The Game: Furman (5-5, 3-4 SoCon) at Samford (4-6, 3-4 SoCon)
Date/Venue: Nov. 20, 2021/Seibert Stadium/Birmingham, AL
Time: 1 p.m. EST
Coaches: Furman–Clay Hendrix (30-23/5th yr)/Samford–Chris Hatcher (40-35/7th yr at Samford)
Series: Furman leads 12-11
Game Preview: Furman and Samford will both close out their respective football season’s on Saturday when the two square off against each other on Senior Day at Samford’s Seibert Stadium.
The Paladins have a winning season to play for entering the regular-season finale, while the Bulldogs will be looking to close out the 2021 season on a high note following a 70-52 loss at FBS and SEC member Florida last weekend.
Clay Hendrix’s Paladins put themselves in position for a winning season by putting forth a strong performance in their Senior Day performance with a 37-31 win over No. 20 VMI, allowing the Paladins to post their second win of the season over a nationally-ranked foe, as the Paladins also opened the season with a 29-18 home win over No. 24 North Carolina A&T.
Samford has lost two of its last three games coming into Saturday’s contest, while Furman’s win over VMI last week snapped what had been a string of three-straight heartbreaking losses, which put the Paladins out of both FCS playoff and SoCon title contention during a grueling portion of the schedule in mid-late October and early November.
The Paladins and Bulldogs will be squaring off against each other for the 24th time in what has been a hotly contested Southern Conference football rivalry over the years, with the Paladins holding what is a narrow 12-11 lead in the all-time gridiron rivalry, with Furman having won each of the past two meetings in the series.
Back in 2019, Furman claimed its largest win in the series on the road at Seibert Stadium, posting a 58-14 win in Birmingham, but games like that have been more that exception than the rule when these two teams have taken on each other on the gridiron over the years.
That was the case when Furman and Samford squared off early in the spring season last March, as the Paladins were able to gut out what was a 44-37 overtime win in Greenville. The two have faced off against each other 13 times as Southern Conference rivals, with the Paladins owning a narrow 7-6 advantage in those games as league rivals, with the average score having been 27-26 in favor of the Paladins in those meetings.
Samford’s explosive offense vs. Furman’s veteran defense:
Furman’s defense will have its hands full against a Samford ‘Hatch Attack’ offense that puts up points lake they are going out of style, as evidenced by its 52 points, which included a Florida school record for surrendered points in a half with 42 in the first half against the Gators last Saturday. The 52 points scored by the Bulldogs against the Gators last week are the most scored by an FCS team against an SEC team since 1978.
The Bulldogs enter Saturday’s regular-season finale ranking sixth in scoring offense, averaging 38.3 PPG, while the Bulldogs rank ninth nationally in total offense (459.5 YPG) and ninth in the country in passing offense (312.3 YPG). In six out of 10 games so far this season, the Bulldog offense has produced at least 475 yards of total offense, while also putting up 30 or more points in seven out of 10 games this season.
It is somewhat ironic then to say that the Bulldogs are 3-4 in games when putting up 30 or more points this season.
Leading the explosive Samford offense this fall has once again been quarterback Liam Welch (289-of-437 passing, 3,097 yds, 20 TDs, 14 INTs), who came into the season as a Walter Payton Award candidate, had a pretty solid performance against the Paladins in last spring’s loss for the Bulldogs, completing 16-of-21 passes for 254 yards, with a touchdown and an INT in the spring loss. Welch also managed to rush for 48 yards in the spring loss.
Welch, a graduate who returned for his COVID-19 season this following the spring season, comes into his final game as a Bulldogs quarterback with 6,217 passing yards, 41 TDs and 26 INTs. Nationally, Welch ranks sixth nationally in passing offense, averaging 310.7 yards-per-game, while also ranking fifth nationally in total offense per game (356.3 YPG).
He has an array of weapons to throw to coming into Saturday’s contest, with senior wideout Montrell Washington (54 rec, 770 yds, 8 TDs, 14.3 YPR) being among the most notable options in that Bulldogs air raid passing attack. In fact, Washington is a threat in several areas, including as one of the best return specialist in all of FCS football, averaging 23.1 yards per kick return (30 KOR, 693 yds, 1 TD) this season, while having posted 13 punt returns for 238 yards and a pair of scores, averaging 18.3 yards per punt return this season. Washington currently leads the nation in all-purpose yards per game, averaging 184.3 yards per contest on his own.
While those are only two of the vast array of offensive weapons the Bulldogs will put on the field against the Paladins Saturday, you can get a picture of the type of concern and pressure Samford can put on an opposing defensive unit.
