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."

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