GREENVILLE, S.C.–It was not the type of start those who follow Furman football were expecting.
Some 12 weeks ago, the Paladins were trying to shrug off a 28-21 loss to a solid Gardner-Webb team, which also defeated 10-2 Charleston Southern this past weekend, but it is was a game that fans and media expected to win–especially for a program with as much tradition as the 1988 national champions and 12-time SoCon title winners have earned.
However, while that might okay for fans to carry such an expectation, it’s not the way third-year head coach Bruce Fowler or his players look at any game would have it. It’s about a chance to win another game, and a team that has been hungry to get better instead of resting on past laurels.
After all, the Paladins were in the exact same position two years ago, albeit not for a conference title, but for a playoff bid, however, lost in their final league game with Elon, falling 41-34 on Senior Day to squelch of returning to the postseason for the first time in half a decade.
Just a little over a month ago, Furman sported an unimpressive 2-4 record, but what was beginning to show was a team that features 63 freshmen or sophomore players on its 86-man roster was beginning to mature right before those faithful fans who follow the program, and those who cover the Paladins in the media, collective eyes.
Since then, Furman has lost one game–a 48-16 setback at LSU–which was a game the Paladins had within a 20-16 margin at halftime. The team now sits at 6-5 and a win away from a 13th Southern Conference title, and a potential automatic bid to the FCS postseason, should Samford defeat Elon on Saturday.
Heading into its final FCS meeting with rival Appalachian State, the Paladins began to get healthy, especially under center, where the Paladins played as many as five quarterbacks in 2013 due to injury, including four freshmen.
The Paladins got back a healthy Reese Hannon against the Mountaineers, and the result was a 27-10 win over the visiting Mountaineers. From that point forward, the Paladins have been a different football team. It was a defining 98-yard INT return for a score by Paladin playmaking defensive end Gary Wilkins, which swung the momentum in favor of the Paladins midway through the second quarter, and the Paladins have fed off the kind of opportunism on defense ever since.
A week later in Baton Rouge, Furman showed it wasn’t intimated by the daunting task of facing one of college football’s elite programs over the past decade, trailing by just four at the break (20-16).Though what resulted was a 48-16 loss to the Tigers, Furman continued to find itself and gained confidence with each passing week.
The young Paladins’ athleticism was once again on display in Baton Rouge, as Furman’s Reggie Thomas gave the Paladins a 7-0 lead when he picked off a Zach Mettenberger pass and sprinted 74 yards to paydirt to stun the 92,000 in attendance, at least momentarily, as the Paladins got out to a quick start courtesy of a second week with an INT return for a score in excess of 70 yards.
Another defining moment for Furman came in Statesboro, GA, with the Paladins claiming a 16-14 win over Georgia Southern in the final meeting between in the two old rivals that once met in the NCAA Division I-AA national title in 1985 and again in 1988, with the two programs splitting titles in those respective seasons.
The Paladins did enough once again, and let their intentions be known with a trick play on the opening play of the afternoon, as Tanner Skogen connected with redshirt freshman wideout Andrej Suttles for a 75-yard score on the game’s first play from scrimmage. The opportunistic Paladin defense once again was greedy, helping the Paladins win the turnover battle, with a +2 (Forced 2 fumbles, 1 INT) and it would be a theme beginning to emerge.
No. 20 Samford was supposed to put an end to Furman’s suddenly glimmering playoff hopes, and after a hiccup by the Bulldogs at The Citadel, the Paladins could play their way back into Southern Conference title contention with a win over a nationally-ranked foe on Homecoming.
Donning black jerseys and black pants for the first time in school history, the Furman defense once again went to work, making a scheme change, as Fowler moved from safety weakside linebacker, and the Paladins brought relentless pressure throughout the afternoon against the high-octane Samford offfense.
What resulted was making the SoCon’s most potent passer, Andy Summerlin, look human, as pressure forced him to fumble once inside his own 15 to set up a Richard Hayes III short six-yard scoring run out of the ‘wildcat’ and then later in the third quarter, Trey Robinson registered his first career INT to halt a Samford scoring drive.
The Paladins were able to open up a 28-10 lead in the third quarter with a Tanner Skogen 46-yard scoring strike, which this time came on a Reese Hannon hand-off, as he connected on with Jordan Snellings, who hauled in his first scoring catch of the campaign.
McMorris capped the 35-17 score line when he intercepted a Summerlin pass and scampered 89 yards for a score to record the Paladins’ third win over a ranked foe under Fowler in his third season at the helm. It would also be the perfect way to end a picture-perfect afternoon, who also forced a fumble, recovered a fumble and made 10 stops in his first start at weakside LB.
It was after the Samford win that folks around the FCS world started keeping an eye on the Paladins, but with five losses, most knew the Paladins needed than to more than to just win out and claim a share of the SoCon title to make the FCS postseason.
The Paladins needed a motivated Samford team to thwart Chattanooga’s hopes of a SoCon outright crown, while keeping both Furman and Samford’s hopes alive for a league title last weekend in Birmingham. In another SoCon classic, Samford pulled out a 17-14 win courtesy of a Warren Handrahan 43-yard field goal.
