Furman battles No.14 ETSU in defensive struggle

It hasn’t happened much

Luke Clark and Parker Stokes converge on ETSU QB Tyler Riddell/photo courtesy Furman sports information

GREENVILLE, S.C.—For just the third time in 19 tries East Tennessee State had something to celebrate on its 112-mile trek back from Travelers Rest, S.C., to Johnson City, TN, and it was more than enough reason for Bucs head coach Randy Sanders to locate the nearest designated smoking area to light up his victory cigar, which might even be followed by some catered tater tots from the nearest Culver’s or perhaps even Cookout at Cherrydale.

That’s about the only way to succinctly explain how much it likely meant to the 14th-ranked Bucs head coach in their 17-13 win over Furman on a homecoming Saturday afternoon at Paladin Stadium.

In fact, the third ETSU team from Johnson City to win in Greenville/Travelers Rest is arguably better than the other two, which came in 1979 and ’97. That ’97 game was also on homecoming, was a day which saw Furman see a 28-10 first half lead following a Mark Cerqua kickoff return for a score turn into a 58-28 loss. It was also a day that Furman started a true freshman at quarterback–Brent Rickman–against ETSU.

On this day, Furman’s true freshman Jace Wilson kept Furman in the game, staking them to a lead for much of the game, rather than seemingly have much to do with a 30-point lead as Rickman did way back in 1997.

Some 24 years later, the 17-13 for loss for Furman to the Bucs was maybe much more deflating than the Paladins’ last loss in its home stadium to the Bucs.

The two losses separated by more than two decades in Greenville occurred in entirely different fashions, but for all intents and purposes, the result of the two losses have one similarity.

Both losses essentially brought an end to Furman’s Southern Conference title hopes, as well as its chances of making the FCS Playoffs, barring a major shakeup in the final month of the season.

Wilson and Riddell are two pretty good young QBs

It was a heroic effort for Wilson, who took more big hits than any of his previous two starts on Saturday, despite only being sacked once. However, the Missouri City, TX, rose to the occasion, made some mistakes, but got up to battle another play time and time again.

That had to be especially encouraging for head coach Clay Hendrix and offensive coordinator George Quarles in the loss. Wilson finished the day connecting on 15-of-26 passing for 227 yards, with a TD and an INT in just his third start. It was by far his best performance overall against the best opponent he has faced in his young collegiate career, making just his third start under center.

It was a nice response to what was a 4-for-12 passing performance for 89 yards and a score from Wilson last week in a 24-14 win over The Citadel. That game ended up seeing him pulled in the third quarter with the Bulldogs gaining momentum.

ETSU quarterback Tyler Riddell responded to maybe his worst performance of his season in last week’s last Saturday’s 21-16 loss at Chattanooga. The redshirt sophomore from Tampa, FL, responded to adversity in maybe the biggest moment of his career to date. 

With nine seconds remaining, it was his three-yard scoring toss to Georgia Southern transfer Malik Murray with nine seconds remaining that gave the Bucs their only and final lead of the afternoon. It was just Riddell’s 11th-career start, but he improved to 9-2 in his career as the Bucs starting signal-caller.

His most noticeable attribute on Saturday was his ability to seemingly come through by making big throws time and time again in third and long situations, including a 3rd-and-19 in the opening half, which would eventually lead to the Bucs only three points of the opening half of play. In fact, the one area the Paladin defense struggled was the one area Riddell and the ETSU excelled in, and that was converting on third down (10-of-15), especially on third-and-long plays.

Riddell finished the night connecting on 22-of-30 passes for 177 yards and a touchdown, managing the Bucs offense with high efficiency, especially in the second half. His effectiveness in the passing game, despite being sacked six times, allowed the Bucs running game to come alive in the second half. 

As far as Quay Holmes and Jacob Saylors were concerned, it was a second half that saw one of the best running tandems in the Southern Conference combine for 99 yards of their combined 143 yards total on the ground in the contest. For Holmes, his 112-yard, one touchdown performance marked his () 100-yard performance of his career, and now needs just 459 more yards to break former great and ETSU all-time leading rusher Brandon Walker’s school record 4,065 career rushing yards. 

Saylors finished the contest with 12 rush attempts for 59 tough yards. It was part of a rushing attack that finished the day with a 145-75 advantage in ground yardage over Furman, and that led to a slight 322-302 advantage in total offensive yards in a matchup of two of the league’s top defensive units. 

Furman’s defense showed its one of the best in FCS once again

While the Bucs did churn out 145 yards on the ground in the contest, it was still a noteworthy effort by the Paladin defense, which entered the matchup ranking eighth nationally, averaging 233 YPG on the ground, holding the Bucs 88 yards under their seasonal average. In terms of total yards, the Bucs came in ranking eighth nationally in total offense (455.7 YPG) and 14th in scoring offense (36.0 PPG), but the Paladins rose to the occasion time and time again despite being on the field for 71 plays and a total of 34:07, as ETSU held advantages in total plays (71-54) and time of possession (34:07-25:53).

