Friday, December 8, 2023

Battle-tested, beaten up Paladins return home

J.P. Pegues had 21 points and six assists in Furman's
loss at Arkansas Monday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Barely a month into basketball season, Furman has seemingly already dealt with a season's worth of adversity. They've faced most of it in between flights from one solid program to another. After playing six of their last seven games on the road, the Paladins (4-5) will play three of their next four at home starting with a game against Bob Jones Saturday at 2 p.m.

Furman is coming off a three-day road trip in which it faced a pair of 2023 Sweet 16 teams 1,300 miles apart. The Paladins lost in heartbreaking fashion at undefeated Princeton last Saturday before falling by 14 at Arkansas on Monday in a game that was closer than the final score indicated. While Furman came up short in both games, in some ways they were two of its best performances this season.

"It's a hurt locker room right now because they went out there and played hard. We've chosen this schedule and we're not going to shy away from playing anybody. That's something that's important to us," Furman coach Bob Richey said on the Furman Sports Network's postgame show Monday. "Obviously, there was heartbreak on Saturday and a tough fight tonight. But I'm telling you right now, anybody that knows an ounce about basketball knows that we got better on this trip.
"We've had all kind of rotational things to figure out, navigating injuries and now with Marcus (Foster) not being here. With all those things, this team went out and fought tonight. That's really all I asked them to do was to go play for one another. We had four double-figure scorers and to get 15 assists against that pressure is hard to do. I think we see guys growing up."

Following its last home game - a win over South Carolina State on Nov. 28 - Richey was excited to possibly have his full squad healthy for the first time when the Paladins traveled to Princeton. After tip-off, that feeling lasted nearly one half. With 35 seconds left in the first half, Foster got tangled up and his knee twisted in a nasty way. Furman's leading scorer never returned.

Prior to Monday's game, Richey said that Foster would be out until around the middle of January. While that's undoubtedly a tough blow, Richey was thankful that it wasn't a season-ending injury. At first glance, it appeared it could be one.

In the second half at Princeton, the Paladins persevered without Foster. A J.P. Pegues jumper before the first half buzzer gave Furman a 28-27 lead. That also started a 10-0 run as the Paladins scored the first eight points of the second half to push the lead to 36-27. That Furman advantage grew to as many as 11 points on four separate occasions in the second half, the last coming at 65-54 with four minutes remaining.

The Paladins led 67-58 with less than three minutes to play before Princeton went on a 9-0 run over a 62-second span to tie the game. Pegues' jumper with 1:23 left put Furman back in front 69-67. Over the final 67 seconds, the Paladins had two turnovers and the Tigers had three offensive rebounds on its final possession before Princeton's Matt Allocco drilled a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

Furman had no time to dwell on the heartbreak. After flying to Arkansas and having a walkthrough on Sunday, the Paladins took on a Razorbacks' team coming off a five-point win over Duke their last time out. On Monday, Furman hit each of its first five three-pointers before it's first two pointer. Carter Whitt's layup with 13:03 left cut Arkansas' lead to 18-17.

The Paladins kept things pretty close throughout the half and Davis Molnar's putback at the buzzer cut the Razorbacks lead to 40-35 at the break. Arkansas (6-3) shot 61.3 percent from the floor and 73.7 percent from the foul line in a 57-point second half. Furman cut the lead to 58-52 with less than 11 minutes left before the Razorbacks went on an 12-0 run. Pegues scored 11 consecutive points for the Paladins to help slice an 85-70 lead to 88-81 with 1:12 left. Arkansas ended the game on a 9-2 spurt to win 97-83.

Pegues hit 10-of-10 free throws and scored a game-high 21 points with six assists to lead Furman. Alex Williams hit five three-pointers on his way to a career-high 20-point effort. Whitt finished with 14 points, while Garrett Hien added 10.

"We've got a pretty clear picture of who we are. We've seen some tremendous growth. We can be disappointed, but I'm not going to let this team be discouraged," Richey said. "A year ago right about now, we played a similar type of team and lost by 30 (at N.C. State) in Raleigh. It's part of the growth process. We won't see a team like this until we get to the NCAA Tournament, but when you get to the NCAA Tournament these experiences prove beneficial.
"This schedule is objectively tougher than last year's. That not debatable at this point. ... Like I told everybody last year, once we get to league play we're going to be fine. We're going to be calloused. When you get to league play, you've got to be able to deal with adversity. ... Learning how to grow through things is critical if you want to build a championship team."

