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."

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