Sunday, October 29, 2023

Defense carries Paladins to win over ETSU

Jack Barton gets a sack during No. 3-ranked Furman's 16-8
win over ETSU Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

On the third play of the game Saturday at Paladin Stadium, No. 3-ranked Furman thought it had a touchdown. After a video review of the play, it didn't. That seemed to set the tone for the day in two ways:

  • The Paladins not scoring touchdowns when they thought they would.
  • Furman's defense coming up with one big stop after another.
Those two tones made for an inharmonious 16-8 win over East Tennessee State before a crowd of 11,237 on Homecoming. After back-to-back road trips of stellar play at Samford and Western Carolina, Saturday was reminiscent of Furman's last home game against The Citadel. The Paladins did have three more touchdowns against the Bulldogs than they did Saturday, but were facing a much better defense statistically in ETSU (2-6, 1-4 Southern Conference).

Furman's defense was a different story. The Paladins (7-1, 5-0) allowed 230 yards of total offense, held the Bucs to 3-of-15 on third down conversions and had three interceptions. They couldn't quite haul in a few more as they broke up six passes. An ETSU blocked punt return for a touchdown cost the defense a shot at a shutout.

"I was really proud of the defense and how they played all day long. They really kept us in the game," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "It was a really frustrating day offensively. ... That comes back on me. I didn't do a good enough job in getting our guys ready to go.

"We will learn from it. You look around our league, you'd better come ready to go every week and you better prepare every week. I didn't think our preparation was poor, but it has to be better."

The third play of the game was ETSU's first third down attempt. Kam Brinson went down to a knee before trying to lift it off the ground as he made an interception. With no whistle blown, Brinson raced 47 yards to the end zone for a touchdown. After video review, the call was overturned. That still left a Furman offense that had more than 500 yards in last week's top 10 win at Western Carolina in great field position on the Bucs' side of the 50.

The Paladins had 12 plays in ETSU territory on the ensuing drive - including a 4th-and-4 conversion, but somehow managed to never cross the goal line. They settled for a 23-yard field goal by Ian Williams to take a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter.

Furman's next drive featured its fourth- and second-longest plays of the day - a 17-yard pass from Tyler Huff to Joshua Harris and a 26-yard pass from Huff to Kyndel Dean. Dean gave the Paladins a first down at the Bucs' 34. Three Huff incompletions later, Furman settled for a 52-yard field goal by Williams. Williams had been 0-for-4 on field goal attempts of longer than 39 yards this season.

That field goal made it 6-0 with 3:48 left in the first quarter. As it turns out, Furman fans could've returned to their Homecoming tailgate for the next hour and 35 minutes and not missed a score. In the second quarter, the Paladins had 18 yards rushing, 31 yards passing and 40 yards worth of penalties.

What those fans would've missed were great plays by Furman's defense to end ETSU's only two drives longer than 27 yards. The Paladins looked to be on the verge of giving up a score late in the first half on a 65-yard drive by the Bucs, but it ended on a Cally Chizik interception with 18 seconds left. After being outscored 27-0 in the final two minutes of the first half over the first four games this season, the Paladins have outscored opponents 14-0 in that same time frame over the last four games.

"As the season goes on, you learn from things. You learn to stay deeper and don't let anything get behind you in those," said Chizik, who's had a knack for key interceptions his entire career. "I think we're all starting to get a better head on our shoulders as we go along each week."

After the big stop to end the first half, Furman got the ball to start the second half and Dominic Roberto popped a 13-yard run on the first play. That had to give a feeling of "here we go" along the Furman sideline and home stands. Three plays later, it was "here we go punting again" after Roberto was stuffed for a one-yard loss on third-and-two.

Following the Paladins' fourth consecutive drive that ended with a punt, ETSU drove from its own 10 to the Furman 27. On second-and-five, Furman's Jack Barton made a rag doll sack to force a third-and-10. Micah Robinson couldn't hang on to an interception, so the Paladins accepted a holding penalty to back the Bucs up 10 yards. After a great call by ETSU resulted in a 16-yard run by Trey Foster on third-and-20, the field goal unit came on for a 43-yard try. The Bucs' kick was easily blocked by Barton for the Furman-record sixth of his career.

With all that momentum from the blocked field goal, Furman went deep on its next play and Huff hit Colton Hinton for a 46-yard gain to the nine-yard line. Once again, the Paladins ended up settling for a a 32-yard field goal by Williams for a 9-0 lead with 3:22 left in the third quarter.

