(STATS) – Three months to the day after missing a 2-point conversion that could have beaten Wofford, Furman is about to get a second chance at the Terriers.
One of three second-round conference rematches takes place Saturday in Spartanburg, South Carolina, with the Paladins looking to avenge a heartbreaking season-opening loss to 7th-seeded Wofford.
Chase Nelson’s 1-yard run with 2:46 left in the fourth quarter on Sept. 2 gave the Terriers a 24-17 lead, but Furman needed just six plays to go 76 yards, scoring on Triston Luke’s 44-yard run with 0:46 left that seemingly was the prelude to overtime on the first Saturday of the season at Gibbs Stadium.
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But first-year coach Clay Hendrix had no interest in going to an extra session with favored Wofford, a surprise quarterfinalist in the 2016 playoffs. Wide receiver Ryan DeLuca took a direct snap and fired a pass intended for quarterback P.J. Blazejowski, but Malik Rivera picked it off and the Terriers escaped with a 24-23 victory.
No one could have known it at the time, but that was the difference between winning the Southern Conference and finishing second, between getting a first-round bye to allow some extra time to digest Thanksgiving dinner and spending the holiday weekend fighting to keep a season alive.
Furman (8-4) had to put in the extra week of work, winning 28-27 at Elon courtesy of a blocked extra point. And now the Paladins are coming for Wofford (9-2), looking to erase the memories of opening day.
“We went over there the first time and were still trying to figure out who we were,” Hendrix said, “but I think our kids will be excited to go play.”
It took the Paladins a few more weeks to pin down their identity after losses to Elon and at North Carolina State, but they won seven straight after that. And following a 26-20 loss at Samford which cost them a share of the conference title with Wofford, they avenged their September loss to the Phoenix to earn a shot at redeeming themselves against the Terriers.
“I think for the most part they’re the same,” Wofford coach Mike Ayers said of Furman. “But they’re doing what they do better.”
If anyone can understand the Paladins’ mindset, it should be Ayers. Last season, it was the Terriers who had a second chance to beat the SoCon’s regular-season champs after a tight regular-season loss. Wofford lost 24-21 in overtime to The Citadel despite being the better team in late October, then went into Charleston in Round 2 of the playoffs and beat the Bulldogs 17-3.
Las Vegas likes the revenge angle again. Furman opened the week as a 3 1/2-point favorite, and the extra dimension from the passing game is a big reason why. Both teams run versions of the triple option, but while Wofford typically throws only as a last resort, Blazejowski and the Paladins’ air attack can be formidable. He led the nation in yards per attempt (10.86) and was sixth in touchdown percentage (8.9), with 18 of his 203 passes winding up in the end zone.
Furman also allowed just six sacks all season, tied for the fewest in the nation. Blazejowski has been taken down just once in the last eight games.
“I’m sure they have things saved,” Ayers said. “Since we’ve played them, they’ve had, I can’t tell you how many throws that have gone over free safeties’ heads for touchdowns.”
There’s not as much mystery with Wofford, which is focused on controlling the clock and not turning it over. The Terriers gave it away three times apiece in their two losses – 24-21 to Samford on Oct. 21 and 31-10 at South Carolina on Nov. 18. In their other nine games, they committed just five turnovers.
That goes a long way toward explaining Wofford’s 7-1 record in games decided by seven points or fewer. Furman had been 0-3 when the margin was under a touchdown until holding off Elon.
“They’ve got a really good football team that’s won a bunch of close games,” Hendrix said. “They had a week off and I imagine they’ve spent a little time on us. It’s going to be a big challenge.”