The Paladins counter with a defense that comes in having seen its overall numbers taken a hit nationally a bit, as the Paladins have faced two of the nation’s top offenses in successive weeks against Western Carolina and VMI.
As a result, the Paladins have dropped to No. 76 overall in total defense (386.2 YPG) and has surrendered a total of 27 TDs to opposing offenses through the first 10 games this season.
The Paladins also come in ranking a solid 33rd nationally in scoring defense, surrendering 22.5 PPG so far this season, while ranking 68th nationally in passing yards allowed (226.0 YPG). Against the run this season, the Paladins rank 74th nationally (160.3 YPG).
Leading the Paladin defensive front this season has been a veteran collection of talent, with both defensive end Landon Lawrence (24 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and nose guard Parker Stokes (24 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 2 PDs) both suiting up for the final time for the Paladins Saturday. The third starter will be junior defensive tackle London Lewis (32 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sack).
Stokes had to go into the starting lineup early this season for the Paladins following a season and career-ending injury to Matt Sochovka and has had easily his best season as a Paladin this fall. He has played all three different defensive line positions in his career for the Paladins.
Both Stokes and Lawrence were both part of that 2017 Paladin team that made FCS playoffs in Clay Hendrix’s first season as the head coach, and both came back for their fifth year. Stokes is currently enjoying his best season for the Paladins along what has been a veteran defensive front.
At linebacker, it will be the final game of what has been an outstanding four-years career for ‘bandit’ linebackers Adrian Hope (43 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 QBHs) and Elijah McKoy (37 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 3.0 sacks, 1 FR, 1 FF, 2 PBUs, 2 QBHs). Hope has 132-career tackles and 25.5 sacks in his four years suiting up as a Din.
He is set to finish his career third in program history in sacks, and recorded 15 sacks as a freshman, garnering All-America honors and Jerry Rice Award consideration.
McKoy has played a big role this season for the Paladins, almost single-handedly figuring into one of Furman’s three league wins early this season against The Citadel, causing and recovering what proved to be the eventual game-winning fumble.
Junior Braden Gilby (47 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 FR, 4 QBHs) has played a big role on the Paladin defense over the latter portion of the season as one of the two middle linebackers for the Paladins, and has posted double-digit tackle performances in two of the past three games for the Paladins. Redshirt sophomore Nicky Kuzemka (35 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 QBH, 1 FF) rounds out the starters in the linebacking corps for the Paladins Saturday.
In the secondary, it will be the final game for one of the best corners to come through the Paladin football program in recent memory, as Travis Blackshear (51 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 5 INTs, 5 PBUs, 2 FRs, 1 FF) will be suiting up for the final time for the Paladins. His five INTs this season remain among the league leaders this season, and he has probably Furman’s most complete defensive player this season, making plays in both the passing game, as well as coming up and providing aid in run support.
DiMarcus Clay (31 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 FR) is set to suit up for his final game at strong safety this season, and he will be making his 28th-career start for the Paladins Saturday against the Bulldogs. Free safety Hugh Ryan (57 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 1 INT) is Furman’s leading tackler coming into the regular-season finale.
Furman’s improving offense vs. Samford defense:
Furman has an improving offense as the season has gotten into the latter half of the campaign. Furman’s offensive unit struggled against three of the nation’s top defensive units, in Chattanooga, East Tennessee State and Mercer, who have caused nearly everyone issues they have faced this season.
Furman has had to adjust to both a new starter at quarterback, while also having to deal with Devin Wynn be severely hampered with a groin injury, missing three games and really having been a non-factor offensively since his 204-yard rushing performance against Wofford in Furman’s first win at Gibbs Stadium since 2006.
Expected to go under center as the starter for the Paladins Saturday will be Jace Wilson (56-of-111 passing, 875 yds, 5 TDs, 3 INTs/86 rush yds, 1 TD), but Birmingham and Mountain Brook alum Hamp Sisson (83-of-142 passing, 887 yds, 5 TDs, 6 INTs) could also see action under center for the Paladins Saturday.
While Wynn has been out with injury, Dominic Roberto (74 rush attempts, 493 yds, 6 TDs, 6.7 YPC), Devin Abrams (54 rush att, 224 yds, 3 TDs, 4.1 YPC) and Wayne Anderson Jr. (39 rush att, 224 yds, 2 TDs, 5.7 YPC) have shared the rushing load for the Paladins this season. Roberto’s 196-yard/4 TD rushing effort in a 43-42 loss at Western Carolina a week ago netted him SoCon Offensive Player of the Week honors.