On ETSU's next play, Ivan Yates just missed an interception that would've been a pick six. Two plays later, Robinson didn't drop an interception this time. That set up Furman at the Bucs' 42 and five plays later, the Paladins finally found the end zone. Huff's tunnel screen to Harris went for a 22-yard score with 46 seconds left in the third quarter.

"Coach (Justin) Roper called a great play. It was third-and-six and we knew they were going to bring pressure," said Harris, who finished with 78 yards on eight receptions. "When they bring pressure, I basically just replace them. When it opened up, I could see the end zone and I was just trying to get there as quick as I can.

"We've got some things to fix, but I know we will get better."

While a 16-0 lead to start the fourth quarter may not have been a score many anticipated, it was a pretty secure advantage considering how Furman's defense was playing. That security went out the window following Furman's first drive of the final quarter. After two completions and a Roberto run netted minus-four yards, Ryan Leavy's punt was blocked by ETSU's Teddy Wilson and returned eight yards for a touchdown by Ton'Quez Ball. Hugh Ryan mauled Bucs' quarterback William Riddle on the two-point throw, but the wounded duck pass was caught in the end zone by Xavier Gaillardetz and it was a one-score game with 11:53 left.

The teams exchanged possessions, but ETSU's ended on a punt that went 59 yards and was downed inside the Furman one-yard line with 5:45 left.

"It was that kind of day," Hendrix said.

A shotgun snap to the middle of your end zone with a running game that found virtually nothing up the middle all day was a scary proposition, but Roberto managed to gain two yards on first down. A busted play, in which Huff faked a handoff to no one, allowed Huff's longest run of the day of five yards. More on that later.

On third-and-three from the eight, Huff threw a 35-yard pass down the right sideline that Luke Shiflett had no chance of catching. Furman's punt from its own end zone resulted in ETSU's taking over at the Paladins' 43 with 4:27 left to play.

On fourth-and-five from the 38, Braden Gilby put a bow on the defensive effort on a sack with his belly on the ground. After blitzing right up the middle, Gilby hit the turf face-first but had so much forward momentum from the rush that he managed to trip up the quarterback. Roberto ran for 11 yards over the next three plays, allowing Furman to kneel out the rest of the clock.

The Paladins finished with 300 yards of total offense. Huff completed 21-of-35 passes for 215 yards, while Roberto ran 22 times for 65 yards. The most perplexing stat of the day was Huff's rushing line. That five-yard gain on a busted play gave him seven yards on three carries. There were virtually no designed runs for the dual-threat quarterback and he never kept the ball on the RPO. Huff entered Saturday ranked sixth in the SoCon in rushing at 68 yards per game and third in the league at 5.9 yards per carry.

"They did a good job of containing him, but we've probably got to find a few more ways to truly have direct runs from him," Hendrix said. "Certainly, he's pretty good when he does it.

"We knew it was going to be a phone booth type of game. I don't know how many times their safeties made a tackle in our backfield. ... When they do that, you've got to hurt them down the field more and we didn't do enough of that."

The win sets up a SoCon championship game at Chattanooga (7-2, 6-1) at 1:30 p.m. The Mocs held on for a 24-23 win at VMI Saturday after the Keydets missed an extra point following the lone score of the fourth quarter. Whoever wins this Saturday will clinch at least a share of the league title and the SoCon's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. Furman will still have business to take care of in terms of an outright league crown and maintaining its high national ranking with games against VMI and at Wofford to follow. This week will be UTC's final conference game before ending its regular season at Alabama two weeks later.

"When we run this tape back, I think we will see our guys playing hard all day. Our execution wasn't very good. We showed toughness, but we've got to have all three," Hendrix said. "Obviously, we didn't have all three today, but we found a way to get it done. There's a bunch of people that would love to trade (places) with us, so we'll be happy to take it and move on."

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Roberto, defense help Furman dump Catamounts

Furman's Dominic Roberto drags Western Carolina defenders during his 154-yard
rushing day in the Paladins' 29-17 win Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

CULLOWHEE, N.C. - There were a lot of "firsts" during Furman's showdown at Western Carolina Saturday, but one thing remained a constant - Dominic Roberto's dominance of the Catamounts. Roberto ran a career-high 31 times for 154 yards and a touchdown as the No. 3/4-ranked Paladins defeated No. 14/8 Western Carolina, 29-17, before a crowd of 10,736 at E.J. Whitmire Stadium.