After facing Bob Jones on Saturday, Furman plays at Tulane Thursday at 7 p.m. The Paladins will close out 2023 with home games against Presbyterian on Dec. 19 and Anderson on Dec. 30.

Defense on display when Furman visits Montana

Furman's Alex Maier (46) hauls in an interception as Hugh Ryan looks on in the
Paladins' 26-7 win over Chattanooga last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman takes on Montana Friday night at 9 p.m. in a nationally televised FCS playoff quarterfinal, it will be just the second meeting between the two FCS traditional powers. The other came in the 2001 national championship game when the Grizzlies defeated the Paladins, 13-6, in Chattanooga.

There's not many 13-6 games these days, but based on both teams' defensive numbers this season a similar score Friday night on ESPN2 would not be all that shocking. Montana ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 14.8 points per game, while Furman is seventh at 16.8 points allowed per game.

Both defenses have been especially stingy over the second half of the season. On Oct. 14, the Paladins won at Samford 27-21 while the Grizzlies won at Idaho 23-21. Since then, Montana's defense has allowed six touchdowns and 43 points over five games, while Furman's defense has given up six touchdowns and 54 points over six games.

"When I watch Montana, it's like I'm kind of looking at us. Just the way they're built and the way they play. I think we believe in a lot of the same things," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "They're probably not as big, but a little more athletic up front offensively and defensively. I mean they've got the (defensive) player of the year as an interior defensive lineman (Alex Gubner) in the Big Sky.

"They're just big, strong and tough. You can just tell that's the way they play and that's how we try to play. In their home environment, they're that much tougher."

Turnovers and sacks have been keys to the Paladins' defensive success. After leading the country in takeaways last season, Furman leads the country in turnover margin this season with 26 forced turnovers and nine allowed. The Paladins' regular season school record of 36 sacks ranks sixth nationally.

While those two factors have been huge for Furman's defense, last week proved they aren't necessarily a must-have for defensive success. Last Saturday's 26-7 win over Chattanooga was the second time this season that the Paladins didn't record a sack. Last week's 2-1 edge in turnover margin wasn't that much of an advantage as Furman scored 10 points off its two interceptions and the Mocs' lone score came after its interception.

Following an 81-yard touchdown drive Chattanooga had on its opening drive, the Mocs were held to 119 yards the rest of the way. That included just 42 yards in the second half.

"We've really been good at rushing the passer and it's definitely helpful. Our reputation of getting to the quarterback only helps us in the back end," Furman safety Hugh Ryan said. "But I think we have shown we can be successful in a lot of different ways on defense."

The Paladins were a couple of dropped touchdown passes away from a really outstanding day offensively last week as well. In his first game back since a shoulder injury four weeks earlier at Chattanooga, Tyler Huff was unfazed by an interception on Furman's opening drive as completed 18-of-29 passes for 192 yards and rushed for 32 yards on seven carries.

That improved Huff's record to 18-1 as a starter against FCS competition. Montana is fully aware of what the SoCon coaches' Offensive Player of the Year brings to the table.

"Huff is the guy that makes them go. I just love that dude. He's a great player and competitor," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said during his weekly press conference. "He's a tough runner, a good thrower and a military guy. He's awesome."

Furman's defense will also have to contend with a dual-threat quarterback, which is something it really hasn't seen very much this season. Montana's Clifton McDowell, who's now at his fourth school, has thrown for 1,493 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for 616 yards and eight scores this season. The Grizzlies are 8-0 since he took over as the starter.

In the backfield with McDowell is this year's Jerry Rice Award winner as the top freshman in the FCS in Eli Gillman. Gillman has rushed for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The lone Friday game out of the four FCS quarterfinal games this weekend made for a short, busy week for Furman, which included final exams that began. On Thursday, the Paladins made the not quite five-hour flight to Missoula. Hendrix said he told the team it was basically the bus ride to Samford that it makes every other season.

