Saturday, November 25, 2023

Furman basketball looks to get on track at UAB

Marcus Foster set the Myrtle Beach Invitational scoring record as he had
78 points over Furman's three games there. Photo courtesy of Furman

On the Furman basketball team's last trip to Birmingham, the Paladins put on a clinic at Samford and left as the 2022-23 Southern Conference regular season champions. When Furman plays at UAB Saturday at 6 p.m., Paladins coach Bob Richey would love another clinic but would probably simply settle for some improved play on both ends of the court.

Furman (3-2) is coming off a 1-2 trip to the coast last weekend at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. After losing to Liberty, 88-74, in the opener, the Paladins knocked off host Coastal Carolina, 89-80, the following day. In Sunday's finale, Furman cut a 17-point second half lead down to three before falling to Wyoming, 78-71.

For the tournament, the Paladins made 26-of-94 three-pointers (27.7 percent). Meanwhile, their three opponents combined to hit 31-of-72 (43 percent).

"There's a few things that we got to continue to work through. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see we're not shooting the ball well and that's been consistent in these games so far. It's not consistent (with how they shot) in fall camp or the summer," Richey said on the Furman Radio Network's postgame show Sunday. "For whatever reason, right now, we're continuing to shoot in the 20s (percentage) from three. We lost the arc tonight by 12 points and they took nine fewer threes. It's killing us in some of these games.
"We've got to figure out shot quality and make some adjustments there. We're going to have to continue to figure out how to guard the bounce. They got way too many baskets where we were scoring that they just answered by driving the lane for a layup."

Furman also dealt with inconsistencies in availability due to injuries and illness all last weekend. Alex Williams, who suffered a hand injury in the season opener, remained out through the tournament. Tyrese Hughey, who was coming off a brilliant performance in the win over Belmont, missed the first two games with a groin injury and played just nine minutes after starting Sunday. Ben VanderWal missed the Coastal game due to an illness.

"I'll be the first to admit, we don't have this thing totally figured out personnel wise. Neither did we at this point last year and there's a lot of teams in the country like that," Richey said. "We've still got a really good player in Alex Williams that's not playing right now. We'll get him back in a couple games and we'll have to figure that all out. We've just got to stay together and stay the course.

The brightest spot from Myrtle Beach for Furman was Marcus Foster. Foster made the All-Tournament after setting the Invitational's scoring record with 78 points over the three games. Foster scored 30 apiece in the first two games and had 18 points against Wyoming.

In Sunday's game, Wyoming used an 11-0 run early in the second half to take its biggest lead of the game at 48-31. The Cowboys had a 12-point lead with just over seven minutes to play before J.P. Pegues went on a personal 8-0 run to trim the deficit to four.

It was an eight-point game with 2:12 when PJay Smith drained a 3-pointer for Furman. He then had a steal on the other end which led to Pegues drawing a foul. Pegues hit both free throws to cut the lead to 70-67 with 1:40 left. Wyoming's Brendan Wenzel answered with a three and the Paladins never could get the lead back under six.

"I credit our guys for hanging in there and making a comeback the way that they did. ... But when you get down 17, your margin for error is really small," Richey said. "I thought we had the momentum and had enough time to eventually get the lead. But we let their best shoot a three on non-action play. At that point, it freed them up and took the game pressure off them.
"It's November and this is about getting better. ... It's early, but that doesn't excuse lack of effort and lack of focus on the defensive end. We've got to get better at that. There's no doubt about that."

Pegues finished a team-high 22 points Sunday. In addition to his 18 points, Foster also grabbed seven rebounds. Carter Whitt had nine points and seven assists.

"I have a lot of belief that this is an upside team," Richey said. "If we can have those two things get better - our shooting and defense - I think you're going to see this team do a lot of good things."

Monday, November 20, 2023

Putrid offense sinks Furman in loss at Wofford

A pass falls just out of the reach of Kyndel Dean during Furman's
19-13 loss at Wofford Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

SPARTANBURG - Fourth down plays can obviously have a big impact on football games. Saturday at Gibbs Stadium, a couple of them had an impact like many watching likely had never seen before.

Two fourth-and-one plays, one snapped by Wofford and one snapped by Furman, resulted in two Terrier touchdowns. On a day where the Paladins' offense was nowhere to be found, those plays proved to be the difference as Wofford stunned Furman, 19-13. In winning its "Super Bowl" against its biggest rival, the Terriers spoiled the No. 2-ranked Paladins' bid for a perfect Southern Conference season.

"Give them credit. They did what they had to do to win and outcoached us and outplayed us," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said following Saturday's game. "I don't know if we could play any worse than we played offensively. ... That's one of the more frustrating days I've ever been a part of."

Furman (9-2, 7-1) entered Saturday going for a 10th win to add to its FCS playoff resume in hopes of securing the No. 2 seed. The regular season-ending loss ended those hopes and the shocking nature of it made it less of a guarantee that the Paladins would receive one of the eight national seeds and a first round bye. The playoff committee supposedly factors in injuries when determining the field, so the fact that the Paladins played Saturday without starting quarterback Tyler Huff and starting running back Dominic Roberto should've been taken into consideration.

A day after the bitter disappointment of its first SoCon loss since last Oct. 1, Furman got to celebrate the product of its wins this season Sunday. At a viewing party of the FCS Playoff selection show, roars of approval filled the Younts Conference Center when Furman was revealed as the No. 7 seed. After taking this Saturday off, the Paladins will host either Chattanooga or Austin Peay in round two on Dec. 2 at 1 p.m.

"I guess this was the first time I've sat in that room and watched knowing that we were in, so that was a great feeling," Hendrix said Sunday. "Certainly yesterday was a disappointment, but all it changed was the path. The seed was obviously a big part of that. ... Everybody you play now is going to be challenging."

More to come: I'll have more from Sunday's viewing party as well as SoCon postseason honors for the Paladins later this week.

Carson Jones, who had played so flawlessly in relief of Huff each the past two weeks, had some struggles Saturday that you'd expect from a freshman. After throwing six touchdowns over the course of the fourth quarter at Chattanooga two weeks ago and the first half against VMI last week, Jones had none Saturday. He completed 18-of-38 passes for just 99 yards and had one interception. A number of those throws were simply low-percentage passes.

Furman's running game wasn't any better as it was held to 89 yards on 25 attempts. Myion Hicks had 70 of those 89 yards, and 38 of his 70 came on one run.

"I really don't know what we would've done differently. It's football. You've got to be able to block, throw and catch, sustain drives, score points and take care of the ball," Hendrix said. "I thought our kids played hard and kept playing hard. It's a frustrating deal."

Every little mistake that Furman made, Wofford (2-9, 2-6) seemed to capitalize on. The first example of that came on the second play of the game. The Terriers, who entered Saturday ranked 117th in the country in total offense and scoring offense, should've been on the verge of a three-and-out as it faced a third-and-eight play. But Jack Barton was flagged for a weak roughing the passer penalty on second down. The drive ended on a 46-yard field goal to give Wofford a 3-0 lead.

Furman's first two offensive plays Saturday were an 11-yard run by Wayne Anderson and a 12-yard push pass from Jones to Colton Hinton. After those two plays, the Paladins had 14 yards the rest of the first quarter. The offense managed nothing despite being put in great field position. Wofford's next two drives ended on an interception by Cally Chizik and a fumble recovery by Matt Sochovka. Furman could only manage an Ian Williams' field goal off of those as the game was tied 3-3 after one quarter.

The Paladins followed up their 37-yard first quarter with a 50-yard second quarter. Another strip sack ended Wofford's first drive of the second quarter when Barton recovered the fumble. Furman got just another field goal by Williams to take a 6-3 lead.

On Wofford's ensuing possession, it faced third-and-six. Freshman quarterback Amari Odom was able to pick up a low snap off the ground and complete a nine-yard pass for a first down. Four plays later, Ryan Ingram took a fourth-and-one handoff up the middle. He bounced out of the big pile of players at the line of scrimmage and was gone for a 53-yard touchdown. It was the longest run allowed by the Paladins all season and the first rushing touchdown allowed since the Samford game on Oct. 14.

