Furman posts SoCon opening win at No. 18 East Tennessee State

Furman wideout Joshua Harris/Photo courtesy of Furman athletics

If Furman’s statement wasn’t made loud enough by its performance in out-gaining (384-376) the fourth-ranked Clemson in what was a respectable 35-12 loss in Tiger Town last Saturday, it made yet another, perhaps more resounding statement in its most recent outing against No. 18 and defending Southern Conference champion East Tennessee State in its Southern Conference opener, defeating the Bucs, 27-14, before a capacity of 9,836 fans on hand Saturday night at William B. Greene Stadium.

With the win, Furman improved to 2-1 overall and 1-0 in SoCon action, while ETSU dropped to 1-2 overall and 0-2 in SoCon action. The win marked the fourth win in the last five outings at William B. Greene Stadium, and with the win, the Paladins snapped ETSU’s nine-game home winning streak at Greene Stadium, which dates to March 21, 2021, when Furman came away with a 17-13 win.

The Paladins ended the night holding what was a 409-352 advantage in total yards, with Furman’s defense imposing its will upon the game in the second half, holding the Bucs to just 104 yards of total offense in the latter half of play.

It was Furman’s secondary that made some key plays in both halves to highlight the defensive performance, showing the depth and talent the Paladins possess at all four defensive back positions.

“We knew what kind of game it was going to be…a tough, defensive game and anytime we can get our hands on the ball in the secondary  as a secondary and help the offense in these kinds of games is huge and we did that tonight and we helped force four turnovers, so that was also huge,” Furman defensive back Hugh Ryan said.  

Furman’s defense forced four turnovers in the game, picking off three Tyler Riddell passes, while also recovering a fumble in the win. Free safety Hugh Ryan and linebacker Bryce McCormick led the Furman defense with eight tackles apiece, while Ryan also added a forced fumble and an interception off a tipped pass on ETSU’s first possession of the game. In addition to Ryan’s INT, the Paladins also got INTs from cornerback Dominic Morris and linebacker Jalen Miller.

Furman strong safety Kam Brinson turned in his second strong performance in the Paladin secondary, finishing with one tackle, a forced fumble and a de-cleating hit, which forced to pop up in the air and off the carom, Miller recorded the interception. After the hit was reviewed for a potential targeting call, the call was overturned, and Brinson remained in the game and the interception stood for the Paladins. Brinson also had an INT off a tipped pass last Saturday in Furman’s respectable 35-12 loss at Clemson.

Offensively, Furman was led once again by quarterback Tyler Huff, who once again, was strong leading the Paladin offense in a game that saw the Paladins arguably face its most adversity of the season.

“I think tonight was a lot to do with me…I didn’t have a good game and I wasn’t hitting open receivers and I wasn’t putting the ball in the receiver’s hands in good spots  and a lot of it is on me tonight and when they were stopping the run and they were putting it on me to throw the ball and I wasn’t performing tonight, but I knew when it came down to it I knew I could depend on my safety blanket Ryan Miller and just get it into his hands and let him do what he does,” Furman quarterback Tyler Huff said.

The adversity came on third down for the Paladins on Saturday night. After converting 10-of-18 third down attempts against Clemson outstanding defense last Saturday, Furman’s offense was just 3-of-13 on third down in its Southern Conference opener against the Bucs, yet found a way to win the game.

Last season, Furman found itself in a similar game with the Bucs, only to see its lead, which it had held the entire game, taken away with just nine seconds remaining on a 3-yard scoring pass from Riddell to former ETSU wideout Malik Murray, as ETSU went on to the 17-13 win.

That loss last season all but spelled doom for Furman’s FCS playoff hopes. In the press conference earlier this week, words like “heartbreaking” were used to describe last year’s ultimate result, while Ryan Miller and defensive lineman Matt Sovochka made it a point that Saturday night against the Bucs, the Paladins were looking for “revenge” and “redemption” for the feeling of having the Bucs rip away that game at Paladin Stadium last October—they got that redemption Saturday night.

Huff finished the night connecting on 24-of-40 passes for 218 yards, with two touchdowns and no INTs, while also finishing as Furman’s leading rusher, gaining 98 yards on 13 attempts. All told, Huff accounted for 313 yards of total offense in the win.

Miller, a two-time All-America tight end, who hails from the Volunteer State (Jackson, Tenn.), ended up hauling in five passes for 39 yards and a touchdown.

Furman’s leading pass-catcher and maybe its best offensive threat in the contest was sophomore wideout Joshua Harris. A SoCon All-Freshman selection a year ago, Harris ended the night hauling in eight Huff passes for 95 yards. In addition to Miller’s five grabs, James Madison transfer Kyndel Dean also had five catches for 29 yards, while Luke Shiflett added three grabs for 19 yards.

ETSU quarterback Tyler Riddell finished the night connecting on 22-of-43 passes for 272 yards with two touchdowns and three INTs. Riddell’s top target was Einaj Carter, who had three catches for 87 yards and a pair of TDs. The 75-yard scoring catch by Carter was his first as a Bucs receiver.

Preseason Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jacob Saylors finished the night with 54 yards on 19 carries. The Paladins limited ETSU’s star running back to minus two yards rushing in the second half.

The game had the notable backdrop of familiarity for the two opposing teams, with Clay Hendrix facing off against a former teammate for the second time in his tenure as the Furman head coach, with the first time coming against former Mercer head coach and Paladin quarterback Bobby Lamb, who he faced each of his first three seasons as the head coach in Greenville.