Whether its the short week, long flight, cold weather, hostile environment or being a 17.5-point underdog, Hendrix is confident none of those things should affect his team.

"We have the chance to go play in one of the great venues in FCS football. I didn't have to look up Washington Grizzly Stadium. I knew about the place," Hendrix said. "It will be great, tough environment to go play against a really, really good team. ... We will have to play exceptionally well to have a chance. I'm not sure a lot of people give us a chance, but we're going to go anyway."

What makes Montana's home stadium one of the great venues is the raucous home crowds. Last week, 20,580 braved a snowstorm to watch the Grizzlies defeat Delaware 49-19. Every other home game this year, Montana has had an attendance of more than 25,000 fans. That's where the experience of playing in SEC and ACC stadiums can help Furman.

"The only way we can affect the crowd (noise) is to play well. ... We played at South Carolina in a sold-out stadium. That game was tied with 50 seconds left in the first half, so it wasn't like they (fans) weren't into the game. I thought we handled that incredibly well and it wasn't a factor in the game. What took us out of that game was a lack of execution," Hendrix said. "The weather isn't a concern. There's a reason why we have spring practice in February. Even in South Carolina, it can be pretty nasty out there in February.

"We've been working for a year to get in this position. If we let two-and-a-half hours of cold weather and crowd noise have that big of an effect on us, then we're not who I thought we were. ... At the end of the day, the biggest challenge is that team you're playing. They're a really good team with really good players who are well coached."

Monday, December 4, 2023

Defense leads Furman past Mocs and to Montana

Travis Blackshear intercepts a pass during Furman's 26-7 win
over Chattanooga Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

For the second consecutive game, Furman's defense limited the opposition to less than 50 yards of total offense in the second half Saturday. If the Paladins could only win one of those games, picking the one in the FCS playoffs was the right decision.

After allowing 81 yards, four first downs and seven points on Chattanooga's opening drive, Furman allowed 119 yards, five first downs and zero points the rest of the day as the Paladins defeated the Mocs, 26-7. Seventh-seeded Furman (10-2) advances to play at second-seeded Montana (11-1) in the FCS quarterfinals at 9 p.m. Friday on ESPN2. It will be the Paladins first quarterfinal appearance since 2005.

While the Southern Conference's best defense did it's thing Saturday, Furman's healthier offense had a balanced day with 192 yards passing and 191 yards rushing. The Paladins welcomed back to the starting lineup their two leading rushers Saturday in running back Dominic Roberto and quarterback Tyler Huff. Sophomore running back Grant Robinson, who had not played since being injured in the South Carolina game three months ago, also returned and played a key role in the victory.

"I can't say enough about our staff and the job they did preparing our guys. ... Certainly, getting some guys healthy was big," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said. "We ran the ball well and were really solid offensively. With the exception of some third downs in the first half, our defense played really, really well. And we were really solid in the kicking game.

"That's how we have to win games. We're not going to out-talent a lot of people. We have to grind to find a way to win games and that was one of those kinds of games today."

In Furman's shocking regular season finale in which Wofford won despite a 49-yard second half, the Terriers became the second Paladins' opponent to score on their opening possession this season and the first FCS team to score on Furman's defense following a turnover. So it was a little eerie when Chattanooga did both by the midpoint of the first quarter.

A day in which Paladin Stadium's beautiful view of Paris Mountain was completely hidden by fog got off to an unusual start as Furman received the opening kickoff for the first time since September. The Paladins had won seven consecutive coin tosses and nine overall before UTC won Saturday's and deferred to the second half.

Wayne Anderson got the home crowd off to a roaring start with a 40-yard return to the Furman 41. Huff looked fully healed as he scampered for 16 yards on a third-and-four play to the Chattanooga 37. On the next play, Huff made a beautiful throw to the end zone where a lunging Kyndel Dean could not haul the pass in. On the next play, the Mocs' Clay Fields made a leaping interception over the middle at the UTC 19.

Chattanooga (8-5) converted all three third downs on its ensuing possession, including Reggie Davis' 11-yard touchdown run on third-and-two.

