A quick perusal of Furman’s storied past as a Division I-AA and now, FCS football program and you will find that two of Furman’s greatest achievements as an athletics program came in that distinct region of the United States, as the Paladins played in two national titles in the region often referred to as Big Sky country, dropping a heartbreaking national title decision to Georgia Southern in 1985 (L, 42-44) in the Tacoma Dome in Tacoma, WA.
Three years later, Furman would seek its revenge against that same Georgia Southern program in Pocatello, ID, at Holt Arena and the home of the Idaho State Bengals, downing the Eagles, 17-12, en route to the school’s greatest athletic achievement and becoming the first private school and the smallest one to win an officially recognized NCAA Division I football championship.
The Paladins would return to the national title 13 years later–this time in the southeast in the venue of a conference rival– facing top-seeded Montana Grizzlies football program led by a brash quarterback with a fu-man-chu mustache named John Edwards and an Alaskan-born running back named Yohance Humphrey.
The Paladins got there by ending Georgia Southern’s 39-game home winning streak in the postseason, handing Paul Johnson a parting gift on his way to Navy, as Furman held Georgia Southern scoreless in the second half without leading running back Louis Ivory to down the defending champions 24-17 at Allen E. Paulson Stadium .
Montana’s 2001 season was one of the program’s best in its storied history, and that includes the Dave Dickinson-led GrIzzlies in 1995, which left Marshall out in the cold on its home field in the natty by handing the Thundering Herd a shocking 22-20 setback in front of its rabid fanbase. The Brian Ah’ Yat Grizzlies were also strong in ‘96, but both the Grizzlies and the Paladins ran into a buzz-saw Marshall team that put together maybe the most dominant season in FCS history on their way to Conference USA.
The 2001 Grizzlies, however, will live on forever in the minds of Griz fans everywhere. It’s the stuff that fall epics are still written about by local authors and talked about on any given night at old watering holes around the area such as ‘Cranky Sams’ in downtown Missoula.
If that wasn’t enough, the Grizzlies countered with one of the very best defenses in the nation, led by defensive back Vince Huntsberger and sack master Ciche Picher at defensive end, while the Paladins had to rely on a defense that was also among the best in Division I-AA, led by the likes of middle linebacker Will Bouton and a defensive backfield that featured some pretty solid cornerbacks, in Richie Jackson and Rodney Johnson.
Furman’s defense would keep the Paladins in the game the entire night, however, without reigning Walter Payton running back Louis Ivory at full strength, and Furman offense, which ultimately became too one-dimensional as a result under the direction of field general Billy Napier (current Florida Gators head football coach), who had trouble finding time to throw the football against the Grizzlies’ dominating pass-rushing front.
It would lead to a game that still ranks tied for being the lowest combined scoring total in the history of the national championship game, as Montana claimed its second national crown in a six-year span with a 13-6 win over the Paladins in chilly Chattanooga on the final Friday before Christmas.
With Furman’s 26-7 win over Chattanooga in second-round FCS Playoff action, the Paladins can now load up the NCAA chartered flights for a short turnaround and a trip to the frozen tundra of Big Sky country for an intriguing Friday night FCS quarterfinal clash with No. 2 seed Montana in a battle of a pair of tradition-rich football programs.
The Grizzlies arrived at this intriguing clash between east and west by dispatching another FCS blueblood from the past, in Delaware, burying the Blue Hens in the snow before issuing them, 49-19, verdict and a trip home to the northeast.
With Furman defeating the team from the destination that it faced Montana in the only matchup ever played between the two 22 years ago, the Paladins now have the rare opportunity to avenge that loss between two teams on opposite sides of the United States that might not ordinarily get that opportunity if it weren’t for the FCS playoffs.
The trip west marks the first time the Paladins matriculated that far into the Northwest to play a football game since dropping a 31-13 contest to the Montana State Bobcats in the 2006 FCS playoffs. Furman has also traveled west of the Mississippi several times in the FCS postseason, including just last season, as the Paladins dropped a heartbreaking 41-38 contest.
Furman is also no stranger to traveling to face Big Sky teams in the FCS postseason, having taken on Northern Arizona (1996/W 42-31 at Walkup Skydome), Montana State (2006/L 13-31 at Bobcat Stadium), and Nevada (1990/L 35-42 in 2 OTs at Mackey Stadium). Furman kicked off its 2001 season on the road at War Memorial Stadium against FBS Mountain West foe Wyoming, dropping a 20-14 contest in Laramie.
Furman second-year offensive coordinator Justin Roper served as the quarterback for the Montana Grizzlies the last time they advanced past the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs back in 2009, losing to the Villanova Wildcats in the '09 national title game in what was a 23-21 win for the Wildcats. Roper served as the Grizzlies quarterback in 2009 and '10 after transferring in from Oregon, where he played the 2007 and '08 campaigns, respectively. Over the course of his career at both Oregon and Montana, Roper passed for 3,788 yards and 36 TDs. He was also a member of the 2009-10 Grizzlies basketball team.