Furman responded with its first drive longer than 25 yards on its next possession. It was highlighted by Hicks' 38-yard run to the Wofford 14. On third-and-five from the Terriers' nine, Jones rolled to his right before throwing back to his left for tight end Mason Pline. Pline was immediately tackled for a five-yard loss. Williams had his string of 10 consecutive made field goals snapped when his 32-yard effort bounced off the right upright and Wofford took a 10-6 lead into halftime.

The third quarter pretty much told the story of the game. Furman outgained Wofford 73-12 in the quarter ... and got outscored 9-0.

The Paladins got the ball to start the second half and drove from their own 31 to the Terriers' 33. On fourth-and-one, Hicks never really got control of the handoff. If he had secured the ball, it appeared that he was likely going to be tackled well short of the first-down marker. A bad play for Furman turned completely horrific when Wofford's Maximus Pulley scooped up the loose ball and raced 64 yards for a touchdown. The extra point missed leaving the Terriers with a 16-6 lead.

That was Furman's first lost fumble since the season opener against Tennessee Tech on Aug. 31. It was also the first points off a turnover scored by an FCS opponent of the Paladins this season. Later on in the third quarter, Wofford added to that total. One play after the Terriers' David Powers sacked Jones, Powers intercepted Jones' tipped pass. That led to a field goal that pushed Wofford's lead to 19-6 entering the fourth quarter.

Furman answered with its lone touchdown drive of the day. Hicks capped the 11-play, 70-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown run as the Paladins cut the lead to 19-13 with 12:07 left.

Wofford drove to the Furman 43 on its ensuing possession. On a third down, Sirod Cook and Evan DiMaggio swarmed Odom and forced yet another loose ball on the strip sack. Braden Gilby was in prime position to scoop it up and take it to the end zone. DiMaggio had no idea that Gilby was right behind him though and - as all defensive players are coached to do - fell on the loose ball at the Wofford 39 with 7:30 left to play.

After pass completions for one and two yards, Jones was sacked for a loss of eight on third down and Furman was forced to punt.

On Wofford's next possession, it looked like the Paladins might have collected their fifth turnover and the lead. The ball popped out late on a run by J.T. Smith and Furman's Bryce Stanfield picked it up at the 16 and raced to the end zone. Smith was ruled down though and there was no official review. On the television broadcast, it was hard to see where Smith's knee was but the ball was definitely out before any portion of his upper body hit the ground.

"They told me they looked at it (without stopping play for an official review) and his forward progress was stopped," Hendrix said.

Furman had one more chance after Wofford's punt was fair caught at the Furman 49 with 1:37 left. After three incompletions by Jones, Joshua Harris nearly had an incredible, acrobatic catch on fourth down but he couldn't haul it in and that was it.

In full fall seasons, Saturday was just Furman's second loss to a team with a losing record in Hendrix's seven years as head coach. The other was a 43-42 loss at Western Carolina in 2021.

The Paladins had just 188 yards of total offense. Meanwhile, Furman's defense gave up 184 yards for the game, including 45 in the second half.

"We played really well on defense. ... The difference was (Wofford's) mistakes didn't hurt them nearly as badly as ours hurt us," Hendrix said. "We just had catastrophic mistakes. ... I think we had a good week of prep, but you've got to go execute. We just executed at such a poor level and that ultimately comes back on me. That's my responsibility.

"I just told them that this doesn't diminish anything we've accomplished this year and we will get to play again."

Saturday, November 18, 2023

Paladins go for SoCon perfection at Wofford

Luke Clark earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors after his two-sack
performance in Furman's 37-3 win over VMI. Photo courtesy of Furman

Seemingly every week down the stretch of the regular season, Furman football has accomplished something big. At the same time, those big accomplishments have begat chances for more big accomplishments.

This week is no exception. When the No. 2-ranked Paladins resume the deep South's actual oldest rivalry at Wofford on Saturday at noon, there will be one last box of the regular season to check off.

The checked box two weeks ago came at Chattanooga, where Furman clinched the Southern Conference's autobid to the FCS playoffs and at least a share of the league title. Last week's came against VMI when the Paladins (9-1, 7-0) wrapped its first outright SoCon crown since 1990. This week, a Furman victory could be historic in several ways:

  • It would be the first time in school history than the Paladins have won eight SoCon games.
  • It would be a new school record 14th consecutive SoCon win.
  • It would extend Furman's school record of consecutive road wins to nine.
  • It would be the fourth 10-win regular season in school history, joining 1989 (10-1), 1985 (10-1) and 1927 (10-1).
You can bet that Wofford is fully aware of what's at stake for Furman. If not historically, at least nationally as the Paladins try to hang on to their No. 2 ranking in hopes of at least a No. 2 seed in the FCS playoffs.

"We're in a good spot. We've got pretty good control over about where we can be. Does it matter where your located and the path you're going to be settled (in the playoffs)? Absolutely," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "That's why this game's huge for us."

While the Terriers' 1-9 overall record is what it is, they've played teams in the top half of the league tough this season. They led Chattanooga 13-6 in the third quarter before losing 23-13. Wofford trailed at Mercer 10-7 in the fourth quarter before falling 31-17. The Terriers and Western Carolina were tied 25-25 in the fourth quarter before the Catamounts won 28-25.

Last week, Wofford notched its first victory with an 11-3 win at The Citadel.

"They're an old football team that's been close to winning a number of games," Hendrix said. "I'm assuming it's Senior Day over there, so it will be a bunch of kids playing their last game against us. I'm sure they'd love nothing more than to play well against us, so we will certainly need to be ready."

If Furman starting quarterback Tyler Huff remains out this week with a right shoulder sprain, redshirt freshman Carson Jones should enter Saturday with plenty of confidence. After throwing a pair of touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Furman's huge win at Chattanooga, Jones fired four touchdowns passes in the first half of last Saturday's 37-3 drubbing of VMI.

Anything can happen when rivals meet and this rivalry, which began in 1889 - four years before the first Georgia-Auburn game, is no exception. The way Furman's defense has played lately though, it would be pretty shocking to see a Wofford team that ranks 117th (out of 122 teams) nationally in total offense (254.8 yards per game) and scoring offense (13.3 points per game) have a lot of success on that side of the ball. 

Over the last five games, Furman has recorded 27 of its school-record 33 sacks this season. That 33 total ranks third nationally and has been compiled by 14 different Paladins.

"I thought we had a chance to be really good (defensively this season) because of depth and the ability to rush the passer," Hendrix said. "We knew we had to be better in covering (passes) and we have been other that early in the year. We gave up some explosive plays, but that's something we've really addressed.

"I still spend most of my (coaching) time on offense and our defense isn't really fun to practice against. But I think that's actually helped us on both sides of the ball."

Furman has gotten a handle on the tricky balance of being able to get after the quarterback while also containing the run. After limiting VMI to 30 yards rushing last week, the Paladins lead the SoCon and rank sixth in the FCS in run defense (90.4 yards per game allowed). Furman has held five of its last six opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.

Senior linebacker Dan Scianna says stopping the run is Furman's defensive identity.

"When we stop the run, then we're going to start punishing the quarterback," Scianna said. "We let our pass rushers go pass rush and defenders go defend, so it works out well. ... I think everyone on defense just embraces their role."

Saturday's game is the Nexstar SoCon game of the week and will be televised locally by CW Ch. 62.

Weekly honors

Furman bandit Luke Clark earned SoCon Defensive Player of the Week honors for the terror he inflicted on VMI last Saturday. Clark had a pair of sacks and stripped the football away on each of them. On one of those, he also recovered the fumble. His two sacks led an eight-sack defensive effort by the Paladins. He has a team-high five sacks this season.

Snapper Julian Ashby has been named as the SoCon's Student-Athlete of the Week. The redshirt junior is a physics major who holds a 3.97 cumulative grade point average. Ashby is the snapper for all Furman's kicks and punts and has served in that role for each of the past three seasons.

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Pegues helps Paladins race past Belmont

In his first game of the season, J.P. Pegues had 23 points, nine rebounds and
nine assists in Furman's 99-76 win over Belmont. Photo courtesy of Furman

J.P. Pegues' return to the Furman men's basketball lineup wasn't the only reason the Paladins went from sputtering to a finely tuned machine in the span of a work week.

But it sure didn't hurt.

