It’s never easy when one conference faces another in the FCS playoffs, and No. 7 seed Furman knows all too well about that, having faced six prior to Saturday’s encounter with upstart Chattanooga, however, after seeing the Mocs put together an impressive 81-yard drive to take its only lead of the day on an 11-yard TD run by Reggie Davis, the Paladin defense shut the door and sealed it shut, allowing no points and a meager 119 yards over the remainder of the game, as Furman punched its first ticket to the FCS quarterfinals for the first time since 2005 with a 26-7 win over the Mocs Saturday afternoon at Paladin Stadium.
With the win, the Paladins notched their 10th ten-win season in program history, improving to 10-2 overall and will now face Montana in Missoula this Friday, with kickoff set for 7 p.m. MT. Chattanooga, which entered the matchup coming off its first-ever FCS playoff road win, finished its 2023 campaign with an 8-5 overall mark.
With graduate senior quarterback Tyler Huff–back under center, the Paladins had that German efficiency working in full effect, balancing its modes of attack with precision–by ground and through the air– complimenting another stout defensive performance.
Huff’s return would see the graduate senior finish the day by connecting on 18-of-29 passes for 192 yards, with an INT, while adding another 32 on the ground, as he finished with 224 yards of total offense and improved to 18-1 against FCS competition as a starter. That impressive 17-1 career mark against the FCS also includes a spotless 14-0 mark against SoCon opposition in his Paladin career, marshaling a Furman offense that chewed up 192 of its 383 total yards on the ground. All told, Huff is 19-3 in 22 starts for the Paladins, with losses to No. 6 Clemson (L, 12-35/2022), Incarnate Word (L, 38-41/2022) and South Carolina (L, 21-47/2023)
The ROTC commissioned lieutenant-turned-field general wasn’t the only one to return to the Paladin lineup on Saturday afternoon, either, as both battering ram running backs Dominic Roberto and Grant Robinson also made their respective returns to the Paladin backfield, with Robinson seeing his first action since a 47-21 Paladin setback at South Carolina in the second game of the season. It would be Robinson who would lead the evenly-distributed Paladin ground game by grinding out 62 yards on 13 attempts, while Roberto added 51 yards and a pair of touchdowns on 15 carries, as the senior highlighted both Paladin trips to pay dirt in the contest.
The Paladin receiving efforts were led by Wayne Anderson Jr., who had five grabs for 53 yards, while Luke Shiflett added four catches for 17 yards.
Senior place-kicker Ian Williams took care of the rest of the scoring, accounting for 12 of the Paladins’ 26 points, connected on field goals of 44, 31, 37 and 20 yards, respectively.
Furman held a decisive advantage in total yards, holding a 384-200 advantage for the game. The Mocs were held to just 116 on the ground and just 84 through the air.
Though the Paladin defense failed to record a sack in a game for the first time since early October, it’s defensive front did enough to cause UTC’s freshman quarterback tandem of Luke Schomburg and Matthew Clemmer enough problems that the duo ended up making a pair of costly, mis-guided throws in the passing game that the opportunistic Paladin defense was able to turn into a total of 10 points off a pair of interceptions by Travis Blackshear and Alex Maier, as the Paladins registered INTs No. 16 and 17 of the 2023 season.
Furman’s defensive line faced a number of shrewd adjustments and max protection situations by the Mocs to do enough to keep Schomburg and Clemmer from going down with the ball in-hand, however, didn’t do enough to limit either from getting synthetic grass stains on their wide road uniforms, as the Paladins harried and nagged both for much of the afternoon, doing enough to make both even more uncomfortable than they were coming in as freshmen quarterbacks. That preparation and attention-to-detail has been a recurring theme throughout the season for defensive coordinator Duane Vaughn’s veteran unit.
The first of the two came from Blackshear, and much like his INT against the Mocs the first time the two teams met a couple of months back, his INT and subsequent 29-yard return to the UTC 2 set up the Paladin offense with its best field position of the day, and extended Furman’s lead to 10 points a little less than four minutes into the second half following Dominic Roberto’s 2-yard scoring rumble on the first offensive play following the Mocs turnover.
Missed in the Paladins licking their wounds from their regular-season defeat at rival Wofford was the fact that hard-earned seed earned them not only another bye week to refresh, re-charge, and enjoy the holiday with friends, family and teammates, it also gave the Paladins an extra week to make some tweaks against a known opponent and offered the main luxury of heading into the matchup nearly entirely healthy as a football team for the first time since early September.
For Blackshear, the luxury of that earned extra week of rest wasn’t lost on him, as he acknowledged how that allowed the Paladin defense to focus attention to detail during the week without having to worry about who was going to be healthy and could focus on how to scheme a good Mocs team that had surprised Austin Peay in the opening round with a good young quarterback, making just his second-career start in Clarksville.
"It really just starts in practice and we had a good week of preparation…Thanksgiving Break was much needed for our team and we came back ready to go and had a great week of prep and we knew they had a young quarterback back there so they protected him a little bit with the personnel they were in and I was just able to make a play on it," Graduate senior cornerback Travis Blackshear said of his team’s preparation during the off week and how it helped lead to his preparation for another game-changing INT in the postgame press conference.