In handing the Catamounts their first FCS loss this season, Furman (6-1) is alone in first place in the Southern Conference at 4-0. Running and defense paved the way for that Saturday. Against a Western defense that ranked second in the SoCon in run defense allowing 122 yards per game entering Saturday, the Paladins ran for 334 and averaged 7.0 yards per carry.

On the other side of the ball, a Catamount offense that was leading the country in total yards (531.8 per game) was held to 353. Their previous low output in FCS play was 546 yards against Samford. Western's 17 points were also well below its per game average of 41.7.

"Other than the people in that (locker) room, much of the folks we had here in the stands and a few others out there too, I'm not sure many people thought we could get it done," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We believed it and it just really took everybody - great job defense, great job offense. ... I'm just so proud of our team.

"We've talked about it from the start - toughness, execution and discipline. I thought for the most part we did a really good job of all of that."

Playing in Furman's first top 10 matchup since the 2005 FCS playoffs in a hostile road environment, Paladins captain Tyler Huff was unfazed from the start. After stopping Western on the opening drive of the game, Furman was faced with a 3rd-and-7 on its third play when Huff scrambled for nine yards. The Paladins had eight more plays on the drive, but no third downs. It ended on a beautiful run fake to the right as Huff came back to his left and found Mason Pline all alone in the end zone for a 10-yard score.

That play was the only hint of trepidation by Huff all day, simply because he didn't want to screw it up. That's how open Pline was and how much time he had to throw. He carefully lobbed the ball to the end zone for the score.

"My only thought was to throw it high enough so nobody could jump and tip it because he was just sitting there hanging out by himself," Huff said.

Western's ensuing drive ended on another failed fourth down thanks to a pass breakup by Micah Robinson. Furman proceeded to march 66 yards on five plays - only facing one second down along the way. That drive was capped when Huff faked a handoff left, rolled to his right and hit Colton Hinton in the middle of the end zone for a 16-yard score.

That helped Furman take a 13-0 lead after one quarter as Furman became the first team to hold the Catamounts scoreless over the opening 15 minutes. Western got on the board early in the second quarter, but Furman answered in 89 seconds. After Wayne Anderson broke off a 54-yard run to the 18-yard line, a pair of nine-yard runs by Roberto over the next two plays pushed the lead back to 13 at 20-7.

After Western cut the lead to 20-14 later in the second quarter, it appeared that Furman had answered again. Huff hit Hinton in the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown with three seconds left but the score was wiped out by a holding penalty.

On a rough day for Furman special teams, Ian Williams' 50-yard field goal as time expired sailed wide right and the Paladins took a 20-14 lead into the half. Furman opened the second half with a 15-play drive that shaved 7:32 off the clock, but it also ended with no points. A bad snap on a 32-yard field goal led to a kick that traveled about five yards and was caught by Western's Ed Jones, who returned to the Catamounts' 22.

Western drove into Furman's red zone threatening to take its first lead of the game before Cally Chizik came up with an interception at the one-yard line. It was Western quarterback Cole Gonzales' first interception in SoCon play and just his third this season. The Paladins got the ball to the 22 before having to punt. After Ryan Leavy's shanked punt went for one yard earlier Saturday, Williams came on for this punt but it traveled just 13 yards before floating out of bounds at the Furman 35.

The Catamounts could not take advantage though as Furman's defense rose up for perhaps its best series of the day. Braden Gilby hurried a first down screen pass that sailed incomplete. On second down, Xavier Stephens dropped Branson Adams for a three-yard loss. On third down, Alex Maier opened the fourth quarter with a sack for a loss of seven that forced Western's lone punt. It was the second sack of the day for the Paladins. Entering Saturday, the Catamounts had only allowed three sacks all season, including none in SoCon play.

"We practiced getting pressure on them all week. I really just credit the guys up front getting me open and being able to run through the gap," said Evan DiMaggio, who had two of Furman's three sacks. "We always have confidence, but after getting nine or 10 sacks last week (at Samford) that gave us even more."

Furman's ensuing possession ate up 6:12 off the clock and ended on Williams' 39-yard field goal with 7:54 that finally gave the Paladins a two-score lead again at 23-14. Western answered, but had to settle for a 43-yard field goal by Richard McCollum.

