Furman Set To Battle No. 1 North Dakota State Saturday

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HollmanJ2013Samford1

Furman Nickel Back Jairus Hollman

FARGO, N.D.–Maturity is often a thing that takes many mistakes and hard lessons learned to personify, with some taking longer than others to finally use the experienced gained as a stepping stone.

For the 2013 Furman football team, mistakes, hard lessons learned and adversity might as well have been watchwords for a team trying to find its way in what was a peculiar season inside the once proud Southern Conference.

With Appalachian State and Georgia Southern having now completed their final respective seasons inside the SoCon, the 2013 season was an audition for teams to assume the role of stepping into the new role of being the new team to wear the league’s bulls-eye for the next era of the league.

For Furman, it wasn’t supposed to be a season which saw the Paladins challenge to wear such a tag, but with the calendar turning from November to December, the Purple and White remain the only team remaining alive in the postseason for a conference which has fielded eight national champions, with seven of those titles now having left the league with the departures of Appalachian State, Georgia Southern and Marshall.

Furman’s 1988 national title now remains the only one left among the remaining league members, and the 2013 season has seen the Paladins mature right before the nation’s eyes.

An 0-2 start, which included losses to Gardner-Webb (28-21) and No. 23 Coastal Carolina (35-28), thoughts of playoffs or a 13th Southern Conference title couldn’t have been further from the mind of most of its small, but loyal fan base.

The Paladins did not have starting quarterback Reese Hannon in the opener against Gardner-Webb because of a strained oblique, and while he was back against Coastal Carolina in the seven point loss, Hannon was re-injured in the 24-17 win at The Citadel forcing back to the sidelines–this time for a more extended period of time.

Meanwhile, the Paladins would not have the services of backup quarterback Dillon Woodruff, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the season-opening loss at Gardner-Webb, and the Paladins would have to call on Duncan Fletcher–a walk-on quarterback with a strong arm and good instincts in the pocket similar to that of former Furman signal-caller Braniff Bonaventure–but he had yet to learn to poise and composure to run the Furman offense due simply to that lack of experience.

Hannon vs. Wofford

Furman Sophomore QB Reese Hannon

A one-point win over a Presbyterian (21-20) team which Furman owned 14-straight wins against in the home opener didn’t do anything to strengthen hopes of finishing any higher than the media preseason projection of fifth in the Southern Conference hierarchy. After an off week, Furman won a 24-17 road contest at The Citadel, which was a game not many expected the Paladins to win. But a sprained ankle to Hannon forced him out of the next two ballgames, and the Paladins started the campaign a precarious 2-4.

The Paladins have played five different signal-callers under center this season, with two of those being ‘wildcat’ QBs, in Terry Robinson and Richard Hayes III. Robinson, like Woodruff, suffered a season-ending injury, with his injury coming in the

The Paladins lost to lowly Elon (28-25) and Chattanooga (31-9), but little did anyone know that it would be the final regular season losses the Paladins would endure against FCS foes, as Furman won its final five games against FCS opponents. Furman swept the three teams that claimed a share of the2012 Southern Conference crown, posting wins over Appalachian State (27-10), Georgia Southern (16-14) and Wofford (27-14). The Paladins also recorded their lone win over a nationally-ranked foe in an impressive homecoming win over Samford (35-17). The lone loss since Oct. 19 came at FBS 13th-ranked LSU (48-16).

Furman claimed its sixth-straight win over FCS competition last Saturday with a 30-20 opening-round FCS playoff win over South Carolina State. The challenges this young football team has faced and overcome have been nothing short of amazing, with the Paladins having endured an injury to its top returning defensive end, wildcat quarterback, wide receiver and one of its top offensive linemen, yet the Paladins have kept fighting and have been relentless along the way.

It’s also an indication of a step up in recruiting the past couple of seasons, with Furman having gotten the better of Wofford in some of those recruiting decisions that have down to two schools between the two Upstate private institutions, such as Richard Hayes III, who chose Furman over Wofford, who also heavily recruited him out of Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C.

The way Furman has performed on the field this season, with more than a few true freshmen being significant contributors, it would seem to lend credence to those who placed Furman among the top three in the SoCon in recruiting the past year, below only Appalachian State and Georgia Southern. The maturation process has seen a team made up of a majority of players from 18-20 year-olds become men right before the eyes of the coaching staff and the Paladin fan base.

Saturday, the Paladins step into an FCS cauldron–a snake pit if you like–not all too uncommon to those places of yester-year, such as Appalachian State’s Kidd Brewer Stadium, Georgia Southern’s Paulson Stadium or Marshall’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium. But the FargoDome has a dimension that the aforementioned trio did not have, which is noise. While all three venues were hostile and loud, none of the three were in a dome. Though the Paladins faced LSU earlier this season, that game took place outdoors.

 

A Look At North Dakota State:

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NDSU Senior QB Brock Jensen

Winners of 20-straight and back-to-back national titles, North Dakota State now sets its sights on a third-straight title when it begins play in the 2013 FCS playoffs on Saturday afternoon against Furman.

The Bison were the No. 1 team in the nation from wire-to-wire during the regular-season, and rightfully so, as NDSU was rarely tested during the regular-season.

For those who have followed Furman football, the Bison look a lot like the 1996 Marshall team that defeated the Paladins 54-0 in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs, or the 2007 Appalachian State team that started the campaign with a 34-32 win over No. 5 Michigan and finished it with a 49-21 win over Delaware.

It’s a team that resembles the 2003 Delaware Blue Hens, who went wire-to-wire unbeaten to post the most lopsided win in FCS title game history, with a 40-0 win over Colgate. North Dakota State now has a chance to put itself up in the category of those dominant teams. A third-straight title would cement NDSU’s legacy as one of the greatest dynasties in FCS history, matching the likes of Appalachian State (2005-07), Youngstown State (1990-97) and Georgia Southern (1985-90; 1998-2001).

The reason for the success of the program has been no secret. Like so many of the other FCS programs rooted in a winning, championship tradition, with Furman included in that category, the Bison have won on the gridiron long before the past couple of championship winning seasons, as the Bison started their tradition of winning championships at the Division II level, claiming five Division II titles before moving to the FCS level of football officially in 2008.

