SoCon Football 2015: An Early Look At September’s SoCon Games (VMI at Furman)

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Furman and VMI are two programs that were members of the Southern Conference during the first gridiron season back in 1936.

It’s been a series that has seen Furman especially dominant in until VMI returned to the SoCon last season, and it was the Keydets that took it to the Paladins, as Furman dropped a 31–15 decision to VMI in Lexington, VA last fall. It would turn out to be the lone victory for the Keydets in SoCon play last season.

It was easily VMI’s most complete performance in its first season back in the Southern Conference, while for Furman, it was one of its worst, and to the Keydets’ credit, they had a lot to do with that. On Sept. 26, 2015, the Paladins and Keydets will meet again on the gridiron in an early Southern Conference clash for both clubs, as it will be the SoCon opener for both schools.

VMI has not fared all too well in Southern Conference openers in the past, and last season, would drop a 63–21 opener in league play for its first game back in the SoCon since 2002. The Keydets haven’t won an opener in Southern Conference play since Sept. 16, 1995, as the Thomas Haskins-led Keydets were able to post a 37–23 win over visiting East Tennessee State at Foster Alumni Stadium.

The Keydets will be under new leadership this fall, as Scott Wachenheim takes over the head coaching responsibilities after Sparky Woods saw his career in Lexington come to an end after seven seasons, finishing with a 17–62 record during his time as the head coach of the Red and McKenna Gold.

Wachenheim inherits plenty of talent, however, including signal-caller Al Cobb, who was the SoCon Freshman of the Year after finishing his freshman season setting a new single-season passing mark, with 2,971 yards on 269-of-438 passing, including throwing 20 TDs and 10 INTs in his first season as a Southern Conference quarterback.

The Keydets will again have a potent passing attack, with top receivers Doug Burton, Sam Patterson and Dane Forlines all returning to the fold for the 2015 season, which is something the Paladins had trouble dealing with in last season’s meeting.

Only once in Furman’s 13 Southern Conference title-winning seasons have the Paladins started the campaign with a Southern Conference loss, and that was 2013, as the Paladins opened league play with a 28–25 loss to Elon.

NOTING THE 2014 CLASH:

— VMI ended a streak of 21-straight losses to Furman, which dated back to 1979, as the Keydets went on to post a 31–15 win over the Paladins.

The SoCon’s leading passer, Al Cobb, finished the afternoon connecting on 24-of-37 passes for 239 yards and a pair of scores, while rushing for another in leading VMI to its first Southern Conference win since November of 2002 when the Keydets claimed what was a (23–21) win over The Citadel.

The loss would be Furman’s seventh-straight — it’s longest streak since 1972 — as the Paladins dropped to 2–7 overall and 1–3 in Southern Conference play, while VMI improved to 2–8 overall and 1–4 in league play. The win snapped what had been a six-game losing skid for VMI.

The Keydets would take the initiatiive from the outset of the contest, as they Keydets would cover 77 yards in 12 plays to take the early lead on a short 21-yard field goal by Dillon Christopher, as VMI took the early 3–0 lead.

It would be the VMI defense that set up the next score, as linebacker Ryan Francis broke through and sacked Furman freshman quarterback PJ Blazejowski, forcing a fumble which would be recovered by Joe Nelson at the Furman 41.

After coverting a pair of third-and-long plays, Cobb hooked up with wideout Dane Forlines, hauling in the 19-yard scoring toss to make it a 10–0 Keydet lead with 7:44 remaining in the opening half.

VMI would take all the momentum into the halftime locker room after forcing a Furman punt on the following series of downs. The Keydets put together an impressive 12-play, 84-yard scoring drive to make it a 17–0 lead with just 25 seconds remaining in the half.

Once again, the Keydets continued to be nearly perfect on third-down conversions for the game, converting four in all before Cobb plunged in from a yard out, as the game began to get out of reach.

Furman would open the second half with the football, however, but could not generate anything offensively once again. A key dropped pass on a third down play, and the Paladins would be forced to punt the ball back over to the Keydets with 12:09 remaining in the third quarter.

Over the next nine plays, the Keydets would eat up 55 yards, as Keydet running back Jabari Turner bulled over the Paladin defense from a yard out, extending VMI’s lead to 24–0 with a little over nine minutes remaining in the third.

Furman would finally snap its long scoring drought on the ensuing drive, as the Paladins covered 70 yards in nine plays, capped by a 28-yard scoring catch from Chad Scott with 4:55 remaining in the third quarter, making it a 24–7 game. It snapped a streak of nine quarters the Paladins had gone without scoring a touchdown, dating back to the opening quarter of the game with South Carolina in a 41–10 loss.

For all intents and purposes, VMI put the game away early in the fourth quarter. Furman nickel back Marcus McMorris would intercept Cobb at the 9:35 mark of the fourth quarter, however, the Paladins would turn the ball right back over to the Keydet offense, as safety Alijay Robinson picked off a Blazejowski pass and would return the ball down to the Furman 16. Just two plays later, Cobb would toss a 14-yard scoring pass to J.C. Garvin to make it a 31–7 contest.

Furman’s following possession would also end with an INT, as Blazejowski was picked off by Damian Jones. But the Keydets couldn’t turn come away with points and were forced to punt it away, and a muffed punt gave the Paladins excellent field position at the 28.

