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Return to the Ground, Return to Glory

By Robbie Ross
SouthernPigskin.com
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Thus far in 2017 the Paladins are averaging 228 rushing yards per game opposed to averaging 133 yards per game on the ground in 2016.

The Furman Paladins lead the Southern Conference with thirteen all-time Football Championships.  Since their first SoCon Title in 1978, Furman has won at least one league championship in the last four decades.  The recipe for SoCon Title success has always been running the football.  Beginning with coaches Dick Sheridan, Jimmy Satterfield and Bobby Johnson the Paladins meal ticket was on the ground.   Eleven of Furman’s thirteen championships were won by the afore mentioned coaches and all eleven of those title teams averaged more yards per game on the ground than in the air.  The immediate past two coaches at Furman, Bobby Lamb and Bruce Fowler, each won one SoCon title at the helm while averaging more passing yards per game than rushing.  Enter Clay Hendrix, returning to Furman, where he played and coached for 25 seasons, after a 10-year stint at the Air Force Academy.  Hendrix has returned the Paladins to a run first, option based offense which is paying dividends in the first eight games of the Hendrix Era. 

Thus far in 2017 the Paladins are averaging 228 rushing yards per game opposed to averaging 133 yards per game on the ground in 2016.  Furman’s two-headed fullback monster in Kealand Dirks and Antonio Wilcox are averaging 105 yards per game in an offense that relies on being able to pick up yards by the fullback on first and second down.  The Paladins lead the SoCon with a whopping 51% conversion rate on third down and even more astounding 75% on fourth down.  Senior quarterback PJ Blazejowski is the field general for a Paladin offense that is second in the league in scoring at 35 points per game.  The offensive line that by Clay Hendrix admission is young and still a work in progress has played wonderfully only giving up 5 sacks of Blazejowski, allowing the senior signal caller time to make the best read and efficient throws downfield.  When teams crash down and key on the running game of Furman, Blazejowski has shown he can make teams pay with his arm.  Leading the nation in passer efficiency rating at 178.9, Blazejowski has completed 62% of his passes for 1,535 yards and 13 touchdowns, 4 of which that have gone for 57 yards or more, with only two interceptions. 

Furman has won five games in a row after opening the season 0-3.  The three season opening losses certainly won’t hurt the Paladins resume for the FCS Playoffs if they continue to rack up victories.  A one-point loss on a missed two-point conversion to #8 Wofford, a three-point loss to #10 Elon and a loss to FBS #14 NC State.  Hendrix says his team and his staff has started to figure it out over the current five game winning streak.  “Our kids have gotten a little more comfortable and even staff wise has gotten more comfortable, it took a little while for everyone to get on the same page.” 

The Paladins five game winning streak will be put to the test this weekend as they travel to Cullowhee, NC to take on #18 Western Carolina in what amounts to an elimination game in the race for the SoCon title.  “It’s nice when it’s late in the year and you’re in the hunt and really we have absolute control.”  With three more wins in the SoCon (at Western Carolina, The Citadel, and at Samford) Furman can claim a share of their 14th SoCon Championship.  If the Paladins are to go on and become SoCon Champs, they will have gone back to their roots via the ground game and return the glory that Hendrix is accustomed to at Furman.  

Robbie Ross - Robbie Ross is Southern Pigskin's lead SoCon writer. A 19-year veteran of the Furman Radio Network, Ross also spent time with the Georgia State Radio Network prior to his ventures with Southern Pigskin. He is a voter in the STATS FCS Top 25 Poll.