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.

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