Now leading 23-17, Furman's offense looked to retire as much of the remaining 5:05 as possible. Western did have three timeouts and it had to know what was coming, but it still couldn't stop it. Roberto ran for seven yards and then six for a first down. Then he ran for three, six and three and another first down before Western called its first timeout with 1:57 left.

"I feels like you're fighting with oxygen," Roberto said with a laugh as he described trying to run the clock out. "We prepare for that stuff in the summertime with (Strength Coach Andre) Bernardi. Pushing through that tiredness and fatigue to get that next first down was all that was in my mind."

Roberto's next two runs netted just one yard, leaving Furman with a 3rd-and-9. Western was gifted a free timeout when the Paladins were flagged for a chop block on the second run, despite the fact that Roberto was tackled immediately after the handoff. The Catamounts had no choice but to decline the penalty to bring up third down with 1:05 left. Perhaps its a "last two minutes" rule that changes how the clock operates after a declined penalty, but for whatever reason the clock did not start until the third down play was snapped.

A few seconds later, none of that mattered. After those seven consecutive handoffs to Roberto to start the drive, Huff faked the handoff to Roberto. With the linemen joining Roberto running left, Huff went right and could've run back to Greenville. His 53-yard score pushed the lead to 29-17 with 54 seconds left.

"For a split second I thought, 'I should probably just go down,' but then I got selfish," Huff said with a smile. "But we ended it the right way, so it was good."

As it turns out, the offense's No. 6 going for six got the defense's No. 6 a pick. Western's ensuing drive ended when Gonzales tried to throw the ball away, but didn't throw it far enough as Hugh Ryan raced up along the sideline and snagged an interception with 15 seconds left.

Furman had a 21:07 to 8:53 advantage in time of possession in the second half and became the first team all season to keep the Catamounts out of the end zone after halftime. DiMaggio had a team-high 10 tackles, including eight solo stops, while Ryan had eight tackles to lead the superb defensive effort.

"I can't say I thought we'd do that (holding Western to three points in the second half) because they certainly are good. Games are all about matchups. I don't put a whole lot of stock in who's done what and by what score," Hendrix said. "I just think we're a solid football team in every phase. We can run it. We can throw it. We've been really good on special teams, but we weren't really good today. And then defensively, we can get after a passer which we did.

"I just watched our guys (defensive linemen) get pulled down and I'm really, really frustrated with that, but they just kept working. They were just effort sacks. They didn't give up on something. "

Roberto's 154-yard effort gives him 603 yards over his last three games against the Catamounts.

"I've had my best games against them, but that's a great group of players over there," Roberto said. "I'll always love the competitive nature. They're always talking trash, but that keeps the game entertaining."

Along with Roberto's big day on the ground, Huff had 89 yards on six carries while Anderson ran eight times for 85 yards. Huff was 13-of-22 passing for 174 yards with no interceptions as the Paladins didn't sniff a lost turnover. Out of the 48 running plays, 13 receptions and four returns, there was never a loose Furman ball on the ground. Huff's favorite target Saturday was Pline, who had four catches for 88 yards.

Western standout running back Desmond Reid, who entered as the leading rusher in the FCS, ran two times for 10 yards and caught a 39-yard pass before leaving with a lingering injury. In relief of Reid, Adams ran 13 times for 61 yards. Gonzales finished with 269 yards on 21-of-35 passing with two touchdowns and two interceptions.  

The Paladins ran their SoCon winning streak to 10 consecutive games while snapping Western's streak of eight consecutive wins over FCS teams. Furman, which leads the series 36-13-2, has still never lost back-to-back games in Cullowhee.

The Paladins next host East Tennessee State for homecoming Saturday at 2 p.m.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Paladins set for top 10 showdown at Western

Furman's Tyler Huff earned SoCon Offensive Player of the Week honors for his work
in the Paladins' 27-21 win at Samford last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

One of the biggest Saturdays in the Southern Conference in recent memory has arrived. When Furman takes on Western Carolina in Cullowhee, N.C. Saturday at 2:30 p.m., it will be the Paladins' first game in a matchup of top 10 teams since Furman's 29-23 loss at Appalachian State in the 2005 FCS playoff semifinals in 2005.

Furman (5-1, 3-0) is ranked No. 3 in the week's FCS coaches poll and No. 4 in the Stats Perform media poll, while the Catamounts (5-1, 3-0) are ranked eighth by the media and No. 14 by the coaches.

