GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Furman and Wofford, foes on the football field since 1889, have battled twice in a season five times over the years but never with as much at stake as the two Southern Conference rivals will compete for this Saturday in a 2:00 p.m. ESPN3 broadcast contest at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.
The winner of Saturday's Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) 2nd Round Playoff game between the Paladins (8-4, 6-2 SoCon) and Terriers (9-2, 7-1 SoCon), who meet for the 92nd time, will advance into the tournament quarterfinals to face the winner of the North Dakota State-San Diego contest next Friday or Saturday at a site and time to be determined.
Furman and Wofford kicked off the 2017 season on Sept. 2 in Spartanburg in a contest the Terriers won, 24-23, after the Paladins scored on a 44-yard Triston Luke touchdown run with 46 seconds remaining but failed to cash in on a potential game winning two-point conversion. Wofford went on to claim the SoCon regular season title, league's automatic bid into the 24-team playoff field, and tournament's No. 7 seed. Furman, meanwhile, bounced off an 0-3 start to the campaign by winning seven straight games before dropping a 26-20 decision at Samford in the regular season finale to fall just shy in a bid to share the league crown.
Furman, an at-large playoff selection, secured its second crack against Wofford by knocking off Elon, 28-27, in first round playoff action on Saturday — a blocked fourth quarter PAT by Donavan Perryman providing the winning margin. The triumph over the Phoenix delivered revenge for the Paladins, who had fallen to Elon, 34-31, in Greenville on Sept. 9.
Saturday's contest will mark the seventh time Furman has faced an opponent in the playoffs following a regular season clash and sixth occasion versus a SoCon foe.
The SoCon's surprise team of 2017 after being picked seventh in the league coaches preseason poll, Furman, which is making its conference best 17th appearance in the FCS playoffs, has won eight of its last nine games under first-year head coach Clay Hendrix, the consensus SoCon Coach of the Year.
The Paladins hope to turn the tables on the Terriers with a balanced attack that paces the SoCon in scoring (34.5 ppg) and ranks second in total offense (433.2 ypg). Besides leading the league in rushing touchdowns (36), Furman also sports the conference's most efficient passing attack, generating a healthy 192.8 yards per game through the air and 18 touchdowns.
The trigger man behind Furman's offense is senior All-SoCon performer P.J. Blazejowski, the FCS's No. 2 pass efficient quarterback who has thrown for 2,204 yards and 18 touchdowns this year while running for 300 yards and two scores. His favorite targets include a trio of veterans — wide receivers Logan McCarter (28 rec., 520 yds., 4 TDs) and Thomas Gordon (34 rec., 651 yds., 1 TD), and All-SoCon tight Andy Schumpert (27 rec., 572 yds., 9 TDs), who continued his stellar senior campaign last week against Elon with scoring grabs covering 6 and 70 yards.
The Paladins' effective ground game starts with 2017 Jacobs Blocking Award center Matthew Schmidt and All-SoCon guard Terrell Bush and features a trio of proven runners, including the burly All-SoCon duo of Antonio Wilcox (790 yds., 14 TDs) and Kealand Dirks (720 yds., 9 TDs), and SoCon All-Freshman Team tailback Darius Morehead (577 yds., 5 TDs).
When last Saturday's game at Elon was on the line, Furman's defense, which boasts only one senior in its two-deep, stepped up with a decisive stop at midfield in the closing minutes. The improvement defensive coordinator Chad Staggs' stop troops have shown has been aided by the decision to get a number of young players on the field early to build needed depth — evidenced in the fact that Furman's starting lineup in the first clash with Wofford featured seven first-time starters.
Led by junior All-SoCon nose guard Jaylan Reid (42 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 2 sacks), sophomore tackle Jonah Tibbs (49 tackles, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks), and junior end Chinedu Okonya (31 tackles, 6 TFL, 4.5 sacks), Furman's starting three-man defensive front has accounted for 10 of the squad's SoCon leading 34 sacks this year — a vast improvement over last year' 12 takedowns.
Personnel-wise the biggest change from the season opener to now for Furman has come at inside linebacker, where a pair of SoCon All-Freshman Team selections, Reynard Ellis (79 tackles, 5 TFL, 2 sacks, INT) and Elijah McKoy (70 tackles), filled the void created after career ending injuries claimed veterans Dillon Woodruff, A.K. Olusanya, Alex Burch early in the season.
Outside linebackers Chris Washington (63 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks), a sophomore, and junior Joe Farrar (68 tackles, 4.5 TFL) have delivered consistent play, and Furman's secondary has also made progress, anchored by the experienced safety duo of junior Aaquil Annoor (60 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2 INTs), an All-SoCon performer, and sophomore Bryan Okeh (75 tackles).
Junior cornerback Bradford Lemmons (20 tackles, 2 PBU) and freshman Darius Kearse (34 tackles), who owns Furman's last two interceptions, have started in each of Furman's last six games.
SoCon All-Freshman Team placekicker Grayson Atkins has delivered stellar work this fall, leading the league in kick scoring (78 points) by converting 54-of-54 PATs and 8-of-11 field goal attempts.
Furman ranks second in the conference rushing defense (137.5 ypg), trailing only Wofford.
Hunter Reid, Furman Sports Information