Furman needed just one play to put its second score of the day on the board, as Blazejowski connected with tight end Duncan Fletcher for a 28-yard score with 4:55 remaining. It would be the same combination on the Paladins’ two-point conversion try, as the Paladins cut it to a 31–15 contest.

VMI would recover the Paladins’ on-sides kick attempt and would run the clock out on their first Southern Conference win since re-joining the league this season after a 12-year absence on the gridiron.

Furman quarterback P.J. Blazejowski finished the afternoon connecting on 20-of-37 throws for 217 yards, with a pair of scores and three INTs. The Paladins were held below the 300-yard threshold of total offense for the fourth time this season in the loss, including for the second-straight week, as VMI out-gained the Paladins 377–299 on the afternoon. It also saw the Paladins fail to reach the 100-yard rushing plateau for the third time this season, posting a meager 82 rushing yards in the loss.

Chad Scott would lead the Paladins’ receiving efforts Saturday, hauling in four passes for 38 yards and his third-career scoring catch. Logan McCarter hauled in one pass for 34 yards, while tight end Duncan Fletcher hauled in two passes for 33 yards and a TD. Jordan Snellings continued his solid play at receiver for the Paladins this season, hauling in three passes for 33 yards.

Furman was led on the ground by senior running back Hank McCloud, who finished the day with 55 yards on nine rush attempts.

VMI had six different receivers make at least two receptions, led by Aaron Sanders, who hauled in four passes for 51 yards, while Dane Forlines led all receivers in the game with five grabs for 45 yards and a TD.

The VMI ground attack was led by Cobb, who rushed for 49 yards and a TD on 11 attempts, averaging 4.5 YPC. All told, Cobb accounted for 288 yards of total offense and three TD responsibilities in the win.

The story of the game, however, was third down efficiency, which saw the Keydets convert on 63% (12-of-19) of its third down plays Saturday, while the Paladins were just 18% (2-of-11) on third downs.

The Paladin defense was led by All-SoCon performers Marcus McMorris and Gary Wilkins, who posted 10 tackles apiece. Wilkins was part of a Paladin defensive effort that notched three sacks in the game, with Wilkins collecting 1.5 sacks on the day, while defensive tackle John Mackey totaled nine stops and 1.5 sacks. The Paladins now have 21 sacks this season, ranking second in the SoCon, with Chattanooga leading the league with 24 sacks in 2014.

Furman senior safety Hunter Tremaine, making his first career start following a rash of injuries in the secondary, sustained a fractured arm in the first half and joins Paladin safeties Trey Robinson (mononucleosis) Thomas Brown (fractured arm), and Rodney Anderson (sprained ankle) on the sideline.

Among Furman’s injured players are five All-SoCon performers, including quarterback Reese Hannon (fractured ankle), linebacker Carl Rider (torn labrum), tackle Charles Emert (concussion), Robinson, and long snapper Danny LaMontange (fractured ankle).

MEMORABLE MEETINGS:

SEPT. 23, 2000

ALUMNI STADIUM, LEXINGTON, VA

— Good meetings have been few and far between in the games between Furman and VMI, but Furman would break open a close, 14–13, game in the third quarter, out-scoring the Keydets 21–8 in the third quarter en route to the Southern Conference road win. It started when defensive lineman Eddie Overdyke scooped up a fumble and returned it 20 yards for a score to give the Paladins a 21–13 lead.

While it looked like the Overdyke return for a score would be enough to give the Paladins a 21–13 lead, VMI responded with a 100-yard kick return from Richard Holland, and the Keydets added a two-point conversion to tie the game.

After a fumble on the kickoff return put the Paladins backed up in the shadow of their own goalposts at their own 1, Furman posted a 99-yard drive to re-take the lead, keyed by a Louis Ivory’s 45-yard run to get the Keydets to the 46.

Ivory would of course go on to claim the 2000 Walter Payton Award, and he finished the contest against VMI with 135 yards rushing on 28 attempts. Eleven plays after the long-gainer by Ivory, Derek Russell scored on an eight-yard run to give the Paladins a 28–21 lead with 7:13 remaining in the third quarter.

The Paladins set the final scoreline inside the final minute of the third quarter, when Justin Hill took the ball to the right side, appearing like it would be an option play, however, he sucked the VMI secondary in to stop the run, and then threw the ball over the top to a wide open James Thomas, who hauled in a 36-yard scoring pass to put the Paladins ahead by 14 points, at 35–21.

SERIES NOTES:

— The 2015 meeting between the Paladins and Keydets will mark the 33rd all-time meeting between the two programs, with Furman holding a 23–9 all-time series edge. The streak-breaking win last season saw the Keydets snap a 21-game losing streak to the Paladins.

— Furman holds a 13–3 lead in games played in Greenville, while holding a 10–6 margin lead in Lexington. VMI’s longest streak in the series came from 1974–79, winning five-straight over Furman.

— Furman’s largest win in the series was a 58–0 win in 1999 and a 65–7 win in 2001, while VMI’s largest win in the series was a 31–7 win in 1972.

— VMI and Furman first met in 1946, with Furman getting a 26–7 win over the Keydets. VMI last claimed a Greenville in 1977, getting a 31–28 win over the Paladins.

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