During its transition to official membership as an FCS member, North Dakota State defeated Georgia Southern, 34-14, in Statesboro, and were a combined 20-2 in 2006 and ’07. The Bison took the FCS by storm in 2006 and ’07 during that transition process, and the Bison proved they could recruit long before making the leap to the Championship Subdivision, with great players like running back Tyler Roehl, quarterback Nick Mertens and wide receiver Kole Heckendorf helping pave the way for the Bison current success. The Bison have won seven games against BCS Conference foes, including the 2013 season opener against reigning Big 12 Champion Kansas State (24-21), since making the move to the FCS.

Craig Bohl

NDSU Head Coach Craig Bohl

However, much like Furman, the Bison would encounter some trying times, which would ultimately change the course of the football program. The 2009 campaign saw the Bison finish an uncharacteristic 3-8, fueling the fire that has seen the turnaround in every phase of the program, from winning the recruiting battles against its nearby Missouri Valley Conference competition, while just being able to consistently out-coach and out-execute its opposition over the past four years.

Leading the charge during the transition process has been Craig Bohl, who is not only one of the best coaches in FCS football, but is one of the best football coaches in the nation no matter the level of football. Bohl is much like a younger version of former legendary Appalachian State head coach Jerry Moore.

In fact, Bohl sought out the wisdom of the former Mountaineer head coach during the spring, inviting Moore up to spring practice. Bohl’s intentions were clear, seeking out the wisdom to learn how the Mountaineers prepared for a third-straight title run in 2007, and how the coaching staff managed to game plan for a BCS Conference foe with national acclaim to open the season. The meeting was less likely to have been about X’s and O’s, and more about focus and time management. Whatever the case might have been, the Bison have had run like Appalachian during that ’07 season, though Appalachian did lose two regular-season games.

North Dakota State isn’t the first exposure Bohl has had to winning football either. Remember that Nebraska-Florida game in 1996? Florida probably wishes it could forget that game at least, which saw the Cornhustkers roll up the Steve Spurrier-led Gators to the tune of 62-24 in one of the most lopsided wins in a major bowl game in the history of the BCS, as the Tommy Frazier-led Cornhuskers raised the national title trophy. It remains arguably the most dominant team in the history of college football, and Bohl served as the linebacker coach and later defensive coordinator, for eight seasons under the direction of the legendary Tom Osborne and then Frank Solich.

Prior to his stint at Nebraska under Osborne, Bohl was the defensive coordinator at Duke, where he helped the Blue Devils forge one of the best turnarounds in college football in 1994, as the Blue Devils went from being a 3-8 team in ’93 to an 8-4 club a year later. Bohl also spent time at Wisconsin , Rice and Tulsa, but started his career as a coach in Fargo under Don Morton in 1984, and like Furman’s Bruce Fowler, coached defensive backs. Bohl also played as a reserve defensive back for Nebraska from 1977-79 under Osborne, where he no doubt received invaluable coaching which has benefitted him throughout his coaching career.

The town of Fargo could best be described as “football-crazed” and it has a tradition that pre-dates it current successes by half-a-century. North Dakota State football fans take pride in their team and its tradition, much like the traditions that are found at Georgia Southern, Appalachian State and Montana. It will be an atmosphere unlike the Paladins have faced so far this season, or maybe ever. With its Division II days included, North Dakota State holds a 45-14 record all-time in postseason play and will be making its fourth appearance in the FCS postseason.

A Look At The North Dakota State Offense:

Sam Ojuri

NDSU RB Sam Ojuri

One thing that has seemingly been different about this North Dakota State team as opposed to the previous two that have brought home national titles has been the play on the offensive side of the football. The Bison have been more explosive on the offensive side of the ball this season, and come into Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Paladins averaging 37.1 PPG and 442.6 YPG this season.

The Bison offense also has an experienced, veteran leader at its controls, in senior quarterback Brock Jensen (165-of-246 passing, 2,076 yards, 26 TDs, 6 INTs/74 rush att, 268 yds, 5 TDs), who was at the forefront of that 24-21 Bison victory over Kansas State early in the season. For anyone that has ever watched football at any level, Jensen is the type leader that makes his team believe in him and believe against all odds no matter the situation.

The great ones have an infectious confidence, and that’s exactly what Jensen has shown during his four seasons as the quarterback of the Bison football team. Think former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway, or even former Furman quarterback Frankie DeBusk for reference points and comparisons for Jensen.

Jensen has a strong arm, with the ability to run the football, but even beyond that, he rarely makes a bad decision under center, and that’s something that Furman’s defense has lived on this season, which is forcing quarterbacks to make bad choices when putting the ball in the air. With the 42-0 win over South Dakota in the regular-season finale, Jensen recorded his 45th win under center as the Bison quarterback surpassed former Appalachian State quarterback Armanti Edwards for the most wins under center.

Jensen is a winner and he comes into Saturday’s contest having thrown for 7,879 yards, with 64 TDs and 20 INTs in his career, ranking as the program’s all-time leading passer. Jensen enjoyed his best passing day of the season in a 41-26 win over Missouri State, completing 20-0f-28 passes for 313 yards, with three TDs and an INT. Jensen was 21-of-30 for 165 yards, with two scores and INT in the season-opening win over reigning Big 12 champion Kansas State.  Jensen was a First-Team All Missouri Valley Football Conference selection.

Jensen has a good rapport with his skill position players, and with this offense having played together for a few years now, it has made a difference in both receivers and running backs being able to anticipate what Jensen is going to do before he actually does it, whether he is going to run or throw down field. One of those that has benefitted is Sam Ojuri (151 rush att, 1,002 yds, 5 TDs, 6.6 YPC), who went over the 1,000-yard plateau the last time out against South Dakota, as he has been a key cog in an offense that has established itself among the most balanced in the nation.

Ojuri enters Saturday’s contest against the Paladins having rushed for 3,298 yards and 30 career scores, and he enjoyed his best game this season against Youngstown State, rushing for 146 yards on 17 rush attempts. Ojuri garnered some praise, as he was named Second Team All-Missouri Valley Conference.

