By Greg Peterson, Contributor
After a 0-4 start to the 2016 football season and close back-to-back losses against SoCon foes Citadel and Chattanooga, the gritty and still-hopeful Paladins will have to get going soon.
After causing a scare at Michigan State where the Paladins suffered a heartbreaking loss against the No. 2 ranked SoCon team Citadel, losing 19-14. The following week, Furman had their home opener and lost to SoCon leader Chattanooga, 21-14.
When asked about the tough SoCon losses, head coach Bruce Fowler was optimistic.
“We have had lots of positives. The losses are very disappointing, but we have had some great moments too,” said Fowler.
The Paladins opened SoCon play Sept. 10 at their oldest SoCon football rival, the Citadel. Going into the fourth quarter, the Paladins had the lead over the Bulldogs, 14-13. With 2:13 left in the game, Citadel quarterback Dominique Allen scored on a one-yard run, but a two-point conversion attempt failed, resulting in a five Citadel lead.
The Paladins’ got the ball back at their 24-yard line, but junior quarterback PJ Blazejowski’s pass to senior wide receiver Andrej Suttles was picked off at the Citadel 34-yard line with 1:33 seconds in the game and the Bulldogs ran out the clock to get the victory, 19-14.
Furman was plagued with four turnovers, which included three Blazejowski interceptions and a fumbled punt that resulted in an ensuing Citadel touchdown. The Paladins had more yards through the air with 202 compared to the Citadel’s 107, but were out rushed, with 70 yards compared to 191 yards.
The defensive side of the ball was stout, and even held a high octane Citadel offense to just 25 yards of offense in the third quarter. Senior linebacker Carl Rider led the Paladins with 15 total tackles.
“We played really well on defense. Out of the Citadel’s last 16 games, we held them to one of their lowest scoring outputs,” Fowler said
Freshman safety Kavajae Ellis suffered a knee injury and will be out for the rest of the season. Freshman running back Darius Morehead also suffered an injury and his return is indefinite.
The Paladins then faced SoCon leader and FCS fourth-ranked Chattanooga Saturday Sept. 17 at Paladin Stadium.
Furman entered halftime down just 7-0, but Chattanooga grew the lead in the third quarter by adding two touchdowns.
The Paladins hopes looked bleak, especially when early in the third quarter when quarterback Blazejowski suffered a back injury. Red-shirt senior quarterback Reese Hannon stepped in and took over the rest of the game.
Behind Hannon, the Paladins rallied for two fourth quarter scoring drives against a Chattanooga defense that allowed 0 points to be scored against them until facing Furman. The Paladins first score came with a Thomas Gordon rush to the end zone with 8:09 left in the game, making it 21-7.
On the ensuing possession, the Paladins had an 11 play 94-yard drive that was capped off with sophomore running back Kealand Dirk’s one-yard touchdown with a minute left in the game. Chattanooga recovered the following onside kick and was able to run out the clock for a 21-14 victory. Senior captain and tight end Duncan Fletcher was proud of the team.
“Instead of rolling over we fought back in the last quarter and were just an onside kick away from having a chance to tie the game,” Fletcher said.
The Paladins were nearly even in total offensive yards 281-288, but really struggled with the ground game, having only 85 total rushing yards.
“We played well in spots. It was a very disappointing third quarter. Overall, we did not execute when we had opportunities,” Fowler said.
The Paladins suffered their worst loss of the season to Coastal Carolina on Saturday to end a very grueling September schedule. After falling behind 27-0 the Paladins tried to close the gap with a 14 point run but Coastal Carolina shut down the rally pretty quickly.
Perhaps the biggest struggle of the game was Furman’s special teams. Furman gave up two touchdowns on a punt return and blocked field goal returned for six.
In fact, with a pick-six, Coastal Carolina only scored 20 points on offense. Meaning Furman’s offense outscored Coastal Carolina.
Turnovers and special teams have plagued what could have been a decent start to the season for the Paladins.
When asked about the mindset after the back to back losses, Fletcher said, “we have to focus on these things we have done well, understanding that we are a good team ourselves and that we need to continue to get better in the areas that we have struggled.”
While it is tough to start the season 0-4, it is not over yet.
“It is a long season. Anything can happen,” Fletcher said.