Outside of All-America tight end Ryan Miller, whose outstanding season is noted below, the Paladins have had some solid, reliable options at wideout this season. Ryan DeLuca (16 rec, 213 yds, 13.3 YPR) will be playing his final game as a Paladin in Birmingham Saturday, while others like Zach Peterson (8 rec, 117 yds, 14.6 YPR), Luke Shiflett (3 rec, 58 yds, 19.3 YPR), Dejuan Bell (9 rec, 79 yds, 8.8 YPR) and Joshua Harris (23 rec, 257 yds, 1 TD, 11.2 YPR) have stepped up and provided big plays, big blocks as well as big returns on kickoffs and punts in key moments this season for the Paladins.
Bell was named Furman’s special teams player of the week after having an outstanding performance against VMI last Saturday, which included a 45-yard punt return to set up a Furman score. Harris, who is Furman’s second-leading receiver, will end up on the SoCon’s All-Freshman team this season, and has a bright future ahead.
Furman’s offensive line has been a good mix of veteran leadership and youth learning on the go this season. Four of five starters are slated to return next season, which should give the Paladins one of the more veteran units in the league. The lone senior along the offensive front is Clark Daniel (RG), who will be playing in his final game as a Paladin on Saturday.
Daniel is part of a Furman offensive unit that comes in averaging 345.5 YPG to rank 75th nationally, while posting 22.6 PPG to rank 22nd nationally in scoring offense. Furman has seen its most improvement running the football this season, currently ranking 39th nationally in rushing offense (166.7 YPG).
Samford has had trouble preventing opponents from racking up both yards (505.6 YPG/122nd out of 123 FCS teams ranked) and points (39.3 PPG/116th out of 123 teams in FCS ranked). That’s probably not the defensive improvement head coach Chris Hatcher had hoped to see under second-year defensive coordinator Nick Benedetto.
It’s that glaring weakness that has kept the Bulldogs from being in the thick of the Southern Conference title race this season. That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs lack defensive talent, however, as that can be found at all three levels of Benedetto’s defense heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale.
Both defensive end Nelson Jordan (39 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 7 QBHs, 1 PBU) and defensive tackle Tay Berry (25 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 QBH) have been solid along the defensive front all season, and will be suiting up the final time for the Bulldogs Saturday at Seibert Stadium. They will be the ringleaders of Samford’s 4-3 defensive alignment Saturday, which almost seems to be becoming an extinct defensive scheme with so many switching to some form of a ’50’ or nickel defense.
At linebacker, Nathan East (89 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 6 QBHs) is an all-conference caliber defender, who will be playing his final game for the Bulldogs. He is a graduated who opted to return after the COVID-19 compromised 2020 fall campaign. East leads the Samford defense in tackles and will likely find himself on one of the postseason all-conference teams.
The other linebacker that could end up there could be junior Trimarcus Cheeks (71 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 5 QBHs, 2 FFs), who has also had a solid season of output on the defensive side of the football for the Bulldogs.
Junior and former walk-on Chris Edmonds (39 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 INTs, 1 PBU), who has picked off seven passes since the start of the spring season back in March, anchors the secondary at safety.
Nation’s top two tight ends?
You could certainly make the case that Furman’s Ryan Miller and Samford’s Michael Vice are among the nation’s top tight ends entering Saturday’s regular-season finale for both.
Paladin junior tight end Ryan Miller has been sensational ever since the start of the 2021 spring season late last February. Miller comes into Saturday’s contest with 41 catches for 684 yards and six touchdowns so far this season, averaging 16.6 YPR. Miller has scoring catches of 87, 72 and 58 yards, respectively, so far this season.
Including last spring, Miller has posted 56 catches for 938 yards and 12 TDs, averaging a whopping 16.8 yards-per-catch over the past 17 games!
Like Furman, Samford’s tight end also figures prominently into the passing game, as standout tight end Michael Vice enters the contest having hauled in 42 catches for 475 yards and four TDs, averaging 11.3 YPR so far in 2021.
Vice and Miller have been simply sensational this season, having combined to make 83 catches for 1,159 yards and 10 TDs through 10 games this season, averaging a combined 14 yards-per-catch.
Check back tomorrow:
Please check the blog tomorrow, as I will have a preview of the SoCon title matchup between Mercer and East Tennessee State, which will also feature who I think wins the 2021 SoCon title and why…Also will give my opinion on how many teams will end up in the FCS playoffs.