After missing the season opening 16-point win over Division II North Greenville last Monday, Pegues nearly had a triple-double in Furman's 23-point win over fellow Mid-Major power Belmont on Friday. Pegues had 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists in leading the Paladins to a 99-76 win.

"I was just happy to be back out there. After all the adversity I've faced over the past few months (from a different injury at the end of last season), not being out there last game kind of affected me emotionally," Pegues said. "Just being back out there with my teammates helped me get lost in the game tonight."

Pegues closed out his breakthrough sophomore season last year by earning Southern Conference Tournament MVP honors and hitting the most historic shot in school history to beat Virginia in the NCAA Tournament. On Friday, he immediately picked up where he left off.

On Furman's first possession, Pegues soared to the hole, made the bucket and drew the foul. While he missed the free throw, Garrett Hien grabbed the first of Furman's 14 offensive rebounds on a night where the Paladins shot 52.1 percent from the floor.

Pegues was one of five Paladins in double figures. Furman outrebounded the taller Bruins, 51-34. It made 12-of-29 three-pointers, had 25 assists and 14 turnovers. Against North Greenville, Furman was 3-of-21 on threes, had 10 assists and 18 turnovers. Nine of those 14 turnovers Friday came in the second half after the Paladins had already double-digit advantage. In what's been a fun series to watch, Belmont just seems to bring out the best brand of Furman basketball.

"We know J.P.'s value, but I think we can see how much better he's gotten. His presence is just elite. ... He just played with an unbelievable presence and swagger," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We had a lot of guys really step up. Marcus (Foster), in the second half, stepped up and drilled some big shots. You can see just how tough PJay Smith is. For Garrett to come out and respond the way he did, I was really, really proud of him. He did not play the game he wanted to on Monday. He confronted the brutal facts of it and we had some good discussions about it. ... He couldn't come out any better tonight."

The Paladins' big men were an early force that helped spearhead building that double-digit lead in the first half. After Pegues' first bucket, Hien scored nine of Furman's next 11 points including a dunk and a pair of three-pointers. The Paladins led 18-13 when Cooper Bowser scored their next six points over the next two minutes. The true freshman also had two rebounds and a blocked shot in that span.

After Bowser's last basket in that stretch, Ben VanderWal had a block that led to a Tyrese Hughey three-pointer. That was the beginnings of a 12-0 run that pushed the lead to 34-17. Later in the first half, Hughey had a dunk on a fast break, Hien had a layup and Pegues made two free throws to make it 40-21 with five minutes left in the first half.

"Cooper looked like an absolute pro out there for a little while in that first half. He still has some things he's working on for sure, but it doesn't take long to figure out how good he's going to be," Richey said. "One of the unsung heroes of the game was Tyrese Hughey. He had a huge impact on the game. I told the team (Thursday) he was going to be the X-factor.

"He had some grown man rebounds. ... He was plus-32 (Furman's scoring advantage) in 23 minutes. That's incredible."

It was a basketball clinic on both ends of the court by Furman until those last five minutes of the first half. The Paladins overcame seven consecutive missed field goals and three turnovers down the stretch though. Hien had a layup and Pegues buried a three in the final 51 seconds to push the lead to 46-31 at the break.

Furman maintained a double-digit advantage for 19:40 of the second half. After Cade Tyson's three-point play sliced the lead to to 69-61 with 10:50 left, Smith answered with a pretty little jumper from the middle of the paint 20 seconds later.

In addition to his 23/9/9 line, Pegues drew eight fouls, had two steals and a block. Foster added 17 points and seven rebounds, while Smith had 15 points and four assists. Hien finished with 13 points and six rebounds, while Bowser had 10 points and three blocks in 14 minutes off the bench. Hughey had seven points and 10 rebounds, VanderWal scored seven points and Carter Whitt added six points and five assists. Davis Molnar had five rebounds in 10 minutes off the bench.

"We knew going in that our depth could be a huge advantage for us. We play nine or 10 guys a night and they have a seven-man rotation," Foster said. "Given the fast tempo game that both teams play with, we thought we could wear them down. By the second half, you could feel that. I just want to credit our bench for coming in and doing what they do.

"Tonight was just a classic Furman basketball night."

Furman now turns its attention to competing in a solid field at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. The Paladins will face Liberty at approximately 7 p.m. in Thursday's opening round. Furman will face either Wichita State or Coastal Carolina in Friday's second round.

Monday, November 13, 2023

Outright SoCon champion Furman crushes VMI

Matt Sochovka (7) and Travis Blackshear (1) douse Furman coach Clay Hendrix with
Gatorade during Furman's 37-3 win over VMI Saturday. Photos courtesy of Furman

Furman defensive veterans Travis Blackshear and Matt Sochovka barely played at all in the second half of their final regular season home game Saturday at Paladin Stadium. But as the final seconds of the game wound down, they did take a few steps out onto the field. Their final actions there ignited the biggest celebration of the day.

Blackshear and Sochovka, who played on Clay Hendrix's first Southern Conference championship team in 2018, were fittingly the ones who snuck up behind their head coach before dousing him with Gatorade. Fans and teammates roared in jubilation, Prince's "Purple Rain" began playing over stadium speakers and the Paladins celebrated being sole kings of the SoCon. Their 37-3 thumping of VMI made second-ranked Furman the outright SoCon champions for the first time since 1990.

On a Senior Day in which the line of honored seniors stretched from one end zone to the other, Furman's most dominant performance of the season was a perfect nod to those veteran players who laid the foundation for this historic team. 

"You hear about trap games and this and that, but we had a great week of prep. Our kids were locked in. You could tell that from the start," Hendrix said. "I just can't say enough about the preparation of our kids and our staff to go win a championship.

"Our defense kind of set the tone for the whole day with how they played really all day. It's kind of easier to play offense when you keep getting the ball back and the other team can't get a first down."

Furman (9-1, 7-0) could've given Hendrix the celebratory Gatorade bath as the final seconds of the first half expired. By that point, it was 34-0 and this game was over. But that would've been a little uncouth. Instead, Furman kept it very couth in the second half as at least 80 Paladins participated in Furman's new school record 13th consecutive SoCon victory.

As expected, one who didn't play was standout quarterback Tyler Huff, who's still recovering from a shoulder sprain. After throwing a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns in last week's thrilling win at Chattanooga, backup quarterback Carson Jones picked up where he left off in his first collegiate start. Jones made it six touchdown passes in three quarters when he threw four in the first half Saturday. The redshirt freshman finished with 226 yards on 18-of-23 passing with no interceptions.

"I had unbelievable confidence in Carson and he played kind of like I thought he'd play to be quite honest," Hendrix said. "I guess it's easy to say that, but that's really how I felt."

A Furman team that had scored a combined total of 20 points over the first quarters of its other four home games scored 17 in the opening quarter Saturday. The Paladins' opening drive ended when large tight end Mason Pline made a one-handed catch in the end zone, pinning the ball to his shoulder pads with his right hand for a 14-yard score.

"Mason's been big for us. ... He's going to keep helping us down the road," Jones said. "It was a beautiful play call by coach. I just threw it up to Mason's helmet for him to go get it.

"The senior leaders we have on this team are special. They give me a ton of confidence. I think that's why I played so well today, those guys on offense. Our defense played incredible today as well. It was a special day."

Furman tight end Mason Pline makes a one-handed
catch for the Paladins' first touchdown Saturday.

Two plays later, senior linebacker Dan Scianna came up with Furman's 14th interception on defense this season - fourth best in the FCS. That led to an Ian Williams' 27-yard field goal.

The Paladins' next possession ended on Jones' 34-yard pass to the end zone to a wide open Nick Cannon. At the end of the first quarter in which VMI received the opening kickoff, Furman had a 17-0 lead, a 189-(minus 2) advantage in total offense, and a 10-0 edge in first downs.

The only sour note on offense in the first half came on the first drive of the second quarter. On fourth-and-one at the VMI 22, Dominic Roberto took a pistol handoff and didn't sniff a first down.

The next time Furman's offense took the field it was at the VMI 19 thanks to a blocked punt by Caleb Williams. On third-and-three at the 12, the pistol went back in the holster. Instead, the Paladins came out in the most beautiful set in football history - the I-formation.