Furman drove inside Mocs' territory again on its second drive but on fourth-and-seven from the 38, the punting unit came on. Punting inside an opponents' 40 is like nails on a chalkboard for some of us, but Ryan Leavy's perfect kick was fielded beautifully by Travis Blackshear at the UTC one-yard line. After one controversial third-down conversion, the Mocs had to punt from their own 14 and Furman took over at its own 40.

The decision to punt paid off when Furman marched 60 yards on 10 plays for a score. The Paladins didn't face a third down until third-and-goal at the one. With 260-pound defensive end Jeremiah Jackson leading the way as a fullback, Roberto bulled his way into the end zone for the touchdown.

While Furman's defense was in the process of transitioning to complete shut down mode, the Paladins' offense missed a couple of chances to take a big lead before halftime. On the second play of Furman's next drive, Myion Hicks broke free out in the open for a 40-yard run before he pulled up with a hamstring injury and went out of bounds at the UTC 45. On fourth-and-one at the 36, Furman was in a bunch formation that screamed run. However, Huff faked a handoff and rolled out. He had nowhere to throw and nowhere to go and was dropped for a three-yard loss.

The Paladins drove to UTC's 26 on their next drive. On second down, Huff fired another beautiful throw to the end zone that Luke Shiflett couldn't hang on to. Furman settled for a 44-yard field goal by Ian Williams with 25 seconds left and took a 10-7 lead into halftime.

"I'd like to say that I was knocking off the rust (on the interception), but it was a bad decision and a bad throw. All the guys around me just patted me on the back and told me it we'd be alright and that they trust me," Huff said. "I haven't won much in my life, so winning a playoff game is huge. I'm just thankful and blessed to be a part of this team and we're excited to go play in the quarterfinals." 

The teams exchanged three-and-outs to start the second half. On Chattanooga's first play of its next drive, redshirt freshman Luke Schomburg - who was making his third consecutive start in place of injured starter Chase Artopoeus - made a throw to the right sideline that Blackshear read like a book. Blackshear jumped the route perfectly for the interception and just missed the fourth pick-six of his career as he returned 29 yards to the two-yard line.

"We knew they had a young quarterback back there that they were trying to protect with the type of personnel they had in. I was just able to make a play on that one," Blackshear said. "It (defensive success) really just started in practice. Thanksgiving break was much needed and we came back ready to go. We knew we had a big challenge this week and had a great week of prep."

Roberto scored from two yards out on the next play to push the lead to 17-7. That was the first of four consecutive scoring drives for Furman as Williams made field goals of 31, 37 and 20 yards out, respectively, to push the lead to 26-7. The last score was set up when Alex Maier tipped and then intercepted a pass from UTC third-string, walk-on quarterback Matthew Clemmer. Maier returned the interception 19 yards to the Mocs' seven-yard line.

"I wish we could've stuck that one in there. ... We were up 16, so we just wanted to get it to a three-score lead," Hendrix said. "Ian was just so solid today."

Huff threw for 192 yards on 18-of-29 passing and ran seven times for 32 yards. Anderson caught five passes for 53 yards, while Shiflett had four catches for 51 yards. Roberto ran for 51 yards and the two touchdowns, but Robinson was Furman's leading rusher with 62 yards on 13 carries.

While Chattanooga played without two-time SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person due to an injury suffered last week in the Mocs' win at Austin Peay, it still has a lot of talent on that side of the ball. Saturday was still a battle of the top two defenses in the SoCon and a rematch of a defensive slugfest in the regular season in which Furman needed a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to pull out a 17-14 win.

"You watch Grant move around and you can tell he brings a little something. That was a big bonus for us. With Dom, I think we got what we got out of him today and we tried to just be smart with him later in the game," Hendrix said. "Wayne and Myion certainly add to that mix as well. Myion's been dealing with that hamstring a little bit. When he popped that run, I think he did the right thing getting out of bounds before making it even worse.

"It was a pretty complete win in all three phases and Tyler was a huge part of that too. ... He made a couple of great throws and kept some plays alive (with his feet). A big key for us was going 9-of-17 on third down. I don't think many teams have been able to do that against that defense."

Chattanooga had eight total yards in the third quarter and 34 in the fourth. It didn't have a first down in the second half until it was 26-7 with 9:42 left to play. After converting six of their first eight third downs, the Mocs went 0-for-6 on third down the rest of the way. Furman had an 11-minute advantage in time of possession, including 20:56 to 9:04 in the second half.

