Battle for Purple Supremacy has opposing trends in 2021

Shades of Purple

The Game: Furman (4-4, 2-3 SoCon) at Western Carolina (2-6, 2-3 SoCon)

The Time: 2 p.m. EST

The Venue: E.J. Whitmire Stadium (13,790)/Cullowhee, N.C.

The Series: Furman leads 34-12-2/16-6-2 in Cullowhee

The Coaches: Furman-Clay Hendrix (29-21/5th yr); Western Carolina (Kerwin Bell/2-6 1st yr.)

Noting the all-time series:

They say a rivalry is made when one team wins as much as the other does. However, that’s what makes the rivalry between Furman and Western Carolina so unique–the fact that Furman has been dominant in the series, yet this remains a rivalry because of the rich history of the rivalry between the two, which dates back to the first meeting between the two, which took place in 1971 when Furman was able to get a 21-14 win in Greenville.

The series, which sees Furman hold a 34-12-2 all-time series edge, will see the two teams meet with the two trending in opposite directions Saturday. Furman is trending in a negative direction, having lost two-straight to East Tennessee State (L, 13-17) and Chattanooga (L, 3-13) for all intents and purposes, dropping out of both the Southern Conference title and playoff race.

The Catamounts, who under the direction of first-year head coach Kerwin Bell, have rung the victory bell each of the past two weeks, as Cullowhee’s shade of Purple has been able to go 2-0 against the state of South Carolina with wins over The Citadel (W, 45-31) and Wofford (W, 41-21) each of the past two weeks to suddenly establish momentum.

The Catamounts have won consecutive Southern Conference games for the first time since 2017, when Western Carolina posted consecutive wins over East Tennessee State and VMI to remain very much in the Southern Conference title race. Then came a giant thud–a 28-6 home loss to Furman–and the Catamounts have seemingly been trying to get themselves back on track ever since.

The Catamounts would go on to a respectable 7-5 overall record and 5-3 mark in Southern Conference play, which was good enough for a third-place finish in the SoCon standings, however, since that loss on a rainy, cold Saturday back in 2017, the Catamounts have been trying to get right ever since.

In fact, until beating Wofford and The Citadel each of the past two weeks, Western had gone 5-19 in Southern Conference games since that 2017 Battle for Purple Supremacy–one that had huge playoff Southern Conference title implications riding upon it.

Furman went on to qualify for the postseason in Clay Hendrix’s first season back in 2017, however, the Catamounts, which entered that game with Furman some four years ago under then sixth-year head coach Mark Speir, with a 6-2 overall record and a 4-1 mark in league play. But the margin for error after the loss to the Paladins that season for the Catamounts’ loss to Furman was nil, as Western needed wo win its two SoCon games at Mercer and at home vs. Mercer to have a chance for an at-large playoff bid with an assumed loss to North Carolina still remaining on the schedule.

The Catamounts would win the following week against The Citadel on the road, posting a 31-19 on the road at The Citadel, but Mercer spoiled any hopes of a first playoff berth (second in program history) since 1983 by coming to Cullowhee and posting a 38-35 win at E.J. Whitmire Stadium.

Things have changed in Greenville, Too…

When Furman and Western Carolina met in Greenville last February in what was the rare and unprecedented spring football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Furman was the prohibitive SoCon favorite to claim the SoCon title. The Paladins looked the part–at least that day, claiming its fifth-straight win in the series over the Catamounts with a 35-7 in Greenville.

The next week saw a 14-13 loss on the road at eventual Southern Conference spring champion VMI (L, 13-14) to drop to 1-1 and bring some of those preseason predictions for Clay Hendrix’s football team into question.

However, the Paladins were able to get a dramatic 44-37 overtime win over Samford a week later in Greenville, and all seemed to be right again. But Furman would eventually stumble to a 3-4 overall finish in the spring football season, and the offensive issues for Furman have been prevalent ever since that third game of the spring season against Samford.

Since that seven-point win, the Paladins have not broken the 30-point mark in the past 12 games! That’s kind of an incredible stat.

Furman has had issues deeper than quarterback on offense this season, doing some things well–like protecting the quarterbacks Jace Wilson (43-of-87 passing, 606 yds, 3 TDs, 3 INTs) and Hamp Sisson (66-of-116 passing, 785 yds, 4 TDs, 5 INTs)–surrendering just nine sacks through the first eight games this season, which is tied for 10th best in the nation.

However, with Devin Wynn (477 yds, 4 TDs rushing) less than 100% at running back, and the Paladins struggling to run the ball consistently, averaging just 3.9 per rush attempt, which ranks lowest in the SoCon. Furman also ranks last in the SoCon in total offense, averaging just 320.6 YPG. Wynn also has 12 catches for 130 yards and two scores this season.

Furman’s offense reached historic lows last weekend when it was held to just 157 yards of total offensive output–its lowest total since 1997–a season which it also suffered one of its six losses in Cullowhee, as Marcus Bradley’s INT return for a score on a Brent Rickman pass, which was deflected by Catamount defensive end LeAnder Dumas, and an 18-yard Tracy Biggs TD run in the third quarter was enough to lift WCU to a 1-point, 17-16 win in that particular season. That Paladin squad would be ranked 18th nationally

Three of WCU’s six wins in Cullowhee over ranked Furman opposition, with the most notable of those being in 2005, when the Catamounts knocked off No. 2 Furman 41-21 on a day when Paladin star quarterback Ingle Martin threw five INTs.

Furman’s six wins in Cullowhee mark the best record the Paladins have on the road against any SoCon opposition (16-6-1). WCU has one of arguably its biggest wins in school history, which came back in the 1983 Division I-AA semifinal at Paladin Stadium, as the Paladin goalposts came down in the 14-7 road win by the Catamounts. All told, since `1995, the Paladins have won 22 of the past 26 meetings between the two, including each of the past five.

The 157 yards vs Chattanooga last Saturday was the lowest output by a Paladin offense since 1997, and Furman’s three points for the second time this season against the SoCon opposition is the first time it has failed to score a touchdown in two league games in the same season since 1974.

WCU six wins in Cullowhee vs. Furman

1972 W–24-15 over Furman

1987 W–20-14 over No. 10 Furman

1993–W 23-20 over Furman

1997–W 17-16 over No. 18 Furman

2005–W 41-21 over No. 2 Furman

2015–W 48-10 over Furman

Matchup to watch:

While Furman’s offense has been tough to watch in 2021, the Paladin defense is among the best in the country just as it was back in 1997, when the Paladins came to Cullowhee only to lose by a point to the Catamounts.

Furman comes into Saturday’s contest ranking 20th nationally in scoring defense (18.8 PPG), 42nd in total defense (349.1 YPG), and 19th in passing yards allowed (178.4).

Much of that has to do with Travis Blackshear–Furman’s star cornerback, who has picked off five passes this season. He’s physical and he likes to mix it up, according an interview following Furman’s season-opening win over North Carolina A&T.

He’ll have a chance to matchup with one of the top receiving threats in the Southern Conference on Saturday when he matches up against Raphael Williams. Williams has 28 catches in the past two weeks in wins over The Citadel and Wofford, respectively, including a school-record 16 catches last Saturday in WCU’s first win in Spartanburg since 1981.

The 28 catches the past two weeks for the Catamounts is nearly half of Williams’ season SoCon leading total of 60 catches! All told, he has 60 receptions for 734 yards and seven TDs this season.

Along with his league-leading five INTs, Blackshear has posted 35 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack, forced a fumble and recovered a fumble.

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