Serving as Ojuri’s understudy in the North Dakota State backfield this season has been John Crockett (153 rush att, 933 yds, 10TDs, 6.1 YPC), who is a player talented enough to start at most schools, has been an excellent compliment to Ojuri in the North Dakota State backfield. The sophomore comes into the postseason having posted three-straight 100-yard rushing performances, with his season-high of 165 yards, three touchdown effort in a 31-10 win over Southern Illinois. That performance against the Salukis also marked a career-best rushing performance.

Rounding out the backfield options for the Bison is senior fullback Andrew Grothman (2 rec, 17 yds, 1 TD), as he has served as an important blocking presence in the Bison offense this season. He was so important this season that the conference office took notice, selecting Grothman as a First-Team All-MVFC pick.

Vraa

NDSU Junior Wide Receiver Zach Vraa

Jensen has some viable options to throw to when going to the air, and it starts with the veteran duo of Zach Vraa (49 rec, 874 yds, 11 TDs, 17.8 YPR) and Ryan Smith (43 rec, 516 yds, 5 TDs, 12.0 YPR), who have both been able to provide the big play on the deep ball, as well as the clutch catches for the Bison this season.

Vraa is more of the big play threat of the two talented Bison wideouts, and the junior comes into Saturday’s game against the Paladins having turned in several strong performances so far this season. He has good size and speed, at 6-2, 203 lbs, while also possessing the speed to get behind opposing defensive backfields. Vraa has five 100-yard receiving performances this season, with his best performance coming in the 41-26 win over Missouri State, hauling in five passes for 179 yards and a pair of scores.

That performance against the Bears represented a career-high for Vraa. In total, Vraa enters Saturday’s game having hauled in 95 passes for 1,493 yards and 15 TDs, averaging 15.7 YPR for his career. Vraa’s numbers in 2013 were enough to land him on the MVFC First-Team All-Conference squad.

Smith, a senior, is one of the team leaders and was recently called by head coach Craig Bohl as the “fiercest competitor” on the Bison roster. The speedy Smith also serves as a dangerous punt return threat for the Bison, and in the final game of the regular-season against South Dakota, turned in his best performance as a receiving threat, hauling in four passes for 111 yards and a TD.

Smith will be the best return threat the Paladins have faced since facing Samford’s Fabian Truss during the latter part of the 2013 regular-season, as the senior serves as a dangerous threat as a punt and kick returner. Smith returned a punt 85 yards for a score against Missouri State, while posting a 100-yard kickoff return in a win over Indiana State. As a kick return threat, Smith is averaging 42.4 YPR on five returns this season, while posting a 32.5 average on punt returns. He has returned three punts for TDs in his career. All told, Smith has hauled in 136 passes for 1,596 yards and eight TDs in his career. His 136-career catches rank as the fourth-most in program history.

One of the positions that the Bison seemingly always recruit well is tight end, and the 2013 season is no different with Kevin Vaadeland (14 rec, 176 yds, 6 TDs, 12.6 YPR) manning the position. Vaadeland, a 6-4, 245-lbs senior has enjoyed his best season catching the football, despite battling injuries, as he has caught six of his eight career TD passes in 2013. Vaadeland had his best performance against Illinois State, with two catches for 57 yards, while had two receiving scores on four catches in a win over Youngstown State. Vaadeland was one of six players to garner Second Team All-MVFC honors this season.

One of the areas that North Dakota State prides itself on is its play in the trenches, which is no surprise given Bohl’s background coaching under Osborne at Nebraska. Like Furman, the Bison have an experienced offensive line which features one of the top left tackles in the FCS. Senior Billy Turner, who has excellent size, at 6-6, 314-lbs. Turner has amazingly started 53 of 54 career games for the Bison and was a preseason First-Team All-America selection by the Sports Network. Like the Paladins’ Dakota Dozier, Turner has gained the notice of NFL scouts and will likely be a middle-late round draft selection in the upcoming NFL Draft this spring.

Turner will team up front with Tyler Gimmestad (RG), Zach Johnson (LG), Josh Colville (C) and Joe Haeg (RT). Gimmestad was also recognized as a part of the MVFC All-Conference team, as he was selected as an honorable mention all-league pick. Colville is the lightest player along the North Dakota State offensive line, weighing 270-lbs.

A Look At The Furman:

Debusk vs. Marshall

Former Furman QB Frankie DeBusk (1987-90) vs. Marshall in the FCS Quarterfinal Win in 1988

Furman has a tradition of its own, which spans 13 Southern Conference titles, three national title appearances and a national title. Like North Dakota State, Furman has made its presence known on the FCS stage as a national power, but the 2013 season was supposed to be one which the Paladins began to rebuild back towards that national prominence, with 2014 being the year many believed the Paladins found themselves back in the conference title and national title race.

That season, which was supposed to come in 2014, came a year earlier, however. The Paladins have won six-straight against FCS foes, and come in having claimed five-consecutive wins in all.

The Paladins don’t have much of a history with the Missouri Valley Conference as a whole in the postseason, with the only other meeting against the league coming in the 1989 FCS playoffs, with the Paladins coming from behind to take a 42-23 win over the Jim Tressel-led Youngstown State Penguins.

In that game, Furman was without starting quarterback Frankie DeBusk, but stepping into the starting role under center for the Paladins was Patrick Baynes, as he ran for 131 yards and a pair of scores to help the Paladins rebound from a 13-7 first-quarter deficit.

The Paladins have taken down some FCS giants over the years in the playoffs, and are no strangers to ending streaks. In 2001, the Paladins claimed a 24-17 win over two-time defending national champion Georgia Southern, which was led by dynamic running back Adrian Peterson. Current head coach Bruce Fowler was the defensive coordinator on that 2001 that took down a vaunted Georgia Southern offense, which also featured the third all-time winningest quarterback in FCS history, in J.R. Revere. The Paladin defense held Peterson to a career-low 68 yards on the ground, and held a potent Georgia Southern offense, which came into the contest as one of the nation’s best, averaging nearly 500 YPG, to just 279 yards, including just 55 yards in the second half of play

Furman, which trailed 17-7 at the break, would score 17 unanswered points in the second half, getting 10 points off turnovers, allowing the Paladins to shock the Eagles and end their 39-game home winning streak which dated back to 1997, and also marked the first home playoff loss in the history of the Georgia Southern program, and the 39-straight wins are still an FCS record for consecutive wins. The win by the Paladins also handed the Eagles their first home playoff loss in the history of the program, as GSU was 28-0 in the postseason coming in.