But Furman’s defense held the Bucs to 134 yards less than its total average coming into the contest, and 19 points less than its scoring average. The 322 yards gained by the Bucs in Saturday’s win over the Paladins was the second-lowest total the Bucs had been held to in a game this season, and lowest vs. an FCS foe. Only Vanderbilt, which held the Bucs to 314 yards in a 23-3 loss by the Commodores to the Bucs in the season opener was a lower total. The 145 ground yards were the lowest rushing total of the season for ETSU. 

The 17 points allowed by the Paladins were the second-lowest point total by the Bucs this season, and the lowest point total in a win. Conversely, the 17 points allowed by the Furman defense is the lowest point total in a loss since allowing 14 points to a 14-13 setback to VMI in a loss to eventual the 2020-21 SoCon spring champions.

How It Happened:

Furman got the ball to open the game, driving the ball 54 yards in 10 plays, with the drive ending in a 35-yard field goal from Timmy Bleekrode.

On the ensuing kickoff, ETSU’s Trey Foster fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Paladin linebacker Evan DiMaggio after it was forced by fellow linebacker Dan Scianna at the ETSU 30..

On first down from the ETSU 30, Jace Wilson delivered a strike to tight end Ryan Miller, however, the normally sure-handed tight end dropped the pass. After no-gain on the next play, Wilson was sacked on third down, putting the Paladins out of field goal range forcing a punt.

ETSU took over at its own eight, and got the ball to midfield before getting a big screen pass play that would have been a touchdown for star running back Quay Holmes, however, the play was flagged for a block in the back penalty, taking the points off the board. 

Early in the second quarter, Furman avoided catastrophe when a low snap got past Wilson and after having been in ETSU territory, by the time Wilson recovered the football, he was in Furman territory again. 

However, despite facing on 2nd-and-25 at the ETSU 48, Wilson managed to find Ryan Miller for a gain of 18 yards down to the 30. After Devin Wynn was stopped for no gain on a 3rd-and-7 play, the Paladins were forced to settle for another Bleekrode field goal, as he connected on a 45-yard field goal to give Furman a 6-0 lead with 12:48 left in the half.

Late in the half, ETSU mounted its best drive of the half using 14 plays to drive 66 yards, but the Paladin defense was able to hold the Bucs to a 26-yard field goal with 1:30 remaining in the half to make it a 6-3 contest.

On Furman’s opening play of the second half, Wilson completed a 52-yard strike to Ryan Miller to get the Paladins to the ETSU 26, and after an incompletion and a six-yard rush by Wynn, Wilson connected with Miller again on a 20-yard scoring strike, increasing Furman’s lead to 13-3 with 11:39 to play in the third quarter.

The Bucs would respond following Furman’s third quarter touchdown by utilizing the nation’s second leading rusher for a large majority of the 11-play, 75-yard drive. Holmes who rushed for 52 of the 75 yards, finished off the first ETSU venture into the end zone of the day with a 2-yard scoring plunge to make it a 13-10 game with 5:33 to play in the third quarter. 

Furman would mount a drive inside ETSU territory, and the drive seemingly would stall when on 3rd-and-10 Wilson faced heavy pressure from ETSU’s Jalen Porter, however, Porter was flagged for targeting and he was subsequently ejected from the football game. 

From there, Furman would also be aided by a pass interference penalty flagged against the Bucs’ strong safety Mike Price, giving the Paladins a first-and-goal. On third and goal from the 7-yard line, Wilson would commit one of the few costly errors for the Paladins all afternoon.

Following a timeout, Furman had the perfect play drawn up on a throwback to the other side of the end zone, designed for freshman wideout Joshua Harris, however, Wilson floated the pass short of his open target and the ball was picked off by ETSU linebacker Zach West at the goal line to thwart the Furman scoring threat. 

From there, ETSU would show its championship pedigree and maturity by mounting a perfect response.

After it appeared Furman’s offense was going to punch run the clock out and get the game-winning points after taking over the football with 8:36 remaining.

However, after getting to 3rd-and-1, a costly snap infraction cost the Paladins five yards, making it a more difficult 3rd-and-6 play. The play following the penalty would see Wilson’s pass was incomplete to Harris, and the Paladins were forced to punt with 4:10 remaining. That left Riddell and the Bucs with plenty of time along with the luxury of having two timeouts.

The snap infraction would end up leading to the game-winning drive for the Bucs, as ETSU ended up driving 80 yards in 14 plays, resulting in Murray’s clutch scoring catch with nine seconds remaining.