For the Paladins to have a happier trip to the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina than that visit 18 years ago, a key Saturday will be containing Western's powerful offense led by dynamic sophomore running back Desmond Reid.

Reid leads the country in rushing averaging 141.2 yards per game with 12 touchdowns. He leads an offense that ranks No. 1 in the country - by a wide margin - averaging 531.2 yards per game. Montana State, which is ranked No. 2 in both FCS polls, is the only other team gaining 500-plus yards per game at 515.8. The Catamounts' 41.3 points per game scoring average ranks fifth nationally.

"They're certainly a team that's really, really explosive. Their running back is as good as I think we've seen here in a long time," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "They've got a scheme to spread you out and run it and throw it."

The Paladins will counter with a defense that leads the SoCon in rushing, allowing just 100.5 yards per game, and scoring, allowing 22.3 points per game. After a rare game in which they didn't force a turnover in last week's victory at Samford, that could obviously be a huge factor Saturday. Furman still ranks fifth nationally in turnover margin at 1.17.

On the other side of the ball, Furman's offense will undoubtedly look to continue its running success against the Catamounts. In the Paladins' 43-42 loss at Cullowhee two years ago, Dominic Roberto ran for 196 yards and four touchdowns. He followed that up with a career-high 253-yard rushing effort in last season's 47-40 win over Western. That was part of Furman's 426-yard day on the ground as a team.

But that's also been a huge area of improvement for the Catamounts. While Furman leads in the SoCon in rushing defense, Western ranks second allowing just 117 yards per game on the ground this year.

"We are who we are. We're not going to go out-talent many teams and we're certainly not going to out-talent Western Carolina," Hendrix said. "We do have talent. We've just got to go be exceptional in execution and toughness. It's been a good winning formula for us and that's what we will have to to Saturday."

Petit to miss remainder of season

Hendrix confirmed this week that the injury starting left guard Luke Petit suffered at Samford was a season-ending one that will require surgery. It's a blow to a unit that had been peaking since the return of All-American right guard Jacob Johanning four weeks ago.

Junior Blake Hundley, who made his first career start at South Carolina earlier this season, is slated to replace Petit in the starting lineup.

"It's a big loss. I hate it for Luke, who missed all of last year with knee injuries and was playing really well for us this year," Hendrix said. "We have played a bunch of guys at that spot with how our coaches rotate."

Wide receiver Joshua Harris, who took a vicious hit just before halftime at Samford last Saturday at didn't return, was cleared afterwards and returned to the practice field on Monday.

Running back Kendall Thomas, who hasn't played since the Kennesaw State game on Sept. 16, also returned to practice Monday. His return could certainly boost a position that's been a little decimated by injuries this season.

Big week for Huff

After throwing for 205 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 79 yards in Furman's 27-21 win at Samford, quarterback Tyler Huff earned SoCon Player of the Week honors.

More accolades came for Huff later this week when he was announced as an "Elite 11" finalist for the 2023 Armed Forces Merit Award. The award, which is coordinated by the staff of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl and presented by the Football Writers Association of America, was created in 2012 "to honor an individual and/or group with a military background and/or involvement that have an impact within the realm of college football." This year's recipient will be announced on Nov. 9 and honored at the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Huff is a commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Reserves and graduate student in Furman's Strategic Design program. He serves the Reserves through the 391st Engineer Battalion in Greenville.

Saturday, October 14, 2023

Sack-happy Paladins knock off Samford

Jack Barton had 2.5 of Furman's nine sacks in the fourth-ranked
Paladins' 27-21 win at Samford Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

HOMEWOOD, Ala. - Given the season stats going into fourth-ranked Furman's game at Samford Saturday, a reasonable thought was that turnovers would be a key to a Paladin victory. Furman, which led the FCS in turnovers forced last year, ranked fifth in the country in turnover margin this season at plus-eight entering Saturday. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs ranked 107th at minus-six.

But on Saturday, Furman lost one turnover while its defense didn't force one for just the second time in the past 20 games dating back to the 2021 season. As it turns out, there's more than one way to skin a cat - or tame a dog as it were. The Paladins collected nine sacks, including one on Samford's final play of the game that sealed Furman's 27-21 win. That marks the Paladins' 10th consecutive victory in Southern Conference play, their longest streak since winning 13 straight league games across the 1988-1990 seasons.