Saturday night provided another opportunity to face off against a former teammate and friend, with George Quarles being on the opposing sidelines as the Bucs head coach. Quarles was coaching his first home Southern Conference game as the ETSU head coach. Following the game, former Furman and current ETSU offensive line coach Dru Duke greeted Hendrix with a hug and congratulations after a battle well fought between two good football teams.

The Paladins improved to 5-2 against the Bucs since ETSU re-joined the SoCon in 2016, while the Bucs fell to 20-12 all-time in SoCon home openers.

How it Happened:

Furman got on the board first in the contest utilizing Hugh Ryan’s fifth-career interception off a tipped ball. That set up the Paladin offense at the ETSU 27. After three incompletions from Tyler Huff, Ian Williams came on and knocked through a 44-yard field goal to make it a 3-0 contest with 13:48 remaining in the first quarter.

On the first play following the ensuing kickoff, Furman brought an all-out blitz and the Bucs burned the Paladins for the longest play surrendered this season by the Paladin defense, as quarterback Tyler Riddell hooked up with Einaj Carter for a 75-yard score to give ETSU a 7-3 lead.

After three turnovers, two of which came from the Bucs on a Jalen Miller INT and a Kam Brinson fumble recovery forced by Ryan, the Paladins got their second field goal of the night early in the second quarter, as Williams knocked through a 43-yard attempt to get within a point with 12:20 left in the half.

Furman’s offense would squander one major second quarter opportunity to put more points on the board, getting stopped on a 4th-and-2 at the ETSU 17, as Dominic Roberto was brought down after gaining only a yard. Furman, which already had two long field goals from Williams on the evening, could have attempted a third, however, head coach Clay Hendrix instead opted to attempt it on fourth down instead of attempting a third Williams field goal. It left the Paladins behind by a single point with 6:38 remaining in the opening half of play.

ETSU saw the ensuing offensive possession end with a missed field goal of its own, as the Bucs drove the ball down to the Paladin 28, however, had to settle for a 45-yard field goal attempt from Tyler Keltner, which he missed wide left with 3:27 left in the half.

After both teams were forced to punt on their ensuing possessions, Furman would get the ball back with just 1:05 remaining in the half, with excellent field position at its own 47 following a 15-yard punt return from Cally Chizik. Huff completed a 20-yard pass to Wayne Anderson Jr. on first down and then hit Kyndel Dean on a 9-yard pass to get the Paladins to the Bucs 24-yard line with under a minute left.

Huff’s 9-yard got the Paladins deep in the Bucs red zone and down to the 15. Two plays later, Huff fired a 15-yard strike to Anderson for the Paladins’ first touchdown of the night, giving Furman a 13-7 lead following the Axel Lepvreau PAT with 22 seconds remaining in the half. The Paladins had stolen momentum and taken it into the locker room.

ETSU’s defense made notable adjustments at the break and came out and played some inspired football to open the second half. The Bucs halted Furman’s momentum it had carried into the half, forcing Furman into a three-and-out on its opening drive of the second half.

Furman’s defense was also strong to start the second half, forcing ETSU to punt the ball on its opening drive of the second half after the Bucs reached their own 45.

The Paladins would make the most of their next possession, as they increased their advantage to double digits for the first time all night. Furman used 14 plays to cover 89 yards, with Huff completing 7-of-10 passes for 66 yards on the drive, with the key completion coming to Harris on a 23-yard connection to get the Paladins a first-and-goal from the ETSU 3. On the next play, Huff found Miller for his second scoring toss of the night, giving the Paladins a 20-7 lead with 6:13 remaining in the third quarter.

The Bucs’ response would be swift, as they showed why they were the defending Southern Conference champions and had won nine games in a row in the friendly confines of William B. Greene Stadium. The Bucs, nine-play, 75-yard drive, would also be aided by a pair of 15-yard penalties—a personal foul and an unsportsmanlike penalty—which yielded a combined total of 30 of yards for what would be ETSU’s second trip to the end zone of the evening. Riddell capped the drive with his second scoring toss of the night, finding Carter for a second time, with this one coming on a beautifully lofted 11-yard pass to the left corner of the end zone, pulling ETSU to win six again, at 20-14, with 3:14 left in the third quarter.

It would ultimately turn out to be the final points the Bucs would score in the contest, as Furman’s defense did the rest, surrendering just 41 yards on ETSU’s final 23 plays of the game, which combined the Bucs final possession of the third quarter and the entire fourth quarter.

The Paladins would put the game away in the final two minutes. Trailing 20-14 and facing a crucial 3rd-and-9 play from its own 11, it appeared Riddell had completed a 22-yard pass out to the Bucs 33 to standout all-league wide receiver Will Huzzie, however Huzzie was flagged for offensive pass interference to negate the potential big play and first down. Riddell’s pass intended for Huzzie was dropped on the ensuing 3rd-and-19 play, and then on 4th-and-19, Furman cornerback Dominic Morris picked off Riddell’s pass at the ETSU 46 to give the Paladins the ball back with 59 seconds left.

On the first play on the ensuing possession, the Paladins put the game on ice, as Dominic Roberto took the hand-off from Huff, who also helped pave the way with a down field block, as the second-team All-SoCon selection Roberto rumbled 46 yards for a score to put the Paladins back up by two scores, providing the final margin.

“It feels really good to win one like this and it took every single body we brought up here and we made the trip up here today, which some people would say is not an easy trip, but our kids managed that really well and I thought our coverage was great and I was even going to let him kick the last one if would have run a little time, but we scored there and we were pretty solid kicking the football tonight…We came in and kicked those two field goals and I felt like that was huge…But I think there was a lot of adversity out there and it was kind of who’s going to blink…who’s going to flinch and our kinds didn’t flinch, they just kept playing,” Furman head coach Clay Hendrix said

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