At the 4-game mark of a football season, it’s pretty clear to most teams what they have. No season is decided after four games, but it is a big enough sample size to at least see where the season is headed.
For Furman, after a 2-2 start, I think it’s clear that this is a good football team, but it has significant flaws, particularly on offense. Through four weeks, the Paladins have had some good moments and also some bad ones, but the good has outweighed the bad to this point.
This team showed the potential it has in the 1st two games. The Paladins took down 24th-ranked North Carolina A&T to start the season in the best offensive performance from Furman so far. Hamp Sisson threw for 362 yards and 3 touchdowns in the 29-18 win en route to Southern Conference Offensive Player of the Week honors. Ryan Miller was his favorite target, catching 4 passes for 124 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown. The Paladins racked up 487 total yards of offense, by far the most in the four games this season.
Furman followed that up with a defensive masterpiece against Tennessee Tech the next week. The Paladins held Tennessee Tech to just 6 1st downs in the whole game and only 121 yards overall in the 26-0 victory, the program’s 1st shutout since 2004. Head coach Clay Hendrix said before the season that he felt the defense was the strength of the team, and they showed how lethal they could be in that game.
However, offensively, Furman left a lot of points on the board in that game. The Paladins had to settle for 4 field goals, which didn’t matter in that game but became more problematic in the most recent game against Mercer, where they managed only 3 points despite having other opportunities.
“Don’t think it hasn’t been talked about,” Hendrix said after the Mercer game. “We know we’ve left points out there, and it’s been missed throws and a missed block here or there. I don’t know how else to address it other than just continue to work at it.”
After Week 2, the Paladins earned a spot in the FCS Top 25 rankings at No. 25. However, the next week their success came to a screeching halt when they ran into North Carolina State, the lone FBS opponent on the schedule. The Wolfpack won 45-7 in a game that wasn’t even really contested after the 1st five minutes. I’m willing to just throw that game out because, in reality, Furman had no chance in that game regardless of how well it prepared and executed. N.C. State went on to beat Clemson the next week, and it may be the team to beat in the ACC this year. There’s not a lot a small FCS school can do against a team like that, so the fact the Paladins even got on the scoreboard in the 2nd half was a positive. Chalk that up to the inequalities of college football.
The cause for concern came in the next game, a 24-3 dud of a loss to Mercer to open the SoCon schedule. The Furman offense scored a field goal on the 1st drive of the game and never got on the scoreboard again. The defense didn’t play badly, but it didn’t play well enough to make up for the lack of offense. Sisson threw 3 interceptions and was replaced by freshman Jace Wilson in the 2nd half. Hendrix made it seem after the game that the starting quarterback job might be up for grabs moving forward.
“We’ll come back this week, and we’re gonna be willing to play [Wilson],” Hendrix said. “We’ll let him and Hamp continue to battle it out like we do at all the positions.”
Whether it’s a quarterback change or not, things have to improve offensively for the Paladins to compete toward the top of the SoCon. The defense is fine. Taking out the N.C. State game, the Furman defense is allowing just 14 points per game. That’s good enough to win a lot of games, but not if the offense can’t score.
The Paladins must get better at running the football. They are averaging just under 119 rushing yards per game. With an all-conference tailback like Devin Wynn, that has to improve. Establishing a more successful rushing attack may open things up for the quarterback to spread the field, like Sisson was able to do in the 1st game. The offense putting together consistent scoring drives will be crucial to the team’s success the rest of the year.
The bye week is coming at a good time for the Paladins. They can regroup after a couple of bad games in a row and get back to their roots: a good running game and an elite defense. The SoCon is wide open this year, and if Furman can become even an average offensive team, the defense could propel them to postseason play.
“I think we’re talented enough at a lot of those spots to have a chance to take advantage of it more than we are,” Hendrix said. “But we gotta make some more plays. We just do.”
The Paladins return from the bye week at Wofford on Oct. 9 at 1:30 p.m.