"It's awesome (to reach the FCS quarterfinals). I think it's just a credit to the group of guys we got to come back from last year," Furman all-American offensive guard Jacob Johanning said. "That feeling in San Antonio (after a second round loss at Incarnate Word) a year ago stuck around and it's been the motivating factor for this season.

"We're going to fight to keep everybody together for one week at a time."

Saturday, December 2, 2023

Furman set for round two with Chattanooga

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff is set to return Saturday when the Paladins host
Chattanooga in round two of the FCS playoffs. Photo courtesy of Furman

The second round of the FCS Playoffs Saturday will also be "round two" for Furman and Chattanooga when they kick off at 1 p.m. at Paladin Stadium. It will be a rematch of the Paladins' thrilling 17-14 win at Chattanooga four weeks ago that clinched Furman's Southern Conference record 15th league championship.

While Furman had last week off thanks to receiving a bye as the No. 7 seed in the playoffs, Chattanooga traveled to Austin Peay for the opening round last Saturday. The Mocs overcame injuries to key players to leave with a 24-21 win thanks to a 35-yard field goal by Clayton Crile as time expired.

"We prepped a little bit for both teams before last weekend, but I'm not surprised at all that it's Chattanooga," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "I said it before and I said it after (they played), it's the most complete team we've played in terms of offense, defense and special teams.
"I think one of the great things is there will be a Southern Conference team in the final eight. We're going to do everything we can to make that be us."

Thanks to this crazy thing here in 2023 college football where every team in the SoCon still plays each other every season, this will be the seventh playoff rematch for Furman against a league team. The Paladins are 2-4 in those games, with some of the most joyous and painful memories that will be etched in the minds of Furman followers forever.

The first rematch came in 1983. After the Paladins and Western Carolina tied 17-17 in the regular season meeting at Cullowhee, N.C., the Catamounts won 14-7 in Greenville on their way to the national championship in their only playoff appearance ever. After the game, a group of Western fans proceeded to tear down Furman's goalposts drawing a lifetime of ire for the Catamounts from many Furman fans.

In 1988, the Paladins lost at Marshall 24-10 in the regular season before winning the rematch 13-9 on Dwight Sterling's touchdown run with 2:09 left in the game. Winning in the "wretched hive of scum and villainy" that was Marshall's Fairfield Stadium helped power Furman to a rout of Idaho back home the next week and a victory over Georgia Southern for the national championship two weeks later.

Furman lost at Georgia Southern 24-10 in the 2001 regular season, but in the FCS semifinals the Paladins became the first visiting team to ever win a playoff game in Statesboro. Furman outscored the Eagles 17-0 in the second half to record a 24-17 victory and advance to the national championship.

The only time Furman won in the regular season in any of these matchups came in 2005 when the Paladins defeated Appalachian State in Greenville, 34-31. The rematch came in Boone in the FCS semifinals. With Furman leading 23-21 midway through the third quarter, Ingle Martin had a clear path to the end zone on a third-down bootleg. Martin slipped on a patch of ice at the three-yard line and came up limping after falling at the one. On fourth down, Jerome Felton was stuffed short of the goal line. The Mountaineers went on to score the lone points of the second half on a touchdown with 2:17 remaining in the game to pull out a 29-23 win.

The last time a rematch from the regular season occurred was twice actually in 2017. Furman fell to departed SoCon member Elon 34-31 in Greenville before winning at Elon, 28-27, in the opening round of the playoffs. The next week, the Paladins fell at Wofford 28-10.

Beating a good team twice is hard to do simply because beating a good team once is hard to do. Hendrix believes any philosophies on playing a team twice will become moot at 1 p.m. Saturday.

"I think one of the disappointments last year for our guys was seeing that they weren't going to Samford for the second round because they wanted that (rematch). Chattanooga may feel the same way," Hendrix said. "That's something to talk about before the game but once you kick it off, all that's forgotten. It's all about who can go execute."

From a personnel standpoint, this Saturday's rematch could have some different looks than last month's meeting. Most notably at quarterback, where the roles seem to have reversed.

