Furman Football 2022: Previewing the Paladins’ November slate of games

Mercer has won the last two meetings against Furman

Furman will enter its most crucial month of the 2022 season with a much needed off week before beginning the final month of the season, which will likely decide both FCS playoff and SoCon title hopes.

In the previous two articles, I have projected the Paladins will be 6-3 overall and 4-2 in league play at this point. Closing out the season with wins over Mercer and Wofford would likely be enough to see the Paladins back in the FCS playoffs for the first time since 2019. That will be easier said than done. Here’s a look at the final two games of the season.

Nov. 12, 2022–Furman at Mercer

The last two times that Furman has faced Mercer, as well as former its assistant coach/offensive coordinator Drew Cronic, things haven’t gone well-especially offensively. In those two meetings against the Bears, the Paladins have a combined 17 points and a combined 535 total yards, and did not break 300 yards of total offense in either of the past two clashes.

Meanwhile, the Bears have seemingly been unstoppable at times offensively in those two wins, and while last September’s win was more in a methodical fashion, both have seen the Bears offense seemingly come up with the big plays when they needed, especially in the passing game.

In those two games, the Bears have rolled up 898 yards of total offense and 40 points, with 574 of those yards coming through the air, which included a school-record 406 yards passing in the spring of 2020.

It’s been a pair of dominating performances from the Bears against the Paladins, and it was Mercer that found themselves neck and neck with East Tennessee State for the entire conference season, and naturally, the game between the Bears and Bucs would ultimately end up deciding the 2021 outright Southern Conference champion in Johnson City on the final day of the regular season.

That win meant the SoCon would be sending just one representative to the FCS playoffs, as the Bears only scheduled 10 games, and had a win over a non-Division I foe, finishing with a 7-3 overall record and a 6-2 mark in SoCon play. Given the SoCon’s slip among FCS leagues in terms of national perception, scheduling only 10 games was the exact wrong thing to do by the administration.

With that said, even with that Mercer did pass the eye test, and for those of us that cover the SoCon on a regular basis, they were worthy of a playoff bid. The Bears also return enough to be considered one of the favorites to win the Southern Conference title once again this fall. The Bears return some key performers on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Fred Payton Jr. on the offensive side of the ball, where he showed tremendous awareness and overall big play ability at times last season.

Both Payton and Carter Peevy both return as capable leaders of a Bears offense that was especially strong running the football last season. Overall, the Bears finished the 2021 campaign 12th nationally in rushing offense, averaging 209.4 YPG on the ground, including averaging an impressive 4.84 YPC.

The leader of that multi-faceted and diverse ground unit this fall will once again be Fred Davis. The redshirt freshman running back was a force to be reckoned with last season, as he finished the campaign rushing for 847 yards and 14 TDs, averaging 5.2 YPC.

The Bears will also have one of the top wideouts in the SoCon, in Ty James, who has been a thorn in the side of the Paladins in each of the past two meetings. He has 11 catches for 258 yards and a pair key touchdowns in each of the past two Bears wins over Furman, highlighted by an eight-catch, 179-yard effort, which included a touchdown in Mercer’s 26-14 win in the spring of 2021.

James garnered all-conference accolades last season after hauling in 26 passes for 611 yards and seven TDs.

Three regulars also return up front, with Riley Adcock (center), Santo DeFranco (right tackle), and John Harris (left guard) all slated to return from that unit that helped pave the way for Davis last season.

While the Mercer offense was good, it was its defense that was largely responsible for putting Cronic’s Bears in position to claim its first-ever SoCon title last fall. The Bears ranked 20th in all of the FCS in total defense, allowing just 327.5 YPG. The Bears ranked 12th nationally in passing yards allowed, surrendering just 179.4 YPG through the air last fall.

Mercer has some of that star power back once again this fall, with Solomon Zubairu returning along the defensive front, while linebacker Isaac Dowling will return as one of the top defensive players in the Southern and will once again patrol the middle of the Mercer defense, as he comes off a 2021 campaign, which saw him finish the season as Mercer’s leading tackler, posting 73 tackles, 7.5 tackles-for-loss, and recovered a fumble for the Bears last season.

When Furman travels to Mercer on Nov. 12, it will mark the 21st meeting on the college football gridiron between the two, with the Paladins holding the narrow 10-8-2 all-time series edge in a football rivalry that dates back to a 39-0 Mercer win over the Paladins in 1914.

Since Mercer resurrected its football program in 2013, the Paladins and Bears have met a total of eight times, with the two programs having split those eight gridiron clashes four apiece.

