Furman Takes Aim At SoCon Title, Playoff Bid Saturday At Samford

Jonah Tibbs
Jonah Tibbs

GREENVILLE, S.C -- It's been four years since Furman's football program played a high stakes game in its regular season finale.  This Saturday the Paladins will revisit that experience when they travel to Birmingham, Ala., to face Samford with a Southern Conference championship and playoff berth on the line.

Kickoff for the contest, which will be streamed via Stadium and televised over network of affiliates nationwide, is set for 3:30 p.m. ET (2:30 p.m. CT).

Saturday's radio broadcast will be carried over the Furman IMG Sports Network, headed up by flagship station Fox Sports 1440.  It will also be streamed through FurmanPaladins.com and via the Tune-In and iHeart applications.  Dan Scott, "The Voice of the Paladins", is set to deliver the play-by-play, and he will be joined on the broadcast by analyst David Cobb.  Former Paladin defensive back standout Marcus McMorris will provide sideline reports.

Live stats driven by Samford can be accessed through FurmanPaladins.com.

Winners of seven straight games and a half game out of first place in the SoCon standings, Furman (7-3, 6-1 SoCon), with a victory, has a chance to claim a share of the 2017 SoCon championship with Wofford, which put its hands on the trophy and league's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs by virtue of its win over VMI last Saturday and a 24-23 triumph over the Paladins in the Sept. 2 season opener.

Samford (7-3, 5-2 SoCon) can't win a share of the regular season league crown, but the Bulldogs will all but sow up an at-large playoff berth by beating Furman.

Ranked among the nation's Top 25 since the preseason, Samford is No. 17 in this week's STATS FCS Poll and No. 13 in the FCS Coaches Poll.  Coming off a 3-8 campaign a year ago and garnering no preseason votes in either poll, Furman has made up a lot of ground over the last two months and is now ranked 20th by STATS and 24th by the Coaches.

Furman's surge under first year head coach Clay Hendrix continued last week with the Paladins' 56-20 rout of rival The Citadel in Greenville, the 56 points representing Furman's second highest tally in the 97-game history of the series.  What was most impressive in the win over the Bulldogs was the speed and efficiency the Paladins accomplished their task, scoring touchdowns on their first seven possessions en route to a 49-7 early third quarter lead.  Quarterback P.J. Blazejowski headlined the effort, completing 11-of-14 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns before calling it day a scant six minutes into the second half.

Blazejowski currently leads the FCS in passing efficiency (185.66) and yards per attempt (11.87), and ranks second in yards per completion (17.81).

The return to a powerful ground attack has played a critical role in Furman's successful campaign.  The Paladins, who are averaging 246.9 ypg rushing, including 296.7 ypg over last six games, boast a pair of battering ram runners in senior Antonio Wilcox and junior Kealand Dirks, who have combined to rush 217 times for 1,200 yards and 18 touchdowns in the seven-game winning streak.

The Paladins' sport a solid cast of receivers, led by the trio of Thomas Gordon (25 rec., 468 yds., 1 TD), Logan McCarter (23 rec., 473 yds., 4 TDs), and Andy Schumpert (21 rec., 419 yds., 7 TDs).

Defensive coordinator Chad Staggs' stop troops have made steady progress this season despite having only one senior in the two-deep.  In its last two outings, Furman yielded only a last minute score in a 28-6 win at Western Carolina and stuffed The Citadel on its first seven possessions while the Paladin offense steam-rolled the Bulldogs.  Furman's 29 sacks this year tops the SoCon and is more than double the 12 takedowns notched in 11 games  a year ago.

A defensive line led by junior nose guard Jaylan Reid (33 tackles, 6.5 TFL) and linebacking corps featuring a pair of solid true freshmen, Reynard Ellis (64 tackles) and Elijah McCoy (59 tackles), who have experienced nothing but success (7-0) since moving into the lineup at Colgate (45-14 win) on Sept. 23, have played key roles in the defensive improvement.

Outside linebacker Joe Farrar (53 tackles, 4.5 TFL), and safeties Aaquil Annoor (52 tackles, 2 INTs) and Bryan Okeh (64 tackles) have delivered steady play.

Thanks to its high scoring offense, the Paladins boast the SoCon's kick scoring leader in Grayson Atkins (66 points, 48x48 PATs, 6x9 FGs), who hasn't attempted a field goal in the last four games.

Furman holds a slight 10-9 lead in its series with Samford and is 5-3 in Birmingham.  Two years ago the Paladins overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit to beat the Bulldogs, 20-17, on a Jon Croft Hollingsworth 19-yard field goal on the game's final play.

Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information