After Furman starter Tyler Huff was injured early in the second quarter at Chattanooga, redshirt freshman Carson Jones threw a pair of fourth quarter touchdowns to left the Paladins to the win. Jones started Furman's final two games of the regular season as Huff rested his injured shoulder, but Huff is ready to return this Saturday.

"I feel good. The rehab and recovery has gone well," said Huff, who said he could've played last Saturday had Furman not received a bye. "It was difficult not being out there. ... Wofford was especially tough (not being able to play).
"The best thing is this team hasn't forgotten about that. I think a lot of that pain, anger and the embarrassment we felt, we're excited to let that out against somebody else."

After being sacked five times by Furman, Chattanooga standout quarterback Chase Artopoeus hasn't played since. The Mocs have turned to redshirt freshman Luke Schomburg at quarterback. In last Saturday's win at Austin Peay, Schomburg completed 21-of-36 passes for 259 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

"(Schomburg) reminds me a lot of Carson Jones. I think they did a really good job of protecting him in some of the things they asked him to do (last Saturday), " Hendrix said. "He moves around well. He's athletic and poised. You can see that about him and he's pretty accurate with a good arm."

Sophomore running back Reggie Davis ran for a career-high 97 yards in the Mocs' win last week. David and Gino Appleberry have carried the load of the ground game after one of UTC's all-time great backs, Ailym Ford, was lost midway through the season due to a knee injury.

Chattanooga also won last week with SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person on the sideline in the second half with his arm in a sling. He had recorded his 27th career sack and 56th career tackle-for-loss before the first-half injury.

"What a great player he is. It seems like he's been playing for 10 years," Hendrix said. "I think he's like our guys. I think he will find any way he can to go play, so I fully expect him to be playing.
"I don't know if you change much of anything in terms of preparation. We just need to be more concerned with ourselves. ... I don't think either team changes vastly based on who's out there."

In addition to getting Huff back, Furman could also have leading rusher Dominic Roberto back. Roberto's been a little beat up much of the season and didn't play in the regular season finale at Wofford two weeks ago. Grant Robinson might also be back in the running back mix this week.

Experience is never a bad thing to have. While Furman is trying to advance to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2005, this veteran group has lots of experience including the postseason. For seniors like Matt Sochovka, who was born before the Paladins last played in the national championship in 2001, this whole season has been like a playoff.

"When you get this point in the season, everybody is a good team and everybody's been through the ringer of close games. We've been in so many, it's like we've been playing playoff football all year especially with the target on our back," Sochovka said. "When you have 41 or 42 seniors like we have, this is the last time you're going to be with your brothers all in one place for the last month-and-a-half.
"It's about winning games, but it's really about not ending these moments we have together. I think that's what is going to fuel our team. We don't want to not be together anymore."

Paladins top Bulldogs ahead of test at Princeton

PJay Smith scored a season-high 20 points in Furman's 86-78
win over S.C. State Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Furman

Coming off a tough stretch of road games and ahead of a really tough road stretch, Furman appeared to be set for a bit of a respite when South Carolina State visited Timmons Arena Tuesday. However, the Bulldogs played nothing like a team that's only won once away from home over the past two seasons. Instead, S.C. State played like it did here last season when it forced 20 turnovers and Furman needed a 19-4 second half run to break away for a victory.

On Tuesday, transfer guard PJay Smith scored a season-high 20 points and Furman shot 61 percent in the second half to rally for an 86-78 win in its first home game in 18 days. The Paladins (4-3) trailed by as many as 10 points in the first half and led by as many as 14 late in the second half. Furman then withstood a pretty horrific finish in which it had five turnovers and made 3-of-6 free throws over the final 3:09.

"A win is a win and we needed one, so we will take it. Trying to close that thing out was frustrating. It looked like we were trying to solve calculus problems," Furman coach Bob Richey said. "It wasn't the prettiest win, but give them credit. They played hard and really came out with some pressure. It took us a little while to settle in."

An Alex Williams dunk off a J.P. Pegues' steal gave Furman a 14-8 lead seven minutes in. The Bulldogs (2-6) responded with a 16-0 run over the next four minutes to take a 24-14 lead. S.C. State led 33-24 with four minutes to play in the first half. At that point, the Bulldogs had made 4-of-5 three-pointers while the Paladins were just 3-of-14 from three.