In 1990, the Paladins headed to Richmond, KY as heavy underdogs to take on the Roy Kidd-led Eastern Kentucky Colonels, as the Paladins handed the Ohio Valley Conference, and the Colonels, who had hovered near the top of the national rankings all season and sported a 10-1 record, but the Paladins rolled up 586 yards and a season-high 292 passing yards en rout to a 45-17 win at Roy Kidd Stadium.

Finally, the Paladins would surprise a supremely confident Marshall team on their way to the program’s lone national title, as the Paladins would avenge a regular-season loss to the Thundering Herd by producing a 13-9 win in Huntington, WVa. Furman, which led the nation in scoring defense, allowed the Thundering Herd just nine points and 367 yards of total offense on its way to the quarterfinal win. Trailing 9-7 in the fourth quarter, the Paladins put together one of the more famous drives in program history, using 15 plays to cover 79 yards, capped by Dwight Sterling’s 1-yard run with 2:09 remaining. The two-point conversion pass failed, but the Paladin defense did enough to hold on for the four-point win and head into a home semifinal clash with No. 1 Idaho.

The Vandals remain the only No. 1 team in program history that the Paladins have knocked off in the postseason, as Furman posted a 38-7 win over the Vandals in Greenville to march into the school’s second national title game. The Paladins benefitted from a bit of luck when facing the Vandals in the FCS semifinals, as Idaho was playing without All-American and eventual Seattle Seahawks quarterback John Friesz, who had been injured in the previous playoff win. Furman’s defense vandalized the Idaho defense, holding the visitors to a mere 250 total yards, including just 79 yards on the ground.

All told, Furman is making 16th FCS Playoff appearance–fifth among FCS programs–and have posted an 18-14 mark all-time in playoff games. Dating back to the 2005 postseason, the Paladins will be playing their fifth-straight playoff game on the road on Saturday.

 

A Look At The Furman Offense:

Furman hasn’t really wowed anyone with its offensive numbers this season, and its numbers on the offensive side of the ball have been average at best. The Paladins enter Saturday’s contest at the FargoDome averaging 317.6 YPG and 23.9 PPG so far this season.

But it’s been the ability of the Paladins to produce big plays at the right time that has made the Paladins dangerous offensively. Leading the Furman offense this season has been sophomore quarterback Reese Hannon (135-of-225 passing, 1,523 yds, 7 TDs, 4 INTs), who has posted an outstanding second season under center for the Paladins.  Hannon does not wow folks with big numbers passing, but he is efficient, accurate and makes good decisions.

Three of the Paladins’ losses have come without Hannon in the lineup, and Hannon’s only loss to an FCS foe this season came in a 35-28 setback at Coastal Carolina, while his only other loss under center as the starter for the Paladins came in a 48-16 setback to LSU. Through his first two seasons as a Paladin signal-caller, Hannon has passed for 3,419 yards, with 14 TDs and 12 INTs.

The Greer, S.C. native, who is the nephew of former Paladin signal-caller Justin Hill (1997-2000), enjoyed his best outing as a quarterback a couple of games ago against Wofford, as Hannon was able to connect on 23-of-37 passes for 326 yards, with a TD and an INT.

While Hannon has been solid under center, it’s been Richard Hayes (2-of-3 passing, 16 yds / 63 rush att, 268 yds, 1 TD, 5.1 YPC)–Furman’s ‘wildcat quarterback’–which has made the Paladin offense even that much more versatile. Hayes, who stepped in for Terry Robinson after Robinson went down for the season with a knee injury which ended his season prematurely, has given the Paladins an explosive element with his speed. One look at the Western Carolina film is a direct indication of that, as he rushed for 144 yards and a score, which ranks as the second-best rushing performance by a Paladin quarterback in program history.

The ground game has been a staple of the Paladin offense ever since Fowler returned to the program three years ago, and the Paladins have had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of those three seasons, with the most recent running back to do it under Fowler being junior running back Hank McCloud (211 rush att, 1,085 yds, 5 TDs, 5.1 YPC / 19 rec, 134 yds,1 TD, 7.1 YPC). McCloud got a bit banged up in the win over South Carolina State last week, sitting out most of the second half with an injury and his status remains questionable for Saturday.

McCloud is not the between-the-tackles runner that his predecessor was, but he’s been effective at getting the tough yards at times for the Paladins during his career. Coming into Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Bison, having rushed for 1,847 yards and 12-career rushing scores. McCloud’s best game for the Paladins this season came in the loss at Coastal Carolina, as he rushed for a career-high 133 yards in the seven-point setback.

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Furman Junior RB Hank McCloud

Joining McCloud in the backfield is Tanner Skogen (30 rush att, 161 yds, 2 TDs, 5.4 YPC),who played the entire second half against SC State and was a key component in the Paladins’ victory over the Bulldogs last week, as he rushed for a career-high 116 yards in the 30-20 win last Saturday.

Skogen’s performance last Saturday came against the nation’s top rush defense coming into the contest, as the Paladins rolled up 216 rushing yards against a defense which was allowing just 234.1 YPG yards on the ground per game. Skogen’s 116 yards were quite a surprise, as he had only 56 yards rushing the entire season entering Saturday’s contest.

Skogen has also provided the Paladin offense with a pair of TD passes this season, throwing scoring passes in back-to-back weeks, as he tossed a 75-yard scoring pass to open the game against Georgia Southern in a 16-14 win in Statesboro, while taking a hand0ff from Hannon and tossing as beautifully flighted 46-yard spiral in the 35-17 Homecoming win over Samford a week later.

