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.

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