Smith knocked down back-to-back threes 23 seconds apart and that seemed to turn the tide from the outside. Furman made 7 of its final 17 three-pointers while the Bulldogs made 3-of-12. A three by Williams in the final minute cut S.C. State's lead to 36-35 at the break.

"My teammates were working for me. My first one rattled out, so I was just trying to get us back on track," Smith said. "They kept finding me and I got those two threes and we ended up going into half with a little bit of momentum.

"We've been putting a lot of pressure recently on J.P. and Marcus (Foster) to score a lot. I just felt like I needed to be more aggressive, get my teammates involved and look for my shot more just to take a little pressure off of them."

Furman trailed 40-37 just over two minutes into the second half before Williams tied the game on a three on a possession in which he grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds. Smith drained another three with 15:51 left to put the Paladins back on top for good. Another three by Smith pushed Furman's lead to 62-48 with just under 10 minutes to play and Furman never led by less than eight the rest of the way.

In addition to his Furman career-high 20 points, Smith tied his career-high by making 6-of-7 three-pointers. It was another great response from Smith, who didn't start for the first time this season Saturday at UAB. He did score 15 off the bench Saturday, but it wasn't enough in Furman's 92-86 loss to the 2023 NIT runner-up.

"We worked on defense all day in practice (Monday) and we kept stats on it live. We had a big board out there with all the things that matter on defense," Richey said. "We basically told them that the guy who has the most points (off deflections, steals, blocks, etc.) at the end is guaranteed to start. It was PJay. It's funny how that works.

"The game honors toughness. It always has and it always will. He was mentally ready to play today."

Smith was one of six Paladins in double figure scoring. Foster had 16 points and six rebounds. Williams and Garrett Hien had 12 points apiece, while Pegues scored 11 and Carter Whitt had 10. Pegues had game-highs in rebounds (8), assists (6) and steals (3) and also had a blocked shot.

"I'm very pleased with (offense), but we've got to continue to get better in our defensive focus," Richey said. "I think we will. This is a really hard stretch that we're in, but it's what we wanted. I think it's going to prepare us for what we need to be when we need to be really, really good."

Furman might not be "really, really good" yet, but they may need to play like it Saturday. That's when a pair of Cinderellas from the 2023 NCAA Tournament face off as Furman plays at Princeton at 2 p.m. The Paladins will then make it back-to-back games against teams that made the Sweet 16 last season when they play at Arkansas Monday at 8 p.m.

Richey believes that for the first time all season, Furman could be completely healthy Saturday. That would mean that Ben VanderWal would be available. VanderWal didn't dress out for the S.C. State game after having an appendectomy.

"I've watched them a couple of times live. I like how they play. It's a good brand of basketball. They're really good and they're tough," Richey said. "They can score it, pass it, move it and space it. They're as good as anybody we've played so far this year. ... If we go up there and play defense, I think it will be a great game."

Friday, December 1, 2023

Furman football racks up SoCon, national honors

Jake Johanning (55), seen here celebrating with Bryce Stanfield (97) after Furman's
win at Chattanooga this season, is the SoCon's Jacobs Blocking Trophy winner.

While the Furman football team has been solely focused on Chattanooga this week, I wanted to take a look back at postseason honors for the Paladins that were announced just before Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, I did not have the free time available to write about them last week. I plan to have a full preview of Furman's playoff rematch with Chattanooga posted here Saturday morning.

After the Paladins' stunning upset loss at Wofford in the regular season finale, Furman coach Clay Hendrix said while it was obviously disappointing, it didn't diminish anything the Southern Conference champions accomplished this season. During the week that followed, Hendrix was proven right.

The following day, a large crowd of players, coaches and fans packed into the Younts Conference Center to watch the FCS Playoff selection show. While the loss cost the Paladins (9-2) a high seed, the crowd roared in approval when Furman was revealed as the No. 7 seed.

The day after the playoff field was set, Hendrix was announced as one of 20 finalists for the Eddie Robinson Award, which is annually presented to the top coach in the FCS. The next day, a school-record total of 19 Paladins earned All-Southern Conference honors while Tyler Huff, Jacob Johanning, Carson Jones and Hendrix won SoCon awards.

