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."

No comments:

Post a Comment