in the dark eventually comes to light, whether it's the first game or later on down the line," Blackshear said. "You've just got to be patient and do your job. You don't get too many opportunities like that, so you've got to take advantage."

On the Eagles' ensuing drive they converted a pair of third downs, which made them 3-for-3 on third down at that point. In the 2021 matchup, they were 2-of-13 on third down for the game. The drive ended when Evan DiMaggio had a big hit on third down and TTU settled for a 38-yard field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.

Tech's next drive ended when Emmanuel Adebayo recovered a fumble near midfield. Furman drove to the Eagles' 22, but Tyler Huff's fourth-and-three pass was tipped and intercepted. Two plays later, the Paladins got it right back when Jack Barton blitzed and leaped in front of TTU quarterback Ethan Roberts. That forced an errant pass over the 6-foot-4 Barton that noseguard Xavier Stephens intercepted while falling back-first to the ground.

That led to the first touchdown in the Furman career of receiver Kyndel Dean. The James Madison transfer took an end around six yards to the end zone.

After a three-and-out by Tech, Joshua Harris had a 32-yard punt return to the Eagles' 45. That led to a nine-yard touchdown run by Dominic Roberto to push the lead to 21-3. That score was set up on a perfect fade pass from Huff to Dean for a 24-yard gain.

"Kyndal's kind of a quiet guy that you don't hear much about, but I think he had 40 catches a year ago. None of those were a touchdown though, so I was happy for him (to score)," Hendrix said. "Kyndal's that guy that just comes to work. He works hard on special teams. He blocks. ... He's going to have a big year for us."

The Eagles answered on their ensuing drive, capped on a fantastic one-handed, diving catch of a 26-yard pass in the end zone by Willie Miller on third down. That cut the lead to 21-10 going into halftime.

The saving grace of a pretty wretched third quarter of football was Furman's special teams. The Paladins had awful starting position on each of their first three drives, but each of those ended on a 50-plus yard punt by Ryan Leavy. The last of those resulted in a turnover as Hugh Ryan ripped the ball away from the returner and Nick Kuzemka recovered at the TTU 12-yard line. Furman could not full advantage of the turnover though and settled for a 32-yard field goal by Ian Williams for the lone points of the quarter.

Furman finally got back to a three-score advantage with its best drive of the night to start the fourth quarter. The Paladins marched 94 yards on 14 plays and shaved 6:53 off the clock. It was highlighted by three third-down conversions by Huff. On third-and-14, Huff turned in one of those "Huff plays." He scrambled and hurdled a would-be tackler for the final few yards of a 16-yard run.

"Tyler's so steady in everything that he does," Hendrix said. "I'm sure (a few batted passes) frustrated him a little bit, but he made a couple of great plays with his feet. He certainly didn't look timid doing that."

On third-and-four, the Paladins took a deep shot and Ben Ferguson got behind two defenders for a 45-yard catch from Huff to the Tech 15. Five players later and third-and-goal, Roberto bulled his way in from nine yards out for a touchdown to push the lead to 31-10.

Furman's defense sealed the win the way the same way they started it. Tech's ensuing drive started with a sack by Dan Scianna and Sirod Cook. It ended with Scianna rumbling 67 yards for Furman's second interception return for a touchdown of the game.

Hendrix revealed what a special moment that was for Scianna, who just lost his grandfather. On Tuesday night, Scianna returned home to Frankfort, Ill. On Wednesday night, he came back to Furman to prepare to start on Thursday.

"That (touchdown) was him (Scianna's grandfather). That was definitely him," Scianna said. "I read the quarterback and just kind of drove on the slant and Braden Gilby led me to the promised land. ... I ran track in middle school, but I haven't ran that far in awhile."

With the 38-10 lead, Furman was able to empty the bench the rest of the way. Redshirt freshman running back Jayquan Smith capped the scoring with a six-yard touchdown run for his first collegiate score.

Huff completed 15-of-27 passes for 172 yards, while rushing 10 times for 42 yards. Roberto had 18 carries for 59 yards. Nine different Paladins caught passes led by Dean, who had five receptions for 56 yards. The defense was led by Hugh Ryan, who had a game-high 12 tackles. Despite not committing a penalty until there was less than four minutes left in the first half, Furman finished with eight penalties for 53 yards.

"We made a few adjustments offensively to give us a chance to loosen them up a little and Tyler made some big throws," Hendrix said. "I'm proud of our team and our preparation. There's certainly a lot of things we have to be better at. Our guys will be off (Friday) and we will get rolling Saturday morning preparing for this next one."

Furman next plays at South Carolina next Saturday at 7:30 p.m.