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.

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