Freshman Marcus Anderson (63 rush att, 268 yds, 1 TD, 4.3 YPC) saw plenty of action early on in the campaign, but has battled some nagging injuries in the latter half of the season. He is Furman’s most physical running back, possessing a knack for getting tough yards, oftentimes initiating contact and is a north-south runner in the truest sense. Anderson scored his first and only career TD in that win over Samford.

Rounding out the rushing options for the Paladins heading into Saturday afternoon’s clash against the Bison will be fullback Ernie Cain (24 rush att, 89 yds, 2 TDs, 3.7 YPC), who has been a central figure in Furman’s two-back offense, blocking for both Skogen and McCloud this season. Cain has shown the ability to make big plays in the running game at times in his career, scoring on a 47-yard run last season in a win at Elon.

Cain has also been effective in the Paladins’ passing game this season out of the backfield, possessing a good pair of hands. He has hauled in seven passes for 62 yards on the campaign.

Coming into the 2013 season, one of the biggest question marks for the Paladins was the receiving corps, as it lacked that edge last season, with Furman rarely able to produce the big play, and thus, the ability to stretch the field against foes last season, severely hampering the Furman passing attack. Part of those struggles came with breaking in a new quarterback, in Hannon, learning both his receivers strengths and the Paladin offense in 2012.

This season, big plays have not been a problem, and it was evident from the outset of the season that the big plays would come with much more regularity, with Gary Robinson’s 70-yard scoring catch from Dillon Woodruff in the 28-21 loss to Gardner-Webb. Robinson would lead the Paladins, and for half the season, ranked near the top of the Southern Conference receiving leaders, but went down with a broken ankle in the win over Appalachian State on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Robinson had 24 catches for 351 yards and a couple of TDs before seeing his season come to an end.

Suttles

Furman Redshirt Freshman Wide Receiver Andrej Suttles

Stepping into the role as the Paladins leading receiver since has been redshirt freshman Andrej Suttles (47 rec, 650 yds, 3 TDs, 13.8 YPR), who came into the season expected to be a difference maker in the big-play department for the Paladins, and he certainly has not disappointed in that respect.

Suttles has the two longest scoring catches of the season for the Paladins, posting an 85-yard grab and run against Samford, while hauling in a 75-yard scoring pass from Skogen on a halfback pass on the game’s opening play against Georgia Southern in a 16-14 win. Suttles has recorded three 100-yard receiving efforts this season for the Paladins, with his top performance coming in the 27-14 win over Wofford, hauling in nine passes for 146 yards and a TD. Suttles’ 47 receptions for 650 yards this season set new  Furman freshman standards.

Senior Ryan Culbreath (34 rec, 433 yds, 4 TDs, 12.7 YPR) has been the veteran that has been one of the key leaders on the offensive side of the football this season for the Paladins, having his best season catching the football for the Paladins. Culbreath had 50 of the Paladins’ 67 yards receiving on one play–a 50-yard scoring catch from Hannon in the second quarter–as the senior has NFL size, at 6-4, 220.

Culbreath also provided a big play in the win over Gardner-Webb, hauling in a 54-yarder in the win against Georgia Southern, taking a short middle screen against an all-out blitz from the Eagles, and Culbreath made the Eagles pay by taking it all the way to the end zone for a score, in what turned out to be the final, crucial TD in the 16-14 road win.

For his career, Culbreath comes into Saturday afternoon’s contest with the Bison having hauled in 88 passes (16th in program history) for 1,129 yards and nine TDs. Culbreath had a season-high eight catches for 73 yards in the SoCon title-clinching win over Wofford.

Another receiver to keep an eye on Saturday is Jordan Snellings (22 rec, 226 yds, 1 TD, 10.3 YPR), who was a SoCon All-Freshman selection at receiver last season, but has only recently been 100-percent healthy after battling some nagging injuries over the first half of the 2013 season.

Snellings, a 6-2, 191-pound sophomore, has good speed and might be the Paladins’ most complete receiver, with excellent speed and route-running capabilities. His lone TD came on a 46-yard reception from Skogen early in the second half of Furman’s 35-17 win over Samford a month ago. He could be a threat on deep routes Saturday against the Bison with his speed.

Cameron Mason (10 rec, 100 yds, 10.0 YPR) has had a solid season at tight end for the Paladins, both catching the football and blocking out in the open field. Mason has a physical nature and edge to his game, that has personified the Paladins play on the offensive side of the football at times this season. Mason has made some clutch catches during his Paladin career, and has a pair of TD catches, but has yet to haul in a scoring pass this season, but is fully capable of being a dangerous threat in the Furman passing game.

Furman LT Dakota Dozier

Furman Senior Left Tackle Dakota Dozier

One of the keys to Furman success this season, especially over the latter half, has been the continuity of the Paladins’ offensive line. A lot of people remember a key cog of that offensive line was missing for the first three games this season, with center Eric Thoni having been suspended through the early portion of the season for a violation of team rules. The Paladins lost starting left guard Tank Phillips to a season-ending injury in the win over Western Carolina.

Stepping in for Phillips–who had been a key cog in the Paladin offensive front this season–has been Joe Turner, who was an All-SoCon Freshman pick a year ago, moving from right guard to accommodate the loss of Phillips. Sliding into the right guard position has been the experienced Ryan Storms, who will be starting his 24th-career game for the Paladins on Saturday. Storms will be one of two seniors set to start up front for the Paladins on Saturday.

Much of the preseason praise surrounding the Paladins’ offensive front heading into the 2013 season centered around left tackle Dakota Dozier, who recently won the SoCon’s prestigious Jacob’s Blocking Award and was a preseason Second Team All-America pick by The Sports Network. Dozier will be logging his 45th start in 46 games as a Paladin on Saturday against the Bison.

Charles Emert rounds out the starters along the offensive line for the Paladins at right tackle, and the junior will be making his 30th start Saturday. Emert was originally recruited as a center, and the Statesboro High School product has also been steady at both tackle and guard in his career for the Paladins, and might be the versatile offensive lineman on the team.

Furman’s offensive front has surrendered 23 sacks this season, however, 16 of those sacks came in the first six games of the campaign, while having surrendered just seven sacks over the past seven games. The Paladins did not surrender a sack to South Carolina State last Saturday, which entered the contest leading the nation in that category, with 62 on the campaign.