With Myion Hicks at fullback, Roberto at tailback and two tight ends, the lone receiver was Luke Shiflett out to the left. As Hicks and Roberto ran left, Shiflett ran straight down the line of scrimmage to his right. Jones faked a handoff to Roberto on play action, rolled to his right and made a short toss to Shiflett. Shiflett could've turned around and moonwalked into the end zone. That's how alone he was for the touchdown.

"(Getting under center) was something I really didn't do at all in high school. Coming in here last year, I had a few struggles under center, dropping snaps. This year, I got real comfortable with all of our centers," Jones said. "That was obviously a huge play to get that momentum back."

A third-down sack by Luke Clark resulted in a 13-yard loss for the Keydets (4-6, 3-4), who had to punt from their own end zone. That gave Furman the ball back at the VMI 38 and three plays later, Jones' prettiest throw of the day hit Kyndel Dean in stride in the end zone for a 34-yard score.

Williams closed out the incredible half with a 49-yard field goal to push the lead to 34-0. The Paladins outgained the Keydets 288-8 in the first half.

This was a VMI team coming off a 31-24 win at ETSU in which it had 330 yards of total offense against the Bucs' solid defense. Two weeks ago, the Keydets had 440 yards of total offense in a one-point loss to Chattanooga. That included a 200-plus yard rushing day for Hunter Rice, who entered Saturday as the second-leading rusher in the SoCon.

"We just have a bunch of old guys on this defense and the No. 1 goal has always been to stop the run," said senior linebacker Braden Gilby, who had 11 tackles, two tackles-for-loss, a sack and a pass breakup. "I think everyone just executed today in the box, doing what they needed to do even when we were pressuring (the quarterback)."

Furman's lone points of the second half came on a 36-yard field goal by Williams. That was set up by Clark's second strip sack of the day. This time he also recovered the fumble. That turnover came two plays after VMI converted its first third down of the game when quarterback Collin Shannon scrambled for 16 yards on third-and-13. The field goal pushed Furman's advantage in points off turnovers against FCS foes to 68-0 this season.

Furman's Luke Clark strips the ball free from VMI quarterback
Collin Shannon during one of his two sacks Saturday. 

The Paladins had already gone deep into the depth chart by then and only went deeper the rest of the way. A total of 28 Paladins registered tackles. Five of Furman's eight leading tacklers Saturday were A.K. Burrell (four), Jalen Moson (four), Raleigh Herbert (four), Charles Ingram (three) and Justin Hartwell (three). Entering Saturday, Ingram had three tackles this season, while Burrell and Hartwell each had two. Moson and Herbert had none.

With 2:04 left in the game, the Keydets decided they weren't making an 11-hour round trip bus ride for nothing so they kicked a 27-yard field goal to cut the lead to 34.

On an afternoon when discretion was clearly the better part of valor, VMI soldiered on. It called timeout with 25 seconds left forcing Furman to punt. Two Keydets ended up in a pile with punter Ryan Leavy, but no flag was thrown. VMI got a 21-yard gain on first down and then rushed to get another snap off despite the clock reaching zero. All that got them was Shannon being planted one last time on Furman's eighth sack.

The Paladins are tied for third in the FCS with 33 sacks this season, including 27 over the past five games. While Clark leads the way with five, a total of 14 different Paladins have recorded sacks.

Herbert, a true freshman, had the final sack Saturday. Caden Richards, a senior out of Gaffney, collected his first career sack earlier in the fourth quarter.

"I'm really proud of those guys. Most of them didn't get a (practice) rep all week. ... It was fun for them to be able to get out there," Hendrix said. "Some of those (seniors) probably haven't played as much as they'd have liked to, but they've been unbelievable teammates. That's been one of the most special parts of this group. It's been really unselfish."

While every championship team is deservedly celebrated, this season's isn't really like the one five years ago at all. Despite a red-hot season-ending run to the 2018 title, Furman became just the second SoCon champion ever left out of the FCS playoff field that year.

There will be no snub for the Paladins this year. With a win at Wofford to end the regular season next Saturday, Furman should assure itself of an opening round bye as a seed. On Saturday, the Paladins showed why they are worthy of being seeded exactly where they're ranked - No. 2.

"Winning in 2018 was cool, but this (season) is just crazy. I've been playing with these guys forever. Just to do it how we did it and dominate all year with a target on our back," Sochovka said. "This is my last year with my boys and I got to see all these guys grow up. I mean this is just special. It really is."

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Furman looks to unshare SoCon title against VMI

Furman backup quarterback Carson Jones is likely to make his first
career start Saturday against VMI. Photo courtesy of Furman

Championship teams can be challenged in many different ways over the course of a season. There will be a new one for Furman this Saturday at 1:30 p.m. when the Paladins host VMI in the regular season home finale. In addition to emotions of what will be a lengthy Senior Day pregame ceremony and any distractions from what has been an eventful week, Furman will return to the field for the first time since checking a major box off its goal list.

It's not only the fact that the second-ranked Paladins won at least a share of their 15th Southern Conference championship last week at Chattanooga. It's the emotionally draining way in which they did it. As backup quarterback Carson Jones threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to rally Furman to a 17-14 victory, the Paladins left everything they had out on the field in one of the grittiest wins in recent memory.

The postgame celebration outside of the visitors locker room at Chattanooga was rousing as Paladins puffed victory cigars and posed for group pictures with the SoCon trophy. A win Saturday over the Keydets, who have never won at Paladin Stadium, would ensure no other SoCon football team gets to celebrate a conference title. It would mark Furman's first outright SoCon crown since 1990.

"We're a little selfish. We don't want to share anything with anybody," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "That's our thought right now."

Wins this week and next week at Wofford would ensure that Furman (8-1, 6-0 SoCon) did all it could down the stretch to maintain its lofty national ranking and position itself for a high seed in the FCS playoffs.

"We're going to get to play bonus (playoff) football," Hendrix said. "Certainly how we play these next couple of weeks changes the road that we'll be taking. So we've got lots of stuff to play for."

Hendrix said he made the decision to allow for the trophy to be presented following the win over Chattanooga last Saturday. He said given the way in which it was won in that setting, his team certainly deserved the celebration. But that party didn't even last all weekend.

"We celebrated Saturday and then we moved on," Hendrix said. "We started back with a great day of practice Sunday and haven't heard a word about it (the championship) since then. ... There's nothing to talk about. Our kids are really bright and they totally understand what's out there ahead of them."

What's ahead of them Saturday is an improved VMI team that is getting better week by week. After going 1-10 overall last season and winless in the SoCon, the Keydets are 4-5 overall and 3-3 in league play in Danny Rocco's first season as head coach.

VMI had not scored more than 17 points in any game this season before a 24-23 loss to Chattanooga two weeks ago. The Keydets missed the extra point after the final score of the game midway through the fourth quarter.

Last week, VMI trailed at ETSU 24-14 in the fourth quarter before rallying for a 31-24 win. Hunter Rice's third touchdown of the game came with 1:45 left and snapped a 24-24 tie. Rice ranks second in the SoCon with 682 yards rushing and 10 touchdowns.

"I have great respect for Coach Rocco and his career, everywhere he's been," Hendrix said. "We will certainly have our work cut out for us."

It appears that Furman will have to go about their business Saturday without starting quarterback Tyler Huff, who's officially "week-to-week" with a shoulder sprain. When interviewed by ESPN this week after winning the prestigious Armed Forces Merit Award, Huff revealed a possible timeline of resting the shoulder for the final two weeks of the regular season before returning for the playoffs.

Huff also praised the work that Jones did in relief last Saturday. According to Hendrix, Huff isn't the only one singing the praises of Jones.

"I'm not going to sit here and say his performance didn't surprise me at all, but it didn't surprise me in a lot of ways," Hendrix said. "That's the nature of who he is and how he practices. Our guys have a tremendous amount of confidence in him."

Honors galore

That award capped a busy week of accolades for the Paladins. On Tuesday, Huff was named as the SoCon's Offensive Player of the Month for October. He threw seven touchdowns and averaged 7.6 yards per carry in helping Furman go 4-0 in October.