This will be one of the most difficult road games on the schedule, and the Bears, like the Paladins, will likely be right in the thick of the Southern Conference race when the two meet in mid-November. It will also mark the final regular-season home game of the season for the Bears, so a large, vocal road crowd will likely be a strong prediction for this one.

That said, I think the odds of Mercer getting a third-straight win in this series are a bit lower, considering Furman has an off-week heading into this crucial matchup. I’ll say Furman wins this one 20-17 on a field goal as time expires. Might as well. It’s early May after all. Kickoff for the Nov. 12th clash between the Paladins and Bears at Five Star Stadium has not yet been set.

Nov. 19, 2022-Furman vs Wofford

Furman freshman QB garners first start career last season at Wofford/photo courtesy of Furman athletics

There was arguably no higher moment of the 2021 football season than the one that the Furman Paladins experienced in Spartanburg, as the Paladins picked up a resounding 42-20 win over Wofford at Gibbs Stadium.

It marked the first win by Furman in Spartanburg over nemesis Wofford since 2006, snapping a streak of seven-straight losses by the Paladins in the Hub City.

Furman’s win over Wofford would be costly, however, as All-SoCon running back Devin Wynn ran so violently on that sun-splashed early October afternoon last season that he was never completely 100% the remainder of the season. Wofford, meanwhile, was seemingly never the same after that Furman game and went on to finish out its worst season as an NCAA Division I member, marking its worst season since a 1-10 campaign under the direction of Rick Gilstrap back in 1987.

The Paladins’ 22-point victory over Wofford last season marked the first-ever start for quarterback Jace Wilson, and he delivered a gem.

The Texan showed us flashes of what made Paladin coaches so excited upon his signing last year. He connected on 14-of-23 throws for 189 yards with a TD and no turnovers, while also rushing for 26 yards and a score on just five attempts.

His performance allowed Wynn to do what he was able to do, as a result of the Terriers having to respect what Wilson could do with his legs and how much of a threat he could be with his arm. That would allow Wynn to run wild, as he carried the ball 31 times for 204 yards and a pair of TDs, while hauling in three passes for 39 yards and a score to have easily his most productive performance of the season for the Paladins.

Wynn suffered a hit in the fourth quarter, as the Paladins continued to grind Wofford down, and the Greensboro, GA, native would seemingly never be the same from that performance forward in the 2021 fall season.

The 42-20 win by Furman over Wofford marked the first meeting between the two programs since 2019, as the two teams did not play in the spring of 2021, due to the cancellation of the game between the two slated to take place in Greenville, due to COVID-19 issues within the Terrier football team, as Wofford was forced into an abrupt ending to the 2021 (2020 season) spring season after playing only five games.

The Terriers enter the 2022 campaign led by head coach Josh Conklin, who heads into his fifth season at the helm of the Wofford football program since taking over the reins of the program for the legendary Hall-of-Fame head coach Mike Ayers, who retired following the 2017 season, and after leading the Terriers to the FCS Playoffs and a pair of SoCon titles in his first two seasons, leading Wofford to a combined 17-8 mark in his first two campaigns.

Since the end of that outright SoCon title campaign of 2019, the decline of the program due to a combination of factors–COVID-19 included–has been especially swift. In fact, the Terriers head into the 2022 campaign losers of 14 of their last 16 games combining both the 2020 and 2021 campaigns, and have lost 12-straight Southern Conference games, dating back to a 31-14 win over Mercer on Feb. 20, 2021.

The lone two wins during that span have come against Elon (W, 24-22) and the aforementioned win against the Bears. Along with attrition due to COVID, one of the concerning factors for Wofford football is the fact that a number of key players have hopped into the transfer portal, with some of those players having done so during the season itself.

The Terriers have also been in the process of transitioning away from the traditional wing bone offense, which has also not been an exactly smooth transition. Quarterback issues, offensive line injuries and depth, and the lack of a true offensive identity have been among the other factors that have been pre-eminent during the past couple of seasons, causing struggles along the way.

The Terriers have a decent amount of talent returning for the 2022 season, however, and they aren’t a team to be taken lightly in the SoCon. Still, this team has to find the confidence it needs that brought it plenty of success in the not-so-distant past.

The 2022 season will see the Terriers in search of a new starting signal-caller, with veteran Jimmy Weirick accounting for the lone holdover with starting experience. Kyle Pinnix, Cade Rice, Trey Baker and Bryce Corriston are a young trio of signal-callers alongside Weirick to garner the starting responsibilities for the fall when competing to lead the Terrier offense in the season opener on Sept. 10 against Elon.

All told in his Wofford career, Weirick has seen action in 11 games, having made six starts. He has completed 71-of-123 passes for 880 yards, with four TDs and three INTs.