Previewing The North Dakota State Defense:

Marcus Williams

NDSU Senior CB Marcus Williams

North Dakota State has always prided itself on its play on the defensive side of the football, and it’s no doubt been the reason the Bison are favorites to win a third-straight national title.

The Bison enter Saturday’s contest ranking second in the FCS in total defense (243.0 YPG), while leading the nation in scoring defense (11.3 PPG).

The Bison have been especially good against the run this season, ranking second to only North Carolina A&T in rushing defense (90.3 YPG) this season and has shut down pretty much every running game they have faced this season, including the top running back in the nation, in South Dakota State’s Zach Zenner, who leads FCS in rushing, to just four rushing yards.

The Bison would get a 20-0 shutout against the Jackrabbits and might have been the most impressive performances against the run this season, in what has been a season’s worth of impressive performances against opponents’ ground games.

It all starts up from for the Bison, who utilize a 4-3 defensive alignment but will also utilize some 4-2-5, enter the matchup with the Paladins with one of the nation’s top defensive lines. Set to start at the respective defensive end positions for the Bison on Saturday night will be both Cole Jirik (27 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 FR) and Kyle Emanuel (35 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 blkd kicks), who were two of the top pass-rushing defensive ends in the Missouri Valley Conference this past season.

Jirik, a 6-5, 248-pound senior from Northfield, MN, has had a solid season on one of the ends for the Bison, and Jirik is one of the most veteran players on the defensive side of the football for the Green and Gold, and he posted his best game of the season in the regular-season finale, posting a pair of sacks in North Dakota State’s 42-0 win over South Dakota in the regular-season finale. Jirik’s best career game came against Illinois State last season, as he posted three sacks in a win over the Redbirds. Jirik has 24 sacks and 35.5 tackles-for-loss in his decorated career for the Bison, and was an All Missouri Valley Football Conference selection in 2012.

Emanuel comes into the contest as another key component of that Bison defensive front, and he comes in leading the team with 6.5 sacks so far this season. He has enjoyed several standout performances and Emanuel has started all 11 games this season for the Bison to this point. Emanuel’s best game of the season for North Dakota State came in that monumental season-opening win over Kansas State, registering a pair of sacks.

Set to start on the defensive interior for the Bison heading into Saturday afternoon’s clash will be nose tackle Ryan Drevlow (18 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 4.5 sacks) and Leevon Perry (12 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks), and it’s been really hard to run the ball inside against the Bison so far this season, and it’s a testament to how both Drevlow and Perry have played.

Drevlow heads into Saturday’s clash with the Paladins in Fargo having posted a strong campaign, which has seen him garner All Missouri Valley Football Conference accolades, joining seven other Bison teammates on the league’s first-team all-conference. Perry was an honorable mention all-conference honoree.

Drevlow, like Emanuel and Jirik at defensive end, has been instrumental in helping dictate the offensive scheme of the opposing coaching staff with hisability to be a dominant force at nose guard for the Green and Gold in his senior campaign. The 6-4, 281-pound product of Gwinner, N.D., has 20 careerTFL, including 10 sacks.

Drevlow came up big at the most opportune of occasions last season for the Bison, as he registered a career-high eight tackles in the FCS semifinal win over Georgia Southern, and posted a pair of tackles behind the line of scrimmage in the win over Sam Houston State in the national title win last season.

Carlton Littlejohn

NDSU LB Carlton Littlejohn

The biggest blow the Bison defense has had to endure this season has been the loss of senior linebacker Grant Olson, who suffered a career-ending injury late in the season in a win over Illinois State.

Olson, who was a preseason all-conference and All-America selection, is a big loss for the Bison defense, as he remains the team leader in tackles, having posted 79 tackles at the time he exited the lineup with the season-ending injury.

With the injury, junior Carlton Littlejohn (58 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF) has stepped into the middle of the North Dakota State defense, while  veteran Travis Beck (47 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF) will start at weakside LB and Esley Thornton (30 tackles, 1.5 TFL) at strong side LB.

Littlejohn and Beck are heady, disciplined veterans in at LB for the Bison, having combined to start 51-career games (Beck-35 starts, Beck-16 starts), and both have come up big at times in the postseason in their respective careers.

Littlejohn turned in a career afternoon in the win over Illinois State a few weeks ago, posting a career-high 16 stops and 1.5 sacks. He is a great athlete and will be asked to patrol the middle of the North Dakota State defense for the third-straight game as a starter.

Beck is one of the veteran and most-experienced leaders on the defensive side of the football for the Bison. Beck was an All Missouri Valley Football Conference selection last season, and this season has seen his numbers dip a little bit from previous seasons, but still remains an exceptionally talented linebacker, and one of the top leaders of this Bison defense. He enjoyed his best games of the season in the season opener and regular-season finale, registering seven tackles in both of those games. For his career, Beck has registered 221-career stops, with 100-career solo tackles.

Rounding out the starters at linebacker on Saturday for North Dakota State will be Thornton, who will see action in the lineup when the Bison go with three linebackers on Saturday.  Thornton will be the strong side linebacker for the Green and Gold on Saturday, with his best game this season being a six-tackle performance in the season-opening romp of Ferris State, while he also registered five tackles and a TFL in the win over Missouri State.

The most talented aspect of the Bison defense coming into Saturday’s contest with the Paladins is the secondary, and that’s due in large part to one player–senior cornerback Marcus Williams (18 tackles, 2 INTs, 6 PBUs). Williams is the type player that can demoralize a defense with his ball-hawking skills and his ability to basically take away one side of the field with his athleticism.

The 5-11 cornerback from Minneapolis was recruited by several name programs, including Minnesota, but chose North Dakota State and he is probably the best defensive player in the FCS. When I was in the press box at the Appalachian State-Illinois State last season, some of the banter going on in the press box prior to the kickoff of that epic game between the Mountaineers and Redbirds had to do with Williams and how he was able to take away basically one half of the field with his athleticism. For Paladin fans–think William Middleton or Ryan Steed molded into one player, and if you have a chance, take a look some of the films on youtube to see just evidence of just how talented a player Williams is.