On Monday, Jones and Wayne Anderson earned SoCon weekly awards. Jones was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Week for his efforts after replacing Huff in the second quarter. Playing for the first time since mid-September and for the first time ever with a game in doubt, Jones completed 14-of-27 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns. His first scoring toss gave Furman a 10-7 lead in the fourth quarter. Jones' second TD came with 1:44 and was the game-winner.

Anderson, who caught that game-winning score, earned SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week. Anderson had one of the best punt blocks ever when he sprinted toward the line of scrimmage without going offsides and had an untouched path to the punter. The block led to a field goal that gave Furman a 3-0 lead in the second quarter.

One record down, another looms

Furman's victory last week at Chattanooga marked its eighth consecutive SoCon road win. No team in school history has done that before. A win Saturday would be the Paladins' 13th consecutive conference win, matching a the program's record set from 1988-90.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Paladins get rings, win opener and host Belmont

Freshman Cooper Bowser had 13 points in Furman's 84-68 win
over North Greenville Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

A celebration 43 years in the making took place prior to the Furman men's basketball season opener Monday night at Timmons Arena. Nearly every member of last season's Southern Conference championship team were in attendance, including Mike Bothwell, to receive their championship rings and watch the banner be unveiled.

The only two who couldn't make it were Jalen Slawson, who's a little busy these days as an NBA player, and walk-on Rett Lister, who's busy as a graduate assistant at Kent State. In true Furman "family" style, Slawson and Lister's parents returned to accept rings on their sons' behalf. Lister's father, Chad, then headed to the visitor's bench where he coached a pesky North Greenville squad that Furman couldn't shake for much of the night.

A trio of newcomers playing in their first games at Furman accounted for 19 of the Paladins' final 23 points to help the team pull away for an 84-68 win. Cooper Bowser, a 6-foot-11 freshman, scored 11 of his 13 points in the final 5:22 - highlighted by three dunks - to lead Furman's late charge.

"Give (North Greenville) a lot of credit. Chad had those guys ready to play. They were confident and played really, really hard," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "We didn't play clean. That's pretty obvious. I thought we played really hard. We had 31 deflections, so I think the effort was there. We just fouled way too much and turned the ball over way too much.

"We had some guys step up, including (redshirt freshman) Davis Molnar. We found out he was playing today about 4:30. He'd been out of practice for about five days. For him to go out there and play the way he did in a critical moment just shows the competitor that he is. I thought Cooper Bowser had a great debut and its obvious that he's got a tremendous amount of potential."

Furman standout J.P. Pegues didn't dress out for the opener after taking a hard fall in a scrimmage at Auburn eight days earlier. Without their point guard, the Paladins got off to a bit of a slow start. They trailed 14-13 six minutes in. Furman led 26-22 with less than six minutes left in the first half before Alex Williams went a personal 6-0 run.

Unfortunately for the Paladins, that also marked the end of Williams' night. Having already had his middle and ring fingers taped together following a left hand injury earlier in the game, Williams landed hand first on the ground after drawing a foul on a drive to the basket. After sinking both free throws to make it 32-22, Williams left and didn't return.

The lead extended to 42-25 on Marcus Foster's layup with 55 seconds left in the half, but North Greenville scored the final seven points of the half over the final 36 seconds. Former Berea High standout Savion Brown drained a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cut Furman's lead to 42-32 at the half.

Furman was presented with its 2022-23 Southern Conference
championship rings Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

The Crusaders got the lead down to six on three different occasions in the second half. The last coming with 8:57 left before Foster answered with a layup. While he only made 1-of-7 three-pointers, Foster's drives to the basket were a key Monday. Just 18 seconds after his layup, Foster headed to the bench with his fourth foul on a particularly rotten call.

With Monday's leading scorer (Foster), the biggest sparkplug reserve (Williams) and the star point guard (Pegues) all on the bench, new faces closed out opening night in style. Transfer PJay Smith and Molnar had layups to push the lead to 65-53 with 7:06 left. Furman then had six points in 66 seconds on a pair of Ben VanderWal free throws and a pair of Bowser dunks. The last of those gave the Paladins a 71-60 lead with 4:44 left and it remained a double-digit lead the rest of the way.

The group of newcomers played well enough that Foster never had to return.

"That was less about Marcus and more about the five guys out there. In that part of the game, they brought us some energy defensively and some movement offensively," Richey said. "The game was as complimentary in that segment as I had felt it all night, so I just decided to stay with them."

Furman overcame 18 turnovers - a mark it reached only three times last season - by forcing 20. All 10 Paladins who played got at least one steal as the team finished with 14. Furman overcame hitting just 3-of-21 three-pointers by going 27-of-39 from the foul line.

Along with Bowser's 13 points off the bench, Foster had a team-high 18 points and Carter Whitt had 10 points and three assists. Smith had nine points, three assists and three steals, while Tyrese Hughey had eight points and eight rebounds in less than 16 minutes of playing time, thanks partly to four fouls. VanderWal had nine points and two blocked shots, while Williams scored eight. Molnar had seven points, eight rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots in 22 minutes off the bench.

"It felt great to be out there," Molnar said of his first collegiate game. "I'm put in there to get rebounds and just do the little things to help our team win. ... It's pretty cool that we all had a steal. I don't know if I've ever seen that before. That's just our whole team strapping it up on defense. We hit all of our defensive goals tonight."

Brown finished with more made 3-pointers than Furman combined for as he made 4-of-8. He finished with 18 points off the bench to lead the Crusaders.

"I was hugging Savion (Brown) at the end. He works camp for us. He comes out here and makes 5-of-10 shots in the first half," Richey said with a smile. "I told him I was going to have to deduct his camp salary this summer for coming in here and putting all those buckets on us."

With the opening night celebration of last year's historic team and the season-opening preliminary bout concluded, it's time for the main event of opening week. For the third consecutive season, mid-major powers square off when Furman hosts Belmont Friday at 7 p.m.

Belmont's Malik Dia hit a pair of free throws with six seconds left to lift the Bruins to a thrilling 89-87 win in Monday's opener. Given the last two years of their series with Furman, Friday's game could be another thriller.

Two years ago in Nashville, the Paladins and Bruins put on a display of basketball that had no business being played one week into the season. It felt more like March and that instant classic went Belmont's way in a 95-89 overtime win.

Last season in Greenville, the game was tied at the half before Furman put up 52 points in the second half to record a 15-point win. Bothwell scored 25 points in the victory.

"Let's get this thing packed Friday. We've got a great opponent coming in here. (Belmont coach) Casey (Alexander) does a great job," Richey said. "Belmont's had a lot of success for years and years, so this will be a marquee Mid-Major game."

Furman's Huff earns Armed Forces Merit Award

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff holds the Armed Forces Merit Award
he was presented with Thursday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Last week, Tyler Huff mentioned how excited he was for Furman's Southern Conference championship showdown at Chattanooga last Saturday because he had "never really won anything in (his) life."

What a difference a week makes.

While Huff left with an injury in the second quarter last Saturday, the second-ranked Paladins earned at least a share of the SoCon title with a 17-14 win as he improved to 18-1 as a starter against FCS opponents. On Tuesday, he was named the SoCon's Offensive Player of the Month for October. On Thursday, he earned a special award that honors the work he's done as a leader on and off the gridiron.

Huff was announced as the 2023 winner of the Armed Forces Merit Award Thursday presented by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). Huff is the 12th recipient of the award which was created in 2012 to honor an individual or group with a military background that also has made an impact in college football. It's coordinated by the staff of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl.

A second lieutenant in the Army reserves, Huff was chosen out of 46 nominees (41 individuals and five programs) by a nine-person committee made up of FWAA members and Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl officials. Huff was commissioned from Presbyterian College into the U.S. Army Reserves on May 13, 2022.  He will depart January 8 to Fort Huachuca in Arizona for active duty training through May 7, 2024.

"I'd heard of the bowl game and the award, but I didn't know how prestigious it was until I did some more research on it," Huff said. "I'm extremely proud and excited to be selected."

Huff's honor took on a deeper meaning for Furman coach Clay Hendrix. During his 10 years as an assistant at Air Force before coming home to Furman, Hendrix was part of five teams that competed in the Armed Forces Bowl.

