GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Furman football's turnaround season under first-year head coach Clay Hendrix has at least one more chapter to write when the Paladins take on Elon in NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) first round playoff action this Saturday at Elon's Rhodes Stadium.
Kickoff for the ESPN3 broadcast event is set for 1:00 p.m.
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 Elon can be accessed through FurmanPaladins.com.
Furman (7-4, 6-2 SoCon), which will be making its 17th playoff appearance and first since 2013, earned an at-large bid to the playoffs on the strength of a seven-game winning streak, which helped carry the Paladins to a second place tie in the league standings with Samford. Elon (8-3, 6-2 CAA) collected its at-large bid with a strong campaign that netted a third place league finish and included a 34-31 win over Furman on Sept. 9 in Greenville.
The rematch will mark the sixth time Furman has faced a regular season foe in the playoffs, its last coming against Appalachian State in 2005. In 2001 the Paladins lost a regular season encounter with Georgia Southern but later turned the tables on the Eagles in the playoff semifinals, claiming a 24-17 decision in Statesboro. And in 1988, Furman fell to Marshall in the regular season but gained revenge on the Thundering Herd in the playoff quarterfinals with a 13-9 victory in Huntington, W.Va., en route to the national championship.
For Paladin mentor Clay Hendrix, who on Tuesday was named SoCon Coach of the Year in separate voting by league coaches and media, the playoffs are nothing new. As a player (1982-85) and later as a Paladin assistant coach (1988-06), he took part in 29 of Furman's now 33 playoff games, helping the Paladins go 17-12 in those contests. Furman is 18-15 overall in playoff games.
While the head coach's playoff experience is considerable, it will be a new experience for the Paladin players, who have been in virtual playoff mode since opening the season with three losses, including the setback to Elon that was secured on a 36-yard field goal by Phoenix placekicker Owen Johnson with five seconds remaining. In that contest the Phoenix converted a pair fumbles at the Furman 24 and 23-yard lines into touchdowns to grab a 21-0 first quarter advantage. The Paladins stormed back to take a 31-24 fourth quarter lead, but Elon answered by scoring 10 points in the final three minutes to claim the win.
Although Furman holds an 11-7 advantage in the series, it's been pretty much Elon over the last seven games as the Phoenix have won six of the last seven clashes since 2008. The Paladins claimed the last encounter in Elon, however, earning a 31-17 triumph in 2012, a year before the Phoenix made the move from the SoCon to the CAA.
The Paladins take the SoCon's top scoring offense (35.1 ppg) and a unit that averages 435.5 yards per game into the playoffs. Senior quarterback P.J. Blazejowski, a second team all-conference pick this year, has been a quality performer in 2017, passing for 2,138 yards and 16 touchdowns. He leads the FCS in passing yards per attempt (11.20) and yards per completion (17.81), and ranks second in passing efficiency (180.75).
Blazejowski's work through the air has been assisted by a trio of experienced receivers, including wide outs Thomas Gordon (30 rec., 591 yds., 1 TD) and Logan McCarter (25 rec., 501 yds., 4 TDs), and consensus first team All-SoCon tight end Andy Schumpert (23 rec., 483 yds., 7 TDs).
Furman's passing game has fed off a reinvigorated Paladin ground game that averages 241.1 yards per game and has produced 34 touchdowns. Powered by the work of SoCon Jacobs Blocking Award winning center Matthew Schmidt and consensus first team guard Terrell Bush, battering ram running backs Antonio Wilcox (698 yards, 13 TDs) and Kealand Dirks (671 yards, 9 TDs) have rushed for 1,256 yards and 20 touchdowns over the last eight games. Redshirt freshman Darius Morehead (546 yds., 5 TDs), an All-Freshman Team pick, has also contributed in a big way.
The Paladins' defense, which sports only one senior in its two-deep, has registered steady improvement over the course of the campaign, which has seen Furman more than double its sack total from 12 a year ago to its current SoCon leading 31 takedowns. All-SoCon nose guard Jaylan Reid (41 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks) has been the leader on the defensive front that has featured the solid pass rush work of end Chiendu Okonya (29 tackles, team leading 4.5 sacks).
Furman's two starting inside linebackers will be new to Elon because SoCon All-Freshman Team selections Reynard Ellis (72 tackles) and Elijah McKoy (64 tackles) hardly saw the field for the Paladins in early September. That changed a couple of weeks later in a 45-14 road thumping of Colgate, and just about all Ellis and McKoy have done since is win, as evidenced by the Paladins' 7-1 record over that span.
The Paladin secondary will likely get another strong test from Elon quarterback Davis Cheek, the CAA's 2017 Freshman of the Year who completed 26-of-35 passes for 301 yards and three touchdowns in the season's first meeting. Trying his best to limit the Phoenix passing game will be junior All-SoCon safety Aaquil Annoor (55 tackles, 2 INTs).
While Elon walked out of Paladin Stadium with the victory in September, courtesy of a field goal, Furman is certainly capable of doing the same with SoCon All-Freshman team kicker Grayson Atkins, who fashioned an outstanding inaugural campaign, leading the SoCon in kick scoring (74 points, 50x50 PATs, 8x11 FGs).
The Furman-Elon winner will face No. 7 seed Wofford next Saturday in Spartanburg in a quarterfinal round matchup.
Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information