Williams was the 2012 MVFC Defensive Player of the Year, and he has 20-career INTs, including six which he has returned for scores. His 20-career picks ranks third all-time in MVFC history, along with being the NCAA’s active career leader, and his six INT returns for scores are tied for an FCS record, along with former Murray State standout William Hampton (1993-96). Williams, who has sat out the past couple of games, returns to the lineup this Saturday against the Paladins.

North Dakota State Cornerback C.J. Smith

NDSU Sophomore CB C.J. Smith

Joining Williams at cornerback for the Bison on Saturday will be C.J. Smith (29 tackles, 2 INTs, 9 PBUs), who is also an exceptionally talented, athletic shutdown corner. He has obviously benefitted from Williams’ talent, with teams trying to pick on Smith due to Williams’ exceptional skills on the other side.

The sophomore Williams also stands 5-11, and he had one of the biggest plays of his young career in the 24-23, come-from-behind win over No. 6 Northern Iowa at the FargoDome, with an acrobatic INT late in the contest effectively clinching the win for the Bison.

The two starters at the respective safety positions for the Bison against the Paladins will be Colten Heagle (66 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBUs) and Christian Dudzik (35 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 INTs, 6 PBUs, 1 FF, 1 FR), who are two hard-nosed performers at the strong and free safety positions, respectively.

Heagle was an All-MVFC First Team selection, while Dudzik could have very well found himself on one of those scrolls, leading the club with three picks this season.

Heagle, a junior, had his 2012 season end prematurely with a season-ending injury against Colorado State, but he has more than made up for that this season, and he comes into Saturday’s clash with the Paladins ranking second on the team in tackles. Heagle enjoyed his best game this season with seven tackles and an INT in a win over Indiana State, while his best career game came in the 2011 FCS Semifinal win over Georgia Southern, as he registered a career-high 15 stops, including a career-best nine solo tackles.

Dudzik might challenge Williams in terms of being the best athlete on the defensive side of the football, and he will start at free safety in Saturday’s second round game. Dudzik is also one of North Dakota State’s kick and punt return threats, having posted a pair of punt returns for scores this season, averaging 11.9 YPR on 19 returns. Dudzik has tremendous speed, and just like Samford’s Fabian Truss a few weeks ago as a return threat, is a player the Paladins must be wary of when kicking the ball away on Saturday.

A Look At The Furman Defense:

Gary Wilkins vs. Samford

Furman Junior DE Gary Wilkins

Like the Furman offense, the Paladin defense haven’t put up numbers that exactly jump off the page when glancing at them, as the Paladins rank just 72nd nationally in total defense (396.1 YPG), and are pretty solid in terms of scoring defense, allowing 23.2 PPG, which is about 12 more points than their opponents on Saturday. Still, the Paladins’ 23.2 points allowed per game ranks the Paladins 36th nationally in scoring defense.

The number that most assuredly will jump off the page to Paladin fans is turnover margin, which sees the Paladins enter Saturday afternoon’s clash with the Bison is turnover margin (+1.0), which ranks seventh in nationally. The Paladins have recovered 16 fumbles and intercepted 13 passes for a total of 29 forced turnovers. The Paladins have returned four INT returns for scores this season.

The Paladins have been multiple on the defensive side of the football this season, mixing the 4-2-5 and 4-3 base defensive scheme this season. One of the reasons the Paladins have been able to force so many turnovers this season is due to the pressure the Paladins have been able to generate with their front four, and coming into Saturday afternoon’s contest, the Paladins have posted 17 sacks so far this season.

The Paladins have 17 sacks this season, which is the lowest total Furman has had in this Fowler’s third season at the helm, but still far more pressure than was applied by the Paladins to opposing QBs under the previous regime.

Leading the Paladins up front will All-SoCon defensive end Gary Wilkins (74 tackles, 13.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD, 1 FR, 1 FF), who might be the most athletic defensive end the Bison have faced this season, as evidenced by his 98-yard INT return vs. Appalachian State earlier this season, helping the Paladins to a 27-10 win over the Black and Gold.

Wilkins, a junior, led the Paladins in tackles last season at the weak side linebacker position and posted 92 tackles, but was moved to the defensive line last season as an experiment during the Elon game. During the spring, Wilkins made the permanent move to the defensive front, and with his athleticism, has been a force on the edge as the Paladins’ primary pass-rusher.

Wilkins found his way into the double digits tackle column on a couple of occasions this season, doing so against Samford (10 tackles) and Wofford (12 tackles).Wilkins was a First-Team All-SoCon selection and will be a candidate to garner All-America honors this season.

The injury bug bit the Paladins a bit up front, with senior defensive end Shawn Boone going out after just two weeks, suffering a season-ending knee injury in the lead up to the Presbyterian game. With that injury, the Paladins had to do a little re-shuffling along the defensive line, as Ira McCune (46 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.5 TFL, 4 FRs, 1 FF, 1 blkd kick) moved from defensive tackle to defensive end, while the redshirt was removed from Jordan Hawkins (22 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF), and he was plugged into the vacancy at McCune’s former position on the defensive interior.

McCune has had a remarkable season for the Paladins, and his four fumble recoveries are one off the school record, which is currently held by Jeff Snipes, who recovered five fumble recoveries in 1980. McCune has recorded so many clutch plays for the Furman defense this season, and his two fumble recoveries in the 16-14 win at Georgia Southern were instrumental in helping the Paladins take back to Greenville their second win in their past three trips to Allen E. Paulson Stadium.

In addition to McCune’s two fumble recoveries against the Eagles, he also posted six tackles. His 10 tackles against Wofford, including a huge stop on a fourth-and-two play late in game which allowed the Paladins to win the SoCon title, are a season and career-high for the junior.

Hawkins has been impressive as a freshman this season, as he was originally expected to redshirt this season, but the injury to Boone forced Hawkins into the lineup as a true freshman and he hasn’t disappointed. The 6-1, 282-pound native of Jacksonville, FL, was a two-star recruit coming out of 6A Wolfson High School.