"Tyler is incredibly deserving when you look at the total body of work. Tyler's willingness to serve is just phenomenal," Hendrix said. "He went to a non-scholarship place to play football and graduated in three years. He comes here and has been the most unassuming guy since the day he showed up. He just went to work and won the job.

"He's such a unique guy. He's married to a great wife and watching him interact with her, he's just as good as it gets. ... I'm just thrilled for him, his family and Furman. It's a great thing for us and Presbyterian. We invited some of their folks, so they'd have a chance to be here (for Thursday's presentation)."

The official announcement Thursday came over a ZOOM teleconference. Huff later appeared on ESPN'S SportsCenter via satellite from the Pearce-Horton Football Complex.

Huff has piled up 1,977 total yards of offense for the Paladins (8-1, 6-0) this season with 488 yards rushing and five touchdowns, and 1,489 yards passing and nine touchdowns. In his first year at Furman last season, he guided the Paladins to round two of the 2022 FCS playoffs and a 10-3 mark with 694 yards rushing and eight touchdowns, along with 2,199 yards passing and 15 touchdowns.

Huff will be honored at the Armed Forces Bowl on Dec. 23 at TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, Texas.

"First and foremost, Tyler, I just want to thank you for your service to our country. It's truly appreciated. One thing I love about this award is it's normally for personnel that have served our country that come back and give back through college football," Armed Forces Bowl executive director Brant Ringler said in the presentation to Huff Thursday. "I believe you're the very first recipient that is actually what I call the dual threat.

"You're actually serving our country and serving your team as well, and being a leader on the field, off the field, and you're doing a heck of a job. I mean, having Furman all the way up to No. 2 in the ranking. I'm hoping to see you here on Jan. 7 in Frisco (Texas) at the FCS championship."

Huff played his first three seasons of college football at Presbyterian, where he totaled 3,085 total yards (525 rushing and 2,560 passing) and 27 touchdowns. He earned his U.S. Army officer commission through PC's ROTC program. He graduated there in the spring of 2022 with a degree in business analytics. Huff serves the Reserves through the 391st Engineer Battalion in Greenville.

Without an athletic scholarship, military service helped Huff pay his way through school at PC. The real inspiration for joining the military though were his grandfathers. He said being a leader in the military has only helped his quarterback skills and vice versa.

"My grandfather on my dad's side was in the Air Force and served in the Korean War. My grandfather on my mom's side was a Master Chief in the Navy," Huff said. "They never pushed me to it, but just telling me about it inspired me. ... I'm glad I did it.

"Being an officer, you're put in a leadership role immediately. If I was active duty right now, I'd be the platoon leader in charge of 40 to 50-something guys. So those leadership roles I can use for both."

The honor comes a couple of days before Furman's Senior Day and Military Appreciation Day festivities for Saturday's 1:30 p.m. game against VMI. Huff says he's "annoyed" that he will likely miss playing in the game due to his injured throwing shoulder, but he's focused on getting healthy and leading the Paladins on a playoff run.

While Huff obviously hopes to return and have a busy December quarterbacking Furman in the playoffs, the Armed Forces Bowl falls right in the middle of the three-week gap between the semifinals and national championship. He's already excited about traveling with his wife, Kathryn, to Texas again this year.

"It will be fun. Kathryn's birthday is actually Dec. 21, so they gave me a birthday gift to give to her," Huff said with a smile. "We will be down in Dallas for four days and I've never been before outside of the trip to San Antonio (for the FCS playoff game at Incarnate Word) last year. It will be good to actually explore Texas a little bit this time."

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

Walters set to lead Furman women into Curtis era

Tate Walters returns and Pierre Curtis debuts as head coach when the Furman
women's basketball team opens the season Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Tate Walters could've never imagined that a torn ACL that cost her the entire 2022-23 women's basketball season also meant she'd played her final game for Jackie Carson. Fortunately for all parties involved, Furman's pick to replace Carson was also Walters' choice.

Walters makes her long-awaited return to the court Tuesday night under her former position coach and now head coach Pierre Curtis. The Curtis era begins when the Paladins open the season by hosting UNC Asheville at 7 p.m.

Curtis became the eighth head coach in Furman women's basketball history on June 9, the day after Carson left to become the Atlantic Coast Conference's Senior Associate Commissioner for Women’s Basketball. After a legendary playing career, Carson was head coach at her alma mater for 13 seasons before leaving. Curtis was on her staff for the past 10 years and served as associate head coach since 2019.

"It's been a wild ride getting used to being one seat over," Curtis said. "But I've been preparing for this for at least the past four years, just learning from Jackie and other coaches I respect.

"I'm blessed that it worked out for me, but that's kind of why I stayed loyal to the program for 10 years. There were opportunities to move on elsewhere, but this is what I wanted."

Walters is excited to return to the court and to do it under the guidance of the coach who recruited her.

"Furman is all about family. There was a coaching change, but we kept it in the family," Walters said. "Coach Carson was the top dog, but Coach P has been right there by her side and been a head coach-ish figure already for me. I'm so psyched for him to take over."

Walters, a redshirt junior guard, is a preseason All-Southern Conference selection after having a big season two years ago. She averaged 12.9 points and 4.5 rebounds per game, while piling up a SoCon-best 137 assists. She also ranked second in the league in three-point shooting at 37.3 percent.

Where Walters really shined that season was at the SoCon Tournament in Asheville. In Furman's tournament opener, it trailed Chattanooga by 14 in the first half and 60-56 with just over one minute to play. At that point, Walters took her game to a whole other level and just willed the Paladins to an overtime victory. You can read my recap of that amazing performance here:

"Having her back has made this an easier transition for sure. She's a natural leader," Curtis said. "The first day was even cleared to go half-court, she was the best player on the court."

Furman must replace leading scorer Grace van Rij, who averaged 13.1 points and 6.5 rebounds a game last season. It does have five players with starting experience returning, including Walters and sophomore guard Niveya Henley. Like Walters, Henley also was out all of last season with an injury after making the SoCon All-Freshman team two years ago.

Other returning starters are sophomore guard Jaelyn Acker, who averaged 11.4 points per game last season, senior wing Sydney James and junior forward Jada Session. James and Session were mirror images stat-wise last season, as each averaged 8.3 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.

"We're an older team, which a lot of people don't realize," Curtis said. "They're learning a little bit of a new style of play, but it's exciting. They're having fun and their energy is great.

"It's been great to have Tate back, but at the same time having Niveya back is big. We have a healthy Sydney James, who played hurt all last year. I feel like I have a way better Jade Session. I think we're going to surprise some people."

Coming off an 11-19 season, Furman was picked fifth (coaches) and seventh (media), respectively, in the preseason SoCon polls. After helping the Paladins reach the SoCon Tournament championship game in 2022, Walters has her sights for the Paladins set higher than the polls.

"A big key for us will be staying healthy, which is always a battle, and just making sure we stay tight knit with a good chemistry," Walters said. "If we're healthy and play as one unit, I think we're going to be really hard to stop."

Monday, November 6, 2023

After historic season, Paladins hungry for more

Furman coach Bob Richey
Photo courtesy of Furman

When a program achieves something that it's chased for 43 years - and then takes it one step further with an accomplishment 49 years in the making, how exactly do you respond the next season? For Furman men's basketball coach Bob Richey, it might be as simple as a trip to Home Depot. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

"If you live in a nice house, I don't think you say, 'hey, let's just keep it as is.' You try to go update it, add on to it and keep getting resources for it," Richey said. "I think that's the fun of what we do. You look at the progression of your program. You go from nothing to a has-been to a contender to a champion. Then you have to figure out how to sustain this and be relevant at the championship level."

The first step in figuring that out comes Monday night when the Paladins open the 2023-24 season by hosting North Greenville at 7 p.m. One more celebration of last year's historic run to the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament well precede the game.

Fans are encouraged to arrive early as Furman displays its new championship banners and has a ring ceremony for players at 6:45 p.m. Furman's school-record 28 wins last season included its first Southern Conference championship since 1980 and first NCAA Tournament victory since 1974.

After upsetting fourth-seeded Virginia in last year's NCAA Tournament, Furman led San Diego State 16-12 nine minutes into round two. The long and strong Aztecs came back in a big way though, knocking off the Paladins 75-52. The fact that the Aztecs reached the national championship game hasn't been any kind of silver lining for Furman's most lopsided loss of last season for senior Marcus Foster.