Furman, meanwhile, was taking it a game at a time, and the next game took the Paladins to Cullowhee, N.C., to face Western Carolina in a key SoCon showdown with plenty on the line. With the Paladins’ game going on simultaneous to the unfolding events in Birmingham, Furman would use a school record six field goals from Ray Early and a season-high 268 rushing yards in the 32-20 win over the Catamounts.
Wildcat quarterback Richard Hayes III scampered for a 60-yard TD run with a little over four minutes to play in the third quarter, which allowed the Paladins to establish a little breathing room, stretching a 19-17 to a 26-17 advantage, regaining the momentum against a gritty Catamount football team.
Saturday’s game will be another war, as it is every week in the Southern Conference, as the Paladins face Wofford–a talented football team keen upon spoiling the Paladins’ playoff aspirations much like Elon did in 2011.
Furman and Wofford have met with playoffs on the line in the regular-season finales plenty of times since the turn of the millennium, and the 2002 and ’03 meetings will not soon be forgotten by those who follow each program. The Terriers have four Southern Conference crowns since 2003, including three titles in the past six years.
Furman, which has not been to the playoffs since 2006 and has not won an outright or shared SoCon title since 2004, has a chance to garner both the SoCon’s automatic bid to the postseason and claim a SoCon standard 13th Southern Conference crown on Saturday afternoon at Paladin Stadium. Stayed tuned to SaturdayBlitz.com for a full preview of this great Palmetto State rivalry coming up later in the week.
Furman’s 2013 Resume:
Aug. 31–@Gardner-Webb, L 28-21–Starting QB Reese Hannon DNP with oblique strain
Sept. 7–@ No.22 Coastal Carolina, L 35-28–Chants climbed as high as No. 3 in the nation and have lost only once in 2013 (10-1)… Reese Hannon returns and center, and the Paladins out-gain Chants, 431-375, getting 240 yards on the ground.
Sept. 14–Presbyterian, W 21-20–Furman needs blocked 18-yard FG attempt by Jairus Hollman to hold off pesky Blue Hose.
Sept. 28–@ The Citadel, W 24-17Late game INT by Reggie Thomas and a big play from walk-on QB Dustin Fletcher, who completed a bomb to Gary Robinson, the Paladins eventually punch it in on a Tanner Skogen TD run to hold on for a 24-17 win in Charleston…Reese Hannon goes down with injury midway through third quarter.
Oct. 5–Elon L, 28-25–Trailed 28-10 at the half, and despite a furious rally by Duncan Fletcher in his first start, the Paladins could not overcome costly first-half turnovers and defensive miscues in the first of two league setbacks.
Oct. 12–@Chattanooga L, 31-9–Paladins start true frosh against powerful Mocs defense for a second-straight season, and despite winning the turnover battle and having the ball in good field position in opening half, could only salvage three field goals against the SoCon’s best defense on the road…Furman’s defense limited UTC to just 302 yards, but Furman gained just 189 yards.
Oct. 19 Appalachian State W, 27-10–Furman used a 98-yard INT return by defensive end Gary Wilkins to spark a 27-10 win over an improving Appalachian State team, which did manage to outgain Furman, 473-336, but could not overcome five turnovers, including four turnovers.
Oct. 26 @No. 13 LSU L, 48-16–Paladins trailed just 20-16 at the break, getting a 74-yard INT return for a score to take a 7-0 lead, however, the Tigers would come out and use their athleticism and speed to roll up 672 yards en rout to what turned out to be a lopsided loss, yet a respectable showing from Furman considering youth and scholarship disparity.
Nov. 2 @Georgia Southern W, 16-14–Furman opens with 75-yard TD on halfback pass from Tanner Skogen to Andrej Suttles 11 seconds into the game, and used another opportunistic defensive effort, which forced three Eagle turnovers, in getting two-point win in the final meeting between the two as FCS members at Allen E. Paulson Stadium.
Nov. 9 No. 20 Samford W, 35-17–Paladins pressure Samford’s talented signal-caller Andy Summerlin all afternoon, getting a National Defensive Player of the Week performance from Marcus McMorris, who moved to WILL linebacker, forcing a fumble, recovering a fumble and returning an INT 89 yards for a score in helping the Paladins spring the upset on Homecoming at Paladin Stadium.
Nov. 16 @Western Carolina W, 32-20–Wearing its 1983 throwback unis, Western Carolina gave Furman all it could handle in Cullowhee, playing more like a football team that was 8-2 rather than 2-8, but the Paladins got 144 yards from wildcat QB Richard Hayes III, while getting a school-record six FGs from Ray Early en rout to the 12-point win.
Nov. 23 Wofford (Noon kickoff/ESPN3)–Wofford has a chance to spoil Furman’s playoff and championship hopes, while the Paladins have a chance to visit the postseason for the first time since 2006 and win a share of a SoCon title for the first time since 2004.