Some veteran know-how does return in the backfield at least for the 2022 season, as Nathan Walker returns for yet another season in the backfield for the Terriers. Walker rushed for 254 yards and a touchdown in the 2021 season, as he saw action in all 11 games, including starting four of those contests.

In his career with the Terriers, Walker has rushed for 1,480 yards and 11 scores in 39-career games donning the old gold and black, including having made 18-career starts.

The best news for the Terrier ground attack will be the return of Irvin Mulligan, who is coming off a strong season running the football for the Terriers, and he was arguably the Terriers’ biggest offensive weapon this past season, rushing for 854 yards and eight scores on 124 rush attempts, averaging an impressive 6.9 yards-per-carry last season.

Mulligan enters his senior season for Wofford having rushed for a total of 1,324 yards and 11 TDs on 190-career attempts, averaging 7.0 YPC for his career.

All told, Wofford finished the season ranking fifth overall in rushing offense, averaging 232.8 YPG, which marked the 22nd-straight season the Terriers have finished the season ranked in the Top 10 nationally in rushing yardage.

As a part of the unit paving the way for the likes of Mulligan and Walker, with two starters returning from that unit from a year ago that once again helped the Terriers rank among the nation’s best ground attacks.

Jysaiah Cromer will anchor the unit, as he returns at left tackle for the 2022 season, while Anthony Garcia returns at center.

The ever-evolving passing attack for the Terriers will feature some big-play threats, including leading wideout and rising junior Alec Holt, while senior R.J. Khayo adds even more experience on the other side.

Holt comes off a 2021 campaign that saw him haul in 22 passes for 458 yards and five scores last season, averaging 20.8 yards-per-catch last season. Khayo added 16 catches for 189 yards in 2021.

The biggest disappointment for Wofford was literally its defense in pretty much every respect. The Terriers struggled in nearly every phase on that side of the ball last season, which for Conklin, given his background as a defensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, couldn’t not have sat too well during the off-season.

In terms of total defense last season, the Terriers surrendered 454.5 YPG, which accounts for one its most frustrating seasons on the defensive side of the football since joining the SoCon as an official gridiron member way back in 1997.

Wofford also surrendered 34.5 PPG to foes last season, and were especially weak against the run, as the Terriers gave up an average of 229.5 YPG on the ground.

One of the reasons the Terriers have been able to establish themselves as the team of the decade in the league from 2010-19 was due in large part to their play on that side of the football, routinely ranking nationally as one of the top defensive units in the nation.

The good news is that seven starters are slated to return from a unit that was relatively young last season. The best news for Terrier fans will be that they will once again have one of the top defensive players in the SoCon returning along the defensive front, with the return of all-conference performance Michael Mason at defensive end. He saw action in eight games last season, posting 44 tackles, 4.5 tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks and forced a pair of fumbles.

The linebacking corps was hit hardest by graduation, losing both John Beckley and Joe Beckett to graduation. Beckett recently getting invited to the New York Giants’ mini-camp, as he was signed as an un-drafted free agent. Beckett was the only player to start all 11 games for the Terriers during the 2021 campaign.

The secondary looks like it will be the strength on the defensive side of the football for Wofford in 2022. Three of four starters are back from a unit that 224.9 YPG, led by Tahir Annoor, who posted 36 tackles, two pass breakups and recovered a fumble. Astonishingly, the Terriers intercepted just two passes in 11 games last season, gaining just nine total turnovers for the season (2 INTs, 7 FRs).

Overall, the Terriers were extremely young last season, with 32 players having garnered their first-career starts in 2021, while a total of 54 players saw their first action on the gridiron for the Terriers.

The series between the Paladins and Terriers accounts for one of the oldest in the Deep South, dating back even earlier than the Auburn-Georgia rivalry, which has for many years erroneously claimed that it is the “Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry,” however, that rivalry began three years later in 1892 than the first-ever meeting between Furman and Wofford–a 5-1 win by Wofford over Furman in Spartanburg in 1889–and the Paladins and Terriers will be playing for the first time at Paladin Stadium since 2018.

Despite recent history being owned by Wofford, having won five of the past seven meetings in the series, the Paladins have been dominant overall in the all-time series, having post a 55-33-7 all-time series edge, with the 2022 meeting marking what will be the 96th all-time clash between the two.

Rivalry games are never easy, but I feel good about the Paladins getting a second-straight win in the series, and should they do that, the Paladins would finish off the 2022 season with an 8-3 overall mark and a 6-2 ledger in league play, according to really early schedule outlook for the Paladins.

That should be good enough for a return to the FCS postseason for head coach Clay Hendrix and the Paladins. Only time will tell.

Final Record Projection: 8-3 overall, 6-2 in SoCon play

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