Spring Rehearsal…Role Reversal

Furman’s four-point setback to the Bucs was the exact reverse result to the one when the two met back in the spring, as the Paladins, who trailed 10-0 at the half of that contest, rebounded to get a 17-13 win powered by a strong ground game, mixed in with some timely passing from Hamp Sisson. Devin Wynn rushed for 113 yards and a pair of scores on 15 carries in that game. He also hauled in two important passes for 39 yards in the contest.

Today, the All-SoCon running back found little daylight against ETSU’s stout, large and physical defensive front, rushing 12 times for just 48 yards. 

Furman-App State from 2000-05 met seven times

Furman and East Tennessee State is starting to resemble another mountain rivalry of old, which is one which Furman once enjoyed with Appalachian State. That’s because of how close the past four meetings have been, with each of the past three seeing the first team to 17 be the victor. In each of the past four meetings, the Paladins and Bucs four meetings have been decided by a combined 17 points, which is an average of 4.25 PPG.

In similar fashion, from 2000-05, Furman and Appalachian State met a total of seven times with the combined margin of victory being a total of 21 points, which is an average margin of victory of three points. There’s something about close battles with teams from that part of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

What’s ahead for the Paladins and Bucs:

The loss dropped Furman to 4-3 overall on the season and 2-2 in league play, and with three out of their final four on the road, coupled with a tricky home Senior Day contest against reigning spring champion VMI, the Paladins still have an incredibly tough road ahead. But there’s still plenty play for down the stretch. Furman doesn’t control its own fate, but tying for a conference title isn’t completely out of the realm of possibilities the way this season has gone, however, they will need a lot of help for that to be the case.  For ETSU, they remain tied atop the league along with Chattanooga (4-3, 3-1 SoCon), Mercer (5-2, 4-1 SoCon) and VMI () following today’s results. 

The Paladins will be looking to avenge a 20-18 loss to the Mocs at Paladin Stadium, which they suffered in the spring season. Chattanooga handed Samford a 55-13 setback at Seibert Stadium on Saturday for their seventh-straight win over the Bulldogs. Chattanooga was the consensus Southern Conference favorites entering the season.

ETSU is in control of its own destiny as far as claiming a second Southern Conference title in three seasons, as the Bucs are open next week before facing a gauntlet of games down the stretch vs. VMI (Nov. 6), at Western Carolina (Nov. 13) before closing out the season at home vs. Mercer (Nov. 20) in what could be a de facto Southern Conference championship game. The Bucs were involved in a three-way tie for the SoCon title in 2018,  with Furman (6-2), Wofford (6-2) and ETSU (6-2). The Terriers were the automatic bid qualifiers to the playoffs due to the least amount of point surrendered of the three teams in a weird tiebreaker, while ETSU garnered the at-large bid to the FCS postseason. ETSU has never won an outright SoCon crown. 

Furman Postgame Press Conference: Head Coach Clay Hendrix, Tight End Ryan Miller and Defensive End Parker Stokes

Clay Hendrix discusses tough loss to Bucs

Sack Attack:

Collectively, one of the units that was expected to be a unit that produced throughout the 2021 season for Furman was its defensive line. With a combined 40-plus starts entering the season among five players, the Paladins came up big Saturday against East Tennessee State.

Senior nose guard Parker Stokes equaled his career total of three sacks in one game today, as he had a career performance in the loss to the Bucs. He finished the day with three sacks, three tackles-for-loss and five total tackles in his 48th game for the Paladins.

Additionally, Furman fans also got to know freshman defensive end Bryce Stanfield. The 6-2, 252-lb defensive end from Ackworth, GA., had his breakout performance for the Paladins, posting four tackles, two sacks, and two tackles-for-loss.

Rounding out the Paladins with sacks in the contest was linebacker Luke Clark, who added a sack to go along with his six tackles and finished with 1.5 tackles-for-loss. All told, the Paladins finished with six sacks and 11 tackles behind the line of scrimmage.

Prior to today, the Paladins had posted just eight sacks through the first six games of the season. It was the most sacks recorded in a game by Furman since 2017. Likewise, facing one of the top pass-rushes in the Southern Conference, Furman, which was among the national leaders in sacks allowed this season, yielded only one sack to the Bucs all afternoon.

Miller’s Monster Calendar Year:

If anyone had questions as to whether Ryan Miller was one of the top tight ends in not only the Southern Conference, but in all of FCS football, he easily provided those answers seemingly every week, dating back to the start of the spring season back in February of 2021.

Including his eight catches for 139 yards and a score today, Miller has 44 catches for 759 yards and 10 TDs in his last 14 games, with 13 of those being starts dating back to the start of the spring.

He’s averaging an astounding 17.2 YPR as a tight end. Following today’s performance against the Bucs, Miller now has 65 catches for 1,140 yards and 13 career touchdowns.

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