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.

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