The day after that, long snapper Julian Ashby was announced as one of the 15 finalists for the Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award, which was annually awarded to the top scholar-athlete in the FCS. Furman spent the rest of the week enjoying Thanksgiving and the Saturday off thanks to being one of the eight seeds.

Huff was named SoCon Offensive Player of the Year by the league's coaches. That feat is especially impressive considering that two other SoCon quarterbacks - Western Carolina's Cole Gonzales and Samford's Michael Hiers - are among the 30 finalists for the Walter Payton Award, which is annually given to the top offensive player in the FCS.

"Tyler basically played in eight games and the coaches thought he was player of the year. That kind of tells you what they think of him," said Hendrix, who was a consensus pick as SoCon Coach of the Year for the second time in his career. "We're certainly a better team with him on it, so we're excited to have him back (healthy). xxx."

Huff has thrown for 1,489 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions, and rushed for 488 yards and five scores this season. He missed the final two games of the regular season after injuring his shoulder against Chattanooga. The only stat that seems to matter for coaches are wins and losses and Huff is 13-0 as a starter against SoCon competition the past two seasons.

"I get too much credit for that. All these guys were here and the coaches were here. They just needed someone to facilitate a little bit," said Huff. "There's a reason everybody stuck around this season, because they knew they could do it. I was just one more little piece of it."

Another Paladin who claimed an award despite not playing a full season was Johanning, who earned the SoCon's Jacobs Blocking Trophy. A Furman player has now won this award, which is presented to the SoCon's best blocker, a league-record 16 times. After suffering a neck injury this past summer, Johanning didn't play until week four this season. His return made an immediate impact as the Paladins enjoyed one of their best offensive days of the season in a 38-14 win over Mercer.

As a former Furman offensive lineman and longtime offensive line coach, the award probably takes on a more special meaning for Hendrix.

"I think Jake's been the best lineman in our league for several years," Hendrix said. "I think it speaks volumes for the job (offensive line coach) Matt McCutchan has done and the job (offensive coordinator) Coach (Justin) Roper has done."

Jones was selected as SoCon Co-Freshman of the Year by the coaches. This honor came after coming off the bench in relief of Huff and throwing two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Furman's 17-14 win. He followed that up by throwing four touchdown passes in the first half of his first collegiate start in the Paladins' 37-3 win over VMI.

Besides Huff and Johanning, other All-SoCon performers on offense for Furman were linemen Pearson Toomey and Wyatt Hughes, running back Dominic Roberto and tight end Mason Pline. Representing the SoCon's best defense were linemen Matt Sochovka, Luke Clark and Jack Barton, linebacker Braden Gilby, and defensive backs Travis Blackshear, Cally Chizik and Hugh Ryan. Placekicker Ian Williams and return specialist Wayne Anderson made the All-SoCon special teams units. Carson was joined by tight end Brock Chappell, wide receiver Colton Hinton and defensive back A.K. Burrell on the All-Freshman team.

"To get the number of guys on defense that made that team, we take a lot of pride in that," Hendrix said. "It's a little tougher defensively to have the numbers other guys have because of the number of people that we play. That's great for them.

"One of the things I tell our guys is that if you want to be one of those All-SoCon players, usually the best thing that helps you is to be on a really good team. They're on a conference championship team."

The winner of the Doris Robinson Scholar-Athlete Award, which named in honor of the wife of Grambling coaching legend Eddie Robinson, will be announced on Dec. 12. Ashby, a senior physics major with a 3.97 GPA, has handled been Furman's snapper for PATs, field goals and punts for each of the last four seasons. He's successfully executed 389 snaps while working with a pair of All-SoCon punters and an all-conference placekicker.

The winner of the Eddie Robinson Award will be announced Dec. 7. Hendrix is trying to become the fourth Furman coach to collect the honor joining Dick Sheridan (1985), Jimmy Satterfield (1988) and Bobby Johnson (2001).

"It's been nice to kind of recharge our batteries, but we've put all that behind us," Hendrix said. "Let's go see what we can do this Saturday."