A two-star recruit, Hawkins has enjoyed some solid performances in his first season on the gridiron for the Paladins, posting his best games of the season against Chattanooga and PC. In the 31-9 loss to Chattanooga, Hawkins registered three tackles and a sack, while recording four tackles in the 21-20 win over PC–his first-career start.

Rounding out the starting front four for the Paladins is Chattanooga, Tenn native John Mackey (51 tackles, 4.0 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FF). Mackey will start at the nose tackle position for the Paladins, and really began to come onto the scene towards the latter part of the 2012 campaign as a true freshman. Mackey had six tackles on a pair of occasions this season for the Purple and White,  with the latest of those two six-tackle performances coming against Samford in the 35-17 win.

McMorris2

Furman Junior LB Marcus McMorris

Over the years, Furman has prided itself as a program as having some of the best linebackers in FCS football, with names like Kota Suttle (1989-92), Jeff Blankenship (1985-88), Orlando Ruff (1995-98), Mike Killian (2001-04), Will Bouton (1998-2001) and William Freeman (2002-05) being apart of that decorated position tradition.

The Paladins, which are multiple on the defensive side of the football, have been playing more 4-3 on the defensive side of the ball in the latter part of the season, but has remained a true 4-2-5 base defense.  Playmaking junior Marcus McMorris (104 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs, 3 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 FF, 1 TD) made the move from safety to WILL linebacker in the latter part of the season, and McMorris has seen a spike an already impressive resume of making game-changing plays.

In his first game playing weak side linebacker, McMorris picked off an Andy Summerlin pass late and returned it 89 yards for a score, sealing the 35-17 win. McMorris has four career INTs, and has two INTs and one fumble return for his career. McMorris is one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the ball, and though he did not find his name on the All-SoCon scroll this season, was certainly worthy of being chosen.

Lining up with McMorris at linebacker on Saturday will be First-Team All-SoCon and sophomore middle linebacker Carl Rider (125 tackles, 8.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 2 FRs, 1 FF). Rider has really come into his own this season as the centerpiece of that Paladin defense, and is tied for the team lead in tackles this season. Rider has registered seven double-digit tackle games this season, with his top career effort being a 16-tackle effort in a loss at Chattanooga.

If anyone watched Furman’s first-round win over South Carolina, there was no overlooking the impact that nickel back Jairus Hollman (105 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 3 INTs, 4 PBUs, 3 FFs, 1 FR, 1 blkd kick) had in that game, which included a school-record 90-yard INT for a score and a 35-yard INT return for a score. For Furman fans, they will probably recognize Hollman as a smaller version of former playmaking safety nicknamed “The Missile”–John Keith (1996-99).

Hollman, a second-team All-SoCon pick, is responsible for at least two wins this season for the Paladins, with his blocked kick against PC with 18 seconds remaining preserving a 21-20 win over PC, and last week’s performance against SC State. His three INTs this season are tied for the team lead, and 105 of his 109 career tackles coming this season. He has three double-digit tackle performances, as the big hitter recorded a season-high 13 stops in the homecoming win over Samford, while he posted 11 stops in last week’s win at SC State. He also had 12 tackles and a pair of forced fumbles in a mid-season win over Appalachian State.

The two starters at safety for the Paladins on Saturday will be senior veteran Greg Worthy (125 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 3 FFs) and freshman Trey Robinson (40 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 INT). Worthy is a big hitter, and is one of the five fastest players in Furman football history, and will start at strong safety on Saturday against the Bison. It’s been Worthy’s leadership that has given the Paladin secondary an edge this season, and Worthy hearkens back to memories of some of the former Furman greats to play safety for the tradition-laden program, with memories of players like Mike Ratcliff and Jason Grant coming immediately to mind in terms of comparisons.

Worthy has done the little things for the Paladins this season, providing a number of tide-turning plays, such as the big hit in the Wofford game to cause the first turnover of that game, getting the ball back for the Paladin offense after having thrown an INT in the end zone to the Terriers, trailing late in the opening half, 14-0.

It would lead to 27 unanswered points for the Paladins. Worthy ran down track speed running back Fabian Truss from behind in Furman’s homecoming win, and that play would prove to be monumental, as the Paladins would eventually yield no points on that drive after a missed field goal late. His 334 career tackles are 18th on the school’s all-time ledger, and the strong safety was a First-Team All-SoCon selection this season.

Local product Trey Robinson has given the Paladins yet another athlete on the defensive side of the ball, and like so many of the other freshmen that have made plays in the starting 22 for the Paladins this season.

Robinson, who was a quarterback during his career at state power Dorman, has parlayed that athleticism into a strong start to his career as a Paladin. The 6-1, 202-pound Spartanburg, S.C., product is a big hitter much like Hollman and Worthy. He recorded his only INT against Samford and was one of four Paladins to garner SoCon All-Freshman honors.

Rounding out the starters on the Furman defense are cornerbacks Reggie Thomas (57 tackles, 3 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1.o TFL) and Austin Williams (59 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 INTs, 2 FRs, 6 PBUs, 1 TD). Thomas, a 5-11, 180-pound product of Abbeville, S.C., has molded himself into one of the top cover-corners in the SoCon, and will likely be matched up against NDSU’s Zach Vraa on Saturday.

Thomas had a 74-yard pick-six against LSU to open the scoring in that game, while his INT vs. The Citadel helped clinch a 24-17 road win. Thomas has four career INTs.

Williams is a senior veteran in the secondary, and has picked off passes against Chattanooga and Wofford, and has really played well coming down the stretch in 2013.

Final Prediction: The 2014 season was supposed to be the season in which the Paladins made the move back towards the top of the SoCon, however, Christmas came early for Bruce Fowler and the Paladins. Playing in this type of atmosphere might be unique in comparison to what the Paladins have faced in past seasons, but the stage won’t be any different than Georgia Southern in 2001 or Marshall in 1988, with the Paladins heading in as underdogs–a role they have relished all season. The Paladins have displayed an us against the world mentality this season, and it wouldn’t shock me if that was enough to propel them past the Bison on Saturday, however, I think the difference is North Dakota State’s experience and size in the trenches, but Furman certainly won’t make the two-time defending champs playoff opener a cakewalk.

Final Score Predicition: 28-20 North Dakota State

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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