"One of the things we've really struggled to do these first few games was get pressure on the quarterback. We had a great game plan going into today," Furman bandit Luke Clark, who had one of those sacks after being questionable to play Saturday. "I think the pass rush has been there, it just got to show it today. That comes from the DBs doing their job and all of us rushing up front."

The sack parade Saturday was one shy of Furman's single-game record of 10 set against Chattanooga in 1997. On that day, Bryan Dailer had a record seven of those. On Saturday, seven different Paladins brought down the quarterback led by Jack Barton's 2.5 sacks. The effort came after only recording six sacks this season entering Saturday.

Those proved to be vital as well. Furman (5-1, 3-0) had at least one sack on seven of Samford's 10 possessions. The Bulldogs (3-4, 2-3) had a touchdown on one of those drives with a sack, but their other scores came on two of those three where the Paladins didn't have one. The sacks obviously played a big part in Samford being held to 46 yards rushing as a team, but that also included holding Jay Stanton to 15 yards on seven carries. Stanton had ranked third in the SoCon with an average of 70.5 yards rushing per game - and 5.6 yards per carry - this season.

"We sacked him five times a year ago, so I thought there'd be opportunities. We let them hurt us running the ball last year. I don't think they hurt us running at all today," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We'd always like to get our hands on a few more balls, but to not turn them over once and hold them to 21 is a testament to how the defense played.

"We left a few points out there on offense, but it was a great team win."

Furman enjoyed a balanced day offensively. The Paladins ran for 211 yards, while Tyler Huff threw for 205 yards on 19-of-28 passing. With a running back unit depleted by injuries this season, Dominic Roberto and Huff did most of the heavy lifting on the ground. Roberto ran 18 times for 128 yards, while Huff had 17 rushes for 79 yards, including 17 lost yards on two sacks.

The Paladins have played very well at Samford over the past few years, but got off to a lousy start Saturday. It took the Bulldogs just 92 seconds to get on the board when Michael Hiers hit a wide open Brendan Jenkins for a 38-yard touchdown. After having a tipped pass intercepted on Furman's first drive last week, it happened again on its second drive this week.

It was still 7-0 until the Paladins outscored Samford 17-0 in the second quarter. Furman had a touchdown on the first play of the quarter and the final play of the quarter on one of the best catches ever.

It was set up by a controversial play one snap earlier. Furman leading receiver Joshua Harris was knocked out of the game on a vicious hit in the end zone in which Samford was flagged for targeting. It appeared the Bulldogs' Kourtlan Marsh actually led with his shoulder, but there was no review as the replay system was down so the call stood.

After that play, there was six seconds on the clock and it appeared the Paladins were set to try a field goal. But when officials put the clock back to eight seconds remaining, the offense came back out. Huff rolled to his right and threw to the end zone, where Ben Ferguson made an amazing one-handed catch - with his left hand - and got his right foot in bounds for the touchdown. That helped Furman take a 17-7 lead into halftime.

"After two more seconds (were added), we thought we could run another play. I told Coach (Justin) Roper, 'throw it to No. 3 (Ferguson). No. 3 has a way of making catches,' " Hendrix said. "Man, what a heck of a catch he made."

Furman went three-and-out to open the second half and Samford proceeded to go down and score again on its opening possession of a half as Jenkins got open again for a 15-yard score. The Paladins had a big-time answer. Huff threw to Luke Shiflett for a 48-yard gain on the next play, then connected with him on a 13 yards gain two plays later. Roberto then ran for seven yards before scoring from five yards out to push the lead to 24-14.

"After watching film this week, we felt like we could get after this bunch and really move the ball down the field," said Roberto, who moved into 10th place on Furman's all-time rushing chart Saturday. "We knew we had to simplify some thing and just run our bread and butter - run behind those big guys and complete easy throws."

After converting a pair of fourth downs, Samford scored early in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 24-21. Furman again had an answer as Huff ran for 19 yards and Roberto ran for 32, but the Paladins had to settle for a 46-yard field goal by Axel Lepvreau with 7:47 left.

Samford's ensuing possession ended on a punt thanks to a sack by Barton. Barton sacked Hiers again on the Bulldogs' final possession. Two plays later on 3rd-and-26, Hiers pass was incomplete as he was drilled by Braden Gilby and had to leave the game. That put Samford's backup, Quincy Crittendon, in the unenviable position of coming into the game for a 4th-and-26 play at the Bulldogs' 18-yard line with 57 seconds left. Jeremiah Jackson recorded the final sack when he dropped Crittendon for a four-yard loss and Furman kneeled out the clock.

