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.

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