"I was still hungry for more after we did all that. It just kind of sparked something in me," Foster said. "I'm still kind of upset that we lost to San Diego State like that. Seeing us get that far I'm just like, 'why can't we get to the Sweet 16?' I just want to do it again."

Junior point guard J.P. Pegues is looking to build off a great regular season in which he brilliantly filled the shoes of the departed Alex Hunter. In the postseason, Pegues reached another gear starting with a phenomenal weekend in Asheville in which he earned the SoCon Tournament's Most Outstanding Player award. Pegues then permanently etched his name in the minds of all Furman fans with the shot heard 'round Greenville, his game-winning 3-pointer against Virginia.

"Coach Richey does a great job of not allowing us to get complacent. Yes, we completed - and exceeded - all of our goals last year, but there's always room to grow," Pegues said. "We have to do everything we did last year and more if we want to complete that goal again."

Of the nine leading scorers last season, the only two not returning are Mike Bothwell and Jalen Slawson. Bothwell is now playing professionally overseas, while Slawson is playing for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. Losing the two winningest players in school history will undoubtedly be felt, probably in some different ways.

However, this narrative that Furman can't be as good because "they're losing a Matt Rafferty or a Jordan Lyons" seems to be a thing of the past. At least that's the case based on the media and coaches' preseason polls, which each predict Furman to win the SoCon title again.

"Obviously, there's a ton of talk about what we're losing. Mike and Slaw are like sons to me ... but they're not our first ever all-conference players. We've had 15 all-conference players in our six years, which I think ranks in the top 10 in the country," Richey said. "Those happen be be two of them and they were products of a process. That's the thing for us. We want to continue to produce products of process.

"We will obviously miss those two, but I think there's a bigger story here in today's game. In a league that lost 53 transfer outs, we retain the other seven that played (last season). I think that's a huge story in of itself. That depth is going to be a key to this team."

In addition to Foster and Pegues, the other five returning leading scorers are Garrett Hien, Tyrese Hughey, Ben VanderWal, Carter Whitt and Alex Williams. New faces likely to contribute this year include junior guard PJay Smith, a transfer from Div. II Lee University, true freshman forward Cooper Bowser and redshirt freshman Davis Molnar.

"All seven made some jumps this offseason and to be able to add PJay as a D2 transfer, he just fits perfectly into our culture," Richey said. "We got really fortunate landing 6-foot-11 freshman Cooper Bowser. He's going to give us a very unique piece.

"This is the hardest we've had a team work in our time here. I think that's natural. ... You go to the tournament. You win a game at the tournament. You have the first player drafted since '84. I think there's a lot of internal motivation for those returning."

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Gutsy effort earns Furman its 15th SoCon title

Luke Clark hoists the 2023 Southern Conference championship trophy after
Furman's 17-14 win at Chattanooga Saturday. Photos courtesy of Furman

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - Championship teams often show what makes them champions by overcoming different types of adversity faced over the course of a season. They don't always have to show that ability in the course of just one game, much less a game with a championship on the line.

But that's precisely what No. 2-ranked Furman was tasked with Saturday at No. 13 Chattanooga. With a Southern Conference title on the line, the Paladins lost arguably their top player on each side of the ball by early in the second quarter. While they fought hard throughout, it just seemed that it wasn't going to be the Paladins' day. Then Furman displayed another trait of championship teams - the guts and determination to do whatever it takes to win.

With 1:44 left in the game, backup quarterback Carson Jones threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to Wayne Anderson to give the Paladins a lead. As it did over and over on Saturday, Furman's defense came up with one more stop to seal a 17-14 win. The Paladins (8-1, 6-0 SoCon) clinched at least a share of its record 15th conference championship and the league's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs.

"Our kids just hung in there and kept believing," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "You talk about a gut-check. I don't know if I've seen a tougher gut-check than that one. It took everybody and we just found a way to get it done.

"Carson got better as the game went along. We really believe in him. I think (starting quarterback) Tyler (Huff) would be the first one to tell you that (Carson) brings something to the table. It's tough anytime to lose your quarterback, but to lose him against that defense is really something."

Carson Jones (5) is congratulated by Tyler Huff after
throwing the game-winning touchdown Saturday.

Midway through the first quarter, Furman leading tackler Hugh Ryan was ejected for targeting. On the second play of the second quarter, Huff was sacked on third down. There didn't seem to be any indication that Huff was hurt on the play, but he never returned due to an injured right shoulder.

So for essentially the final three quarters, the Paladins played without No. 6 on offense and No. 6 on defense. As the game wore along, fans had to wonder if 6 was also a number that would never be going up on the Furman side of the scoreboard.

The Paladins had four plays of double-digit yards in the first half, the longest of which was an 18-yard run by Dominic Roberto. Chattanooga (7-3, 6-2) had a 219-89 advantage in total offense in the first half, but only a 7-3 lead as Furman's defense came up with key stops. The lone touchdown of the first half came when UTC's Javin Whatley got behind the safeties for a 67-yard touchdown pass from UCLA transfer Chase Artopoeus.

Furman's lone points came on a 37-yard field goal by Ian Williams on the play after Huff was sacked. That was set up by one of the best punt blocks you'll ever see. Anderson darted to the line of scrimmage without going offsides and went untouched to the punt for an easy block. That set the Paladins up at the Chattanooga 25.

There's not a lot of games where you have the guy that caught the winning touchdown pass also help create points with a blocked punt. But not a lot of guys play football like Anderson, who would likely still be returning punts if he weren't so good at blocking them.

"I was beating myself up all week because I didn't block one last week when I had the opportunity to," said Anderson. "I was able to get a good jump and kind of read it. I kind of knew he was going to be questionable about blocking me because I was playing off at first. ... You win by three points, so that was kind of a difference maker."

Furman's drive after the field goal started with 7:56 left in the second quarter. After Roberto had runs of 18 and 12 to open the possession, the Paladins had just two more first downs until the final play of the third quarter. 

During that stretch, Furman suffered its first lost turnover since the first quarter of the Samford game on Oct. 14. Jones was hit as he threw and the ball was picked off by the Mocs' Kam Brown at the Furman 46. The Paladins' defense answered the bell as Bryce Stanfield's sack on third down forced a punt.

While Chattanooga had to punt, the interception did flip field position. That is until Travis Blackshear flipped it back. On third-and-nine from the Furman 25, the Mocs tried a wide receiver pass. Whatley's throw into double coverage took an odd bounce and was snatched by Blackshear in the middle of the end zone. With some players kind of standing around unsure where the ball ended up, Blackshear took off and returned the interception to the Paladins' 46.

"The receiver tried to jump over (safety) Jack (Rhodes) and he tossed the ball up. I happened to be in the right spot at the right time," said Blackshear, who played sparingly Saturday and with a cast on part of his left hand and wrist after having minor surgery prior to last week's ETSU game. "I just want to thank the trainers for making this happen. I told them how much I wanted to play in this game and asked them to do whatever they could."

Furman's Travis Blackshear dons the turnover
crown after his interception Saturday.

With the Mocs still a bit stunned by the interception, Furman took a deep shot and Jones hit Kyndel Dean for a 27-yard gain on that final play of the third quarter. Three plays later on third-and-10, Jones found Colton Hinton for a 27-yard touchdown and Furman took a 10-7 lead.

The touchdown after the pick pushed Furman's advantage in points off turnovers this season to 69-7, including 62-0 against FBS opponents. Oddly enough, it's a 48-0 advantage against teams from Tennessee as the Paladins have scored off turnovers against Tennessee Tech, ETSU and Chattanooga.

"Travis had a pin put in his thumb a week ago! He really didn't practice (this week)," Hendrix said. "He ran around a little bit and we got him officially cleared yesterday."

Following the touchdown, Furman forced a three-and-out which featured a sack by Jeremiah Jackson and another that Luke Clark and Stanfield combined for. The way the defense was playing, there had to be a feeling that the Paladins could escape with a 10-7 victory.