"I thought it was good for the defense to put the final nail in the coffin," Hendrix said. "They were just kind of relentless. I thought we got stronger as the game went along."

The win sets up a huge showdown at ninth-ranked Western Carolina (5-1, 3-0) next Saturday at 2:30 p.m.

"It's good to get this one," Roberto said. "We're going to celebrate tonight, put it behind us tomorrow and get ready for Western."

Monday, October 9, 2023

Huff, defense help Paladins slug past rival Citadel

Furman linebacker Braden Gilby celebrates after recovering a fumble during
the Paladins' 28-14 win over The Citadel Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Facing its oldest rival before a packed home stands at Paladin Stadium Saturday, Furman shelved its traditional purple jerseys in favor of its new black tops. While the fourth-ranked Paladins wore black and white, The Citadel was decked out in all-white. As it turns out, the clothing choices were appropriate because the two teams played a football game that looked like it belonged on a television set in the 1950s.

At the end of the day, Furman was basically in command most of the day and did what was necessary to win an ugly game - which always beats the alternative. The Paladins held the Bulldogs to 39 yards rushing in a 28-14 win before a crowd of 12,157 - the largest home attendance in 12 years.

"I'm just happy to get a win. We certainly didn't play our best. ... It was an odd game," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We have a standard that we play to. We weren't really close to that standard today. It wasn't for lack of effort. I was proud of our effort.
"We've got a lot of stuff to learn from. This will be good for us. ... We're happy to be where we are (record wise) and we certainly have a challenging road ahead of us."

Citadel entered Saturday's game as statistically one of the worst FCS teams in the country. The Bulldogs ranked No. 118 (out of 122) in total offense (226 yards per game), last in scoring offense (6.8 points per game), last in total defense (530.2 yards allowed per game) and last in scoring defense (43.6 points allowed per game).

Furman (4-1, 2-0 Southern Conference) helped the Bulldogs improve in all of those categories Saturday. The Paladins' 345 total yards of offense and 28 points were the fewest allowed by Citadel (0-6, 0-3) this season. While the Bulldogs' running game was shut down, their 239 yards passing and 18 first downs were season highs.

"Give credit to their quarterback. He made some throws I haven't seen him make," Hendrix said. "We just always seemed to be a step short of getting home, which is a little tough with what you're defending - the option part and that part of it. ... Our defense played well overall. I'll give everybody 14 points every game."

The tone for the weirdness of the day was set right off the bat. Citadel took the opening possession 55 yards on 14 plays that shaved more than half of the first quarter clock off. A pair of offsides penalties on Furman - one of which came on a fourth-and-two play - gave the Bulldogs two first downs on the drive. It ended on a fourth-down incompletion at the Paladins' 20-yard line.

After Furman's first offensive play, the defense had to go right back out there as Tyler Huff's pass was tipped and intercepted. Furman became the first Bulldogs' opponent to not score on its opening possession this season. The Paladins withstood a third offsides penalty on Citadel's ensuing possession when Cally Chizik intercepted a pass in the end zone.

"We started the game giving them an eight-minute drive. I know it wasn't, but it felt like we jumped offsides 10 times," Hendrix said. "It was a clap (by Citadel). We practice the clap. ... I don't think the bye (last Saturday) kept us jumping offsides.
"We get a stop and then first play after the stop, we get it batted and they pick it off. We get another stop and then I thought we kind of seized control of the game."

Chizik's pick seemed to invigorate everyone as Dominic Roberto started the next series with four consecutive carries for 29 yards through big holes created by the offensive line. The drive stalled around the Citadel 25 and Ian Williams had a field goal blocked, but the Bulldogs were flagged for holding to extend the drive. Three plays later, Huff threw an inside screen to Luke Shiflett who ran 14 yards for a touchdown.

The second quarter included a Travis Blackshear interception and a one-yard touchdown run for Myion Hicks, which was set up by Huff's 23-yard run to the one. 

