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.

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