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.

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