Then came the Mocs' next possession, which dramatically shifted the game back to "it's just not Furman's day" status. On the first play from Chattanooga's 30, the Paladins once again got pressure on Artopoeus when Jack Barton hit him as he threw it. The wounded duck fluttered right to Chattanooga leading receiver Jamoi Mayes about seven yards downfield and he outraced everyone down the right sideline for a 70-yard touchdown. Mayes deserves a ton of credit for making an unexpected catch and a fantastic run afterwards, but the play itself was pure luck.

Furman managed to get one first down before its next drive ended, but that turned out to be a key when Ryan Leavy's 47-yard punt was downed at the UTC seven-yard line. After the Paladins forced a three-and-out, they got the ball back at the 50 with 4:42 left to play.

Jones found Hinton for a gain of 10 on the first play. On third-and-eight, he threw to Mason Pline for 14 yards to the UTC 24. Luck evened out on the next play when the Mocs dropped an interception in the end zone. On third-and-10, Jones connected with Ben Ferguson for 12 to the 12. Two plays later following a Chattanooga timeout, Jones hit Anderson on the right side. A UTC defender grabbed Anderson around the three, but he was able to dive into the end zone for the go-ahead score.

"I dropped a couple (of passes) last week ... so I was just happy Coach (Justin) Roper felt like he could call a play for me there," Anderson said. "I knew right when I broke that I had the opportunity to score. I just had to get there."

Furman's Wayne Anderson heads to the end zone
with the game-winning touchdown Saturday.

On Chattanooga's ensuing possession, they took a couple of early deep shots. One of which was knocked out of Whatley's hands by Blackshear. On third-and-three from the UTC 43, Braden Gilby drilled Artopoeus and his pass was incomplete. Ahead of fourth down, the Mocs called their last timeout with 53 seconds left.

Coming out of the timeout, they went to the wide receiver pass trick play again. Whatley didn't throw it this time as he couldn't find anyone open. As he took off on a run, Ivan Yates charged at him. Whatley leaped over Yates before he was drilled in mid-air by Cally Chizik sending the ball flying out of bounds for no gain.

A hard-hitting tackle for no gain was a fitting end to Saturday's championship win. Furman had five sacks Saturday, while allowing three. In six SoCon games, the Paladins have made 22 sacks and allowed seven.

"We've been training for this all offseason. To finally see it come to fruition is unimaginable," said Jeremiah  Jackson, who had two of Furman's five sacks. "We have arguably the best defensive coordinator in the country, FCS or FBS. He just puts us in position to make plays and we've got ballplayers."

Jones completed 14-of-27 passes for 139 yards along with the two touchdowns and one interception. Over that last play of the third quarter and the entire fourth, Furman had just two yards rushing, but Jones had 127 passing. Fellow freshman Hinton finished with 61 yards on eight receptions.

"They have one of the best defenses in our conference for sure, but Coach Roper said we're going to do what we planned to do this week no matter who's in at QB," Jones said. "That allowed me to go out and sling it. Guys just kept boosting me up and giving me a lot of confidence.

"Our defense today was special. Every time we came off the field on third down, we knew they were going to get a stop for us."

While one goal is complete, there's still business to take care of for Furman. The Paladins will host an improved VMI squad next Saturday at 1 p.m. in hopes of winning the SoCon outright before wrapping up the regular season at Wofford. If they win next week, then the goal is an undefeated SoCon season and earning the highest seed it can for the FCS playoffs.

But preparation for the Keydets begins Sunday. On a beautiful, cloudless afternoon in the Scenic City Saturday, the visiting locker room was the scene of a jubilant celebration. Victory cigars were passed out, while players and coaches posed for pictures with the SoCon championship trophy.

"I told them last night that this team has a chance to do something that not many teams have done," Hendrix said. "We began playing football here in 1889 and there's only 14 conference champions on that (old locker room) wall. There's 15 now and nobody can take that away."

Friday, November 3, 2023

Huff excited for first shot at championship

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff is excited to play for his first championship
when the Paladins play at Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

It's time for Showdown Saturday in the Southern Conference, Part II.

As the early season conference results came in, there was a sense that Furman's game at Western Carolina on Oct. 21 could've been a battle of top 10 teams and it was. When the Paladins travel to Chattanooga Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. kickoff, it will be a battle of top 15 teams but will have so much more on the line.

While this was undoubtedly going to be a huge game no matter what, the fact that it would be a SoCon championship kind of snuck up on everyone. It wasn't determined until well after No. 2-ranked Furman (7-1, 5-0 SoCon) and No. 14 UTC (7-2, 6-1) each won last Saturday. A couple of hours after those games, Mercer handed Western Carolina a second league loss. That meant that the SoCon would be the first conference to have its automatic bid to the FCS playoffs determined this Saturday in Chattanooga.

There could still be an outright champion. There could still be a two-way, three-way or four-way tie for the SoCon title. None of those scenarios would change the fact that Saturday's winner gets the autobid. The chance to go play for a title comes a year after Furman suffered its only SoCon loss to Samford early in the conference schedule last year. That kept the Paladins waiting for help from others that never came as the Bulldogs went 8-0 in the league.

"Our team knows exactly where everything stands this week. This is the kind of game you want to go play in and it ought to be a heck of an environment," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "There's still a lot of football out there moving forward, but this one certainly has huge implications.

"We're playing an outstanding team in Chattanooga that's super talented. I believe they have 40 transfers and double digit power-five transfers. ... Their quarterback (UCLA transfer Chase Artopoeus) has played really, really well."

Both teams will look to improve after not playing their best a week ago. Furman was held to a season-low scoring output and 300 yards of total offense in a 16-8 win over ETSU. After holding VMI to minus-four yards rushing last season, Chattanooga gave up 230 yards on the ground - and 440 total - to the Keydets last Saturday in the Mocs' 24-23 win. Chattanooga held on after VMI missed a game-tying extra point midway through the fourth quarter.

For Hendrix, Furman's performance last week brought back memories of some other not so pretty games from the program's glory years.

"I remember three things about the Chattanooga game in 1988: The weather delayed the game. Pat Turner - I think in the first quarter - had a pick-six, and we had to stop them at the end of the game defensively," Hendrix said. "We won 10-7 and that team won the national championship. I think that Chattanooga team went 4-7. Another friend of mind reminded me of a 2004 game where we beat Elon 10-0.

"Each week's a little different and we've got to learn from it. ... We have to be more physical and certainly the execution has to pick up."

Furman standout quarterback Tyler Huff has thrown for 1,452 yards and nine touchdowns to six different receivers. He's also seventh in the SoCon in rushing at 70.2 yards per game and his 7.9 yards per carry average ranks second in the conference. For whatever reason last week, he was more of a one-dimensional quarterback as he had seven yards rushing on three carries.

"Last Saturday wasn't by design," Huff said. "It was more of what ETSU was doing."

Huff said he's ready to use his legs again more this week. After throwing for 203 yards and rushing for 132 in Furman's 24-20 win over Chattanooga last season, the Mocs will definitely be keying on Huff Saturday.

Saturday will present a rare opportunity for Huff and he's ready for it.

"I've never really won anything in my life honestly - high school or my previous school, so it's really exciting," said Huff, who missed last year's Samford game. "We slipped up and didn't get it done last year and it was frustrating when I couldn't help out more with it. ... This week will be a big test, but it will also be a fun game to play in."

Williams honored

After kicking three field goals last Saturday and doing his usual job of sending kickoffs into orbit, Ian Williams earned SoCon Special Teams Player of the Week honors this week. The junior was 3-for-3 on field goals, including a career long 52-yarder to help Furman build a 9-0 lead on its way to its 11th consecutive SoCon win.

Four of Williams' five kickoffs sailed through the back of the end zone and the only one that didn't resulted in a two-yard return. The N.C. State transfer, who's made 18-of-25 field goals the last two years, was also SoCon Player of the Week following last season's win over ETSU.

Injury update

Hendrix said he expects Pearson Toomey to return to the starting lineup at left tackle this week, which would shift All-American Jake Johanning back to his regular spot at right guard. Toomey was held out last week for precautionary reasons and based on how much success ETSU had stopping the run, his absence seemed to be a factor.

Veteran starting cornerback Travis Blackshear should also return, although it could be on a limited basis. Blackshear had minor hand surgery following the win over Western. He originally suffered the injury against Mercer on Sept. 23.