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.

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