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.

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