Other parts of the second quarter were memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Furman's first drive of the quarter ended at Citadel's 18 when Roberto was stopped for no gain on 4th-and-1. It was set up by a poor ball placement by officials as it appeared that Huff had reached inches shy of the 16 on the play before. Blackshear had a "ball don't lie" interception on the next play, but on the very next play an end around to Kyndel Dean resulted in an 18-yard loss back to the Citadel 38-yard line. Williams' 43-yard field goal attempt into the wind had plenty of distance but sailed wide left.

After Hicks' touchdown, Citadel's possession began at its own 25-yard line with 1:21 left in the half. The Paladins, who've been outscored 27-0 in the final 50 seconds of first halves this season, once again saw an opponent march right down the field in the final minute of an opening half.

This drive included an odd set up for a field goal, where Citadel punter James Platte took a long snap and hit a wide open Jack McCall, the long snapper, for a gain of 13. Furman's Micah Robinson didn't give up on the play and tackled McCall at the two-yard line. Robinson's hustle turned out to be critical because three plays later, Citadel tried an end around that somehow was more horrific than Furman's. The Bulldogs not only lost 22 yards, they also lost the ball which was recovered by the Paladins' Braden Gilby to preserve Furman's 14-0 lead at the half.

"On the fake field goal, we knew the snapper had an eligible number (to catch a pass). So everybody on the field knew except the guy that was supposed to be covering him," Hendrix said. "I should've called timeout. ... But at least we responded and finished the half."

Easily the best stretch of football for Furman Saturday came during the first 10 minutes of the third quarter. After Citadel tried an onside kick to open the second half, Caleb Williams recovered at the Bulldogs' 43. Roberto rushed for 30 of those 43 yards on this scoring drive, capped by his five-yard touchdown run.

Following a three-and-out for Furman's defense, Platte unleashed a 61-yard punt to pin Furman at its own eight-yard line. As quickly as Platte flipped the field, Huff flipped it right back with a 39-yard run on the next play. Nine plays later, Huff hit a pop pass to Nick Cannon who went six yards for his first collegiate touchdown on his first reception of the season.

With a 28-0 lead late in the third quarter, the outcome was pretty evident but Furman didn't do a good job of finishing it off. Citadel scored on each of its next two possessions. The second of which was assisted by back-to-back pass interference against the defense in the red zone.

"At 28-0, we'd had seven possessions on offense and scored four touchdowns. After that we got a little sloppy," Hendrix said. "We had nine penalties for 63 yards (for the game). It's just like, 'how many ways can you shoot yourself in the foot?' "

The Bulldogs' two scores were sandwiched around the Paladins wasting a golden opportunity to make it a more convincing victory. Fairly or not, convincing victories against overmatched opponents are important for top five FCS teams. Well, at least for teams that haven't been part of the top five most every week for the past 10 years.

On the second play of the fourth quarter with the wind at Furman's back, a beautifully designed play-action pass saw Joshua Harris get wide open for what would've been a 55-yard touchdown but Huff's throw was just a hair overthrown and fell incomplete. On the next play, Jayquan Smith was dropped for a five-yard loss and then Huff fell on his own fumble for a loss of one on third-and-15.

On a day where Huff played great overall, he was despondent afterwards.

"That (missed touchdown pass) is just on me and it's frustrating. I hit that ball and the game's over at 35-6. We don't have to mess with this fiasco at the end. That's what I'm most frustrated about," Huff said. "We were challenged this week with making some explosive plays. We had two or three shots and didn't hit on any of them."

At one point during the postgame press conference, Hendrix chimed in to remind everyone - including Huff - of Huff's numbers for the day. He led Furman in rushing with 94 yards on nine carries and completed 19-of-24 passes for 146 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.

"If he hits the post, we're sitting here with a totally different feeling," Hendrix said. "That's the nature of the beast with that position."

The real damper to Furman's finish came on the drive after the lead was cut to 14 with 8:07 left. With Furman simply trying to run as much clock as possible, Smith took a handoff on 3rd-and-11 for a five-yard gain and never got up on his own. Smith clutched his right knee after bending it awkwardly as he was tackled. He was helped off by trainers putting no weight on either leg and was later carted off from the sideline.

With injuries to other running backs this season, Smith has proved to be an important part of the rotation. The redshirt freshman's speed offers a nice complement to Roberto's hard-nosed running style. Hicks was also shaken up after his final carry on Furman's last drive that ran out the clock.

"I'm concerned (about the running back injury situation)," Hendrix said. "Dom (Roberto) wasn't 100 percent today either."

Furman next plays at Samford next Saturday at 1 p.m.