Furman Braces For Two-Time Defending FCS Champion
GREENVILLE, S.C.–A walk around Oliver C. Dawson Bulldog Stadium revealed much about Furman’s past, meshing with what was the present and potentially bright future on the field on Saturday in the wake of the Paladins’ 30-20 win over South Carolina State in the opening round of the FCS playoffs.
Among the faces in the stands on Saturday were former running back Carl Tremble (1989-92), who was a part of maybe the greatest team in Furman history in 1989, looked on as the Paladins continued to rekindle the tradition which he was an integral part of during the late 1980’s and early ’90’s.
All Tremble would do was help the Paladins to the Southern Conference titles in 1989 and ’90, and would become one of the all-time greatest running backs to play for Furman and in the Southern Conference. Tremble still ranks as Furman’s second all-time leading rusher, with 4,149 career rushing yards, which has been bested only by Louis Ivory’s 5,353 yards from 1998-2001.
Another familiar face was Bobby Johnson, who is a good friend and mentor to current head coach Bruce Fowler, represented part of Furman’s tradition-rich history serving as the defensive coordinator and the Paladins’ heading up the program as the head coach from 1994-2001, leading the Paladins to two Southern Conference titles and a national appearance in 2001 before leaving for Vanderbilt following the 13-6 title loss to Montana.
On the field, third-year head coach Bruce Fowler’s Paladins were bringing collective smiles to the faces of Tremble and Johnson, as the Paladins were beginning to resurrect a tradition that has seen a seven-year slumber. A 30-20 win at SC State meant that Furman was rewarded with the opportunity to try and show the nation that its not only just making strides, but one that is serious about a national championship ring in 2013.
But the reward for the Saturday’s opening-round win by the Paladins comes with a monumental challenge in the form of two-time defending national champion North Dakota State. It’s the same Bison team that captivated the college football world earlier this season with a 24-21 upset win over Kansas State.
North Dakota State is quite a remarkable run for a program, which is similar to the one that now former Southern Conference gridiron member Appalachian State enjoyed from 2005-07, as the Mountaineers became the first FCS team in history to claim three-straight national titles, and posted a 39-6 record during that time-frame, including an unprecedented win over FBS No. 5 Michigan (34-32) at the Big House.
The Bison are in the middle of the program’s first undefeated season since 1990, with an 11-0 regular-season, and come into Saturday’s postseason FCS matchup with the Paladins having won 20-straight games, dating back to an Oct. 13, 2012, which saw the Bison drop a 17-14 decision to Indiana State at The Fargo Dome.
Dating back to the start of the 2011 season, the Bison have reeled off a remarkable 39-2 record, but the seeds of success for this particular dynastic run for North Dakota State actually began back during the 2010 campaign, which saw the Bison season go much like the Paladins’ 2013 slate. Finishing the regular-season with a 7-4 record, the Bison were an at-large bid out of the Missouri Valley Conference, and made the selection committee look brilliant by making it all the way to the FCS quarterfinals before a 38-31 overtime loss to eventual national champion Eastern Washington put a cap on a season which saw the young, upstart Bison finish the season with a 9-5 record.
A young team would use its rabid fan-base coupled with its confidence gained from the 2010 run and parlay it into one of the more dominant three-year runs in the history of FCS football. But if North Dakota State is the new flavor of FCS football, Furman must represent some of that old guard. After all, the Paladins posted one of the most dominant decades in FCS football during the 1980’s, winning 95 games during that run of success.
Furman does not have all that much experience facing teams from the Missouri Valley Conference teams, with the only meeting against the league in program history being a game which saw the Paladins claim a 42-23 win over Youngstown State back during the 1989 FCS playoffs, which was just prior to the Penguins’ run of success in the early 1990’s, which yielded four national crowns from 1990-97.
When the Paladins and Bison get together on Saturday in the FargoDome, it will be a meeting of a new flourishing power in FCS football, which matches a North Dakota State team in pursuit of its third national title in a row against a Furman team that is looking to rebuild to the dominance it enjoyed during the 1980’s and early 1990’s during a sustained stay atop the FCS pecking order. If the Paladins can do that, expect to see even more faces from the Paladins’ storied past showing up at stadiums around the FCS to take in what is transpiring in the present.
Furman became the first private school to claim an FCS national title in 1988, when the Paladins were able to knock off Delaware (21-7), Marshall (13-9) Idaho (38-7) and Georgia Southern (17-12) to claim the crown.
