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."

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