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Plenty on the line for both Furman, Samford
By: By BRETT HUSTON  - STATS Senior Editor=
Published: 11/17/2017  at  1:05:27 PM
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(STATS) - With half of the league off tussling with the big boys of the SEC and ACC, it'd be easy to think of the final full week of the FCS regular season as a bit anticlimactic for the Southern Conference.

Saturday's contest at Seibert Stadium should ensure it's anything but a letdown.

Furman will try to win its eighth straight game and a share of a SoCon title that seemed unthinkable two months ago, but host Samford would love nothing more than to stand in the way and boost its own playoff resume.

Mercer and The Citadel are visiting last season's FBS championship game participants, Alabama and Clemson, respectively, while SoCon champion Wofford is at South Carolina and playoff hopeful Western Carolina also stays in-state against North Carolina.

That leaves just two league matchups for the final weekend, and Furman-Samford should be a doozy. Both teams look relatively safe to make the FCS playoff field even with a loss, but with the at-large bubble as crowded as ever, why leave it up to the committee to decide?

"If we win, I don't think there's any way we won't play again, and that's the way we have to look at it," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said on his weekly radio show. "I'm sure (Samford's) thinking the same way, and that makes it that much more intriguing. If you don't, you don't know."

The Paladins (7-3, 6-1) are looking for a piece of their first conference crown since 2013, something that seemed to be out the window just 60 minutes into their season. Furman dropped its opener 24-23 at Wofford on Sept. 2, opting to go for 2 and the win after Triston Luke's 44-yard touchdown run with 46 seconds left. Losses to Elon and North Carolina State followed, and the mountain to climb seemed overwhelming even though the schedule would ease up considerably.

Hendrix's team hasn't lost since. Only San Diego and Sam Houston State have averaged more points than the Paladins' 42.3 since Week 4, and only Kennesaw State has put up more rushing yards per game than Furman's 296.7 since Week 5.

"We had so many injuries early at key spots, we were kind of forced to develop some depth," Hendrix said. "Then all of a sudden, you get a little healthier and you've got a lot of guys who can play."

One of those guys is senior quarterback P.J. Blazejowski, who came into this season with more interceptions than TDs within the Paladins' option offense. But Furman throws it more than most teams who run the option, and Blazejowski has taken full advantage. He's averaging an FCS-best 11.17 yards per attempt on more than 16 throws a game, and he has 16 TDs against just three INTs.

Blazejowski hasn't been sacked since the first game of Furman's win streak.

"They're explosive in all areas," Samford coach Chris Hatcher said. "Their coach has done a tremendous job of getting their team turned around. They're a force to be reckoned with. They're very diverse in what they do offensively, and defensively, they're solid. They're as good of a football team as we've played since Wofford."

Samford (7-3, 5-2) won't be able to tie Wofford for the conference title with a win, but should be in good shape for an at-large playoff berth even with a loss. The Bulldogs opened their season with a win over likely playoff participant Kennesaw State and won at Wofford in addition to a solid road victory at Mercer. A home loss to Chattanooga hurts a bit, but shouldn't keep them out.

Hatcher's team stumbled down the stretch a year ago and still made it, dropping three of four before falling at Youngstown State in the first round. The difference in 2017 might be the defense. Since a 38-34 loss at Western Carolina on Sept. 23, Samford has surrendered just 12.5 points per game and forced 16 turnovers.

It has allowed just three touchdown passes in that six-game stretch and hasn't given up a rushing touchdown in the last three.

"Their defense is really good," Hendrix said. "They played a couple of option teams, so you try to get a feel for what they'll do. We're a little bit of a mixture of a couple of those teams. They do some unique things to option teams, structure-wise, so you're not really sure what you'll get and what you'll see."

What Furman's defense will see is plenty of all-SoCon QB Devlin Hodges, who threw for 411 yards and three TDs in a 38-21 road win over the Paladins last season. Samford is one of only 20 FCS teams to average less than three yards per rush, so how Hodges and favorite targets Kelvin McKnight and Chris Shelling fare typically dictates how the Bulldogs do.

One team ready to run, the other ready to throw. There are no surprises here, but even with resumes that could likely withstand a loss, both Furman and Samford are treating Saturday's game as if the playoffs have already begun.

"There's something unique about playing when you never know when the last game's going to be," Hendrix said. "If you win, there's more out there."

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