Led by quarterback Frankie DeBusk and a defense that recorded four shutouts and ranked as the top scoring defense (9.7 PPG) in the nation, the Paladins posted a 13-2 record en route to the national crown, sharing the Southern Conference crown with a 7-1 mark in league play. The Paladins’ lone two losses during the ’88 title run came on the road, as the Paladins dropped a season-opening clash at No. 10 Clemson, 23-3, in front of better than 80,000 fans on-hand at Memorial Stadium.
The Paladins, who were picked to finish fourth in the Southern Conference entering the ’88 campaign, claimed its sixth league title in the 1980’s by posting a 7-1 league mark, with the lone blemish during that run coming in Huntington, WV, as the Paladins dropped a 24-10 to Marshall, but would avenge that loss with a 13-9 win in the postseason.
Furman’s 24-9 win in Boone over Appalachian State snapped a 20-game league winning streak by the Mountaineers, cementing what was a changing of the guard atop the Southern Conference, with the 25,301 fans on-hand in Boone being the biggest crowd to see a league game in 25 years.
With Furman’s 17-12 win over Georgia Southern in Pocatello, Idaho, the Paladins became the first private school in FCS football to claim a national title. The Paladin defense had several players finish their season on at least one of the postseason All-America scrolls, with linebacker Jeff Blankenship, whose interception sealed in the waning seconds sealed the national title, having posted a team-leading 175 tackles Blankenship closed out his career as the program’s all-time leading tackler.
Blankenship was also named as the SoCon’s Defensive Player of the Year, and named as the National Defensive Player of the Year by the Football News. Defensive end Kelly Fletcher was also among the nation’s top defensive players, leading the SoCon with 14.5 sacks.
Noting Furman’s Tradition:
–The Paladins have an 18-14 all-time FCS Playoff mark in what is their 16th postseason appearance.
–Furman’s 13 Southern Conference titles rank more than any other program in the Southern Conference.
–With the exit of Appalachian State and Georgia Southern for the Sun Belt Conference, Furman remains the only program to have won a national title in the SoCon.
–Furman made national title appearances in 1985 and 2001, losing to Georgia Southern (44-42) and Montana (13-6) in those other two title appearances. The ’85 title loss came in the most heartbreaking of fashions, with the Paladins blowing a 28-6 third quarter lead to eventually lose, 44-42, to the Tracy Ham-led Eagles.
–Furman also experienced success in the early-mid 2000’s, sharing the SoCon title in 2001 before ending Georgia Southern’s 39-game home winning streak and pursuit of a third-straight national title by posting a 24-17 FCS semifinal win. It was one of the bigger upset wins in school history, considering the Eagles had never lost at home during the FCS playoffs.
Furman Head Coach Bruce Fowler:
Furman has remained very close to its winning tradition under the direction of third-year head coach Bruce Fowler, who was a member of Furman’s first Southern Conference title winning team as a player back in 1978.
Fowler is one of the founding members of the current success that has since seen the program claim 13 SoCon titles and a national title. The veteran coach has served on both sides of the ball as an assistant during his career before taking over as the head coach of the Paladins on Dec. 12, 2010.
Prior to leaving to join Bobby Johnson’s staff at Vanderbilt in 2001, Fowler served as the Paladins’ defensive coordinator from 1999-2001 and was the defensive backs coach from 1993-98. Fowler also served as the Furman receivers coach under Dick Sheridan and Jimmy Satterfield, serving in that role from 1986-92.
All told, Fowler is in his 25th year serving the Paladin football program, which includes times as a player, graduate assistant, assistant and now head coach. In his first season, Fowler led Furman to a pair of wins over Top five foes, with wins over No. 3 Appalachian State (20-10) and No. 5 Wofford (26-21) during that campaign.
After the Paladins underwent their worst season as a program since 1998 and only their second three-win campaign since 1972 last fall, Fowler has begun to rebuild the tradition of Furman football in 2013, and he has done it by developing young talent. Sixty-three of Furman’s 87 roster players are in their first two years with the program, including 44 freshmen.
The Paladins, which started the season with a 2-4 mark, have since claimed wins over their last six FCS opponents and have claimed five-straight wins. The five-game winning streak for the Paladins is the longest since 2005, and the Paladins have won eight games in a season for the first time since 2006.
This season, Furman’s remarkable improvement over the final half of the season has yielded Fowler the SoCon’s Coach of the Year accolade and has him as a candidate for the Eddie Robinson Award, given to the nation’s best coach by The Sports Network. Fowler is 17-18 as the Paladins’ head coach.
Stay tuned to SaturdayBlitz this week for news and notes about Saturday’s upcoming clash between Furman and No. 1 North Dakota State at The FargoDome.