Blackshear's early second half INT was his fourth of the 2023 season, and the 13th of his career, as he logged his 50th start in 57-career games as a member of the Paladin defense in Saturday’s second round playoff win over Chattanooga. He also added one tackle.
Alex Maier, who grabbed the Paladins’ second iNT of the game for the Paladins, did a nice job of being able to tip the ball up to himself and snag it out of the air for one of the more acrobatic plays of the afternoon for the Paladin defense with just over 12 minutes remaining to set up the final points of the afternoon on Williams’ fourth field goal of the contest. In addition to his outstanding play on his tipped INT, he added three tackles.
Furman's defensive efforts as a whole were paced by strong safety Kam Brinson, who finished with nine tackles while linebacker Braden Gilby finished with six tackles and a tackle-for-loss, while safety Hugh Ryan added six tackles and half-a-tackle-for-loss.
For Schomburg, the pick would not only prove costly to the Mocs' chances to pull off another big road playoff win, but also it would ultimately prove to be the end of Schomburg’s afternoon, as he chased down Blackshear and delivered a solid hit to the Paladins’ graduate senior cornerback, which was enough to stagger him out of bounds before reaching pay dirt. Unfortunately in doing so for Schomburg, he sustained an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the afternoon.
Schomburg would finish his afternoon by connecting on 9-of-19 passes for 84 yards, with an INT before exiting early in the third quarter due to injury. Matthew Clemmer, who would end up ultimately replacing the injured Schomburg, finished 0-of-2 passing with an INT.
The Mocs, who finished with 116 yards on the ground, were led by Reggie Davis' 61 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, while Gino Appleberry added 58 yards on 19 attempts.
Jamoi Mayes led all Mocs pass-catchers with three catches for 38 yards.
Clay Fields III turned in a solid day in the defensive backfield for the Mocs, as he finished nine tackles and an INT. The Mocs were led overall by defensive backJordan Walker, who topped all tacklers with 12 stops.
The win marked Furman’s 10th-straight inside the friendly confines of Paladin Stadium, as Furman improved to 21-18 all-time in FCS playoff action, while the Mocs fell to 4-5 all-time in the postseason.
My brief two cents on the collective battle the SoCon is fighting
While Furman earned its extra bye week after seven-straight weeks without one, it wasn’t a luxury enjoyed by the Mocs in either the regular-season or postseason, as Chattanooga had to earn its right to play Furman by winning a road playoff game at Austin Peay last week, and during the regular-season, the Mocs faced a brutal 10-week stretch before being able to enjoy an off-week before their regular-season finale at Alabama.
It doesn’t take too much logic to figure by the time the Mocs reached Alabama, there would be a severely depleted two-deep roster on offense and defense, and in Greenville Saturday, the Mocs were certainly without three of their best, in SoCon Defensive Player of the Year Jay Person, quarterback Chase Artopoeus, and the school’s second all-time leading rusher Ailym Ford, with all three suffering substantial injuries over the last half of the season.
In my opinion, it’s an issue that the league office has to sit down during the off-season and take a more serious look at in terms of how they can avoid having a team have to play 10–straight weeks, especially one that could have a potential shot at providing the league a beacon of hope when it comes to defeating the national narrative that seems to be set against the league from the outset of the postseason as being a “weak conference–a Big Sky/Missouri Valley bias that seemingly only has one end, which sending said SoCon school on a trip to a destination not easy to get to from any member institution city in the league’s current footprint.
Like their head coach Rusty Wright, the Mocs addressed that issue with class and made no excuses in the postgame press conference. In many ways, the SoCon, in recent years, has had about as fair of a chance in the 24-team playoff as the committee often affords leagues like the MEAC, Big South/OVC and other regional conferences, which mostly fair, are deemed of the weaker variety, however, the SoCon isn’t that.
That’s where the skew begins. The condescending nature continues to grow, despite the SoCon teams having about as much success with the whole regionalization non-sense and seeding pods with less participants relative to the situation as leagues that have more participants, which are for some reason more highly regarded without any common opponents or logical metrics of comparison.
What does remain true, however, and what you can’t argue with are facts, and the fact is, outside the CAA’s James Madison in 2015 and the Western Athletic Conference’s Sam Houston State in spring of 2021, the other 10 FCS champions have come from the Missouri Valley Football Conference. Not the Big Sky and not the CAA. At some point, the committee has forced the league’s hand in expansion, or it will forever be racking up the bill for the NCAA with flights and travel throughout the postseason from here on out.
It’s not a knock on the league office, as much as it is a call to action to either expand, or figure out how to set up your best potential playoff teams with the best opportunity to stay healthy in the regular-season in order to set the SoCon up to have some deep, meaningful runs in the FCS playoffs. At the end of the day, when selection Sunday rolls around, until a SoCon team hops on the Oregon Trail and wins a game, it’s going to forever be a figurative Trail of Tears for league members moving forward.
I think new commissioner Michael Cross is on top of the situation, and I gather that from his sharp analytics and broad layout of the landscape of FCS football and it’s importance to The Southern Conference’s overall brand, as he eloquently explained in easy to understand language and with excellent analogies during the league’s annual media day back in mid-July. I’m off my soapbox for now, but just some thoughts I wanted to share.
How It Happened
The way Furman ended the regular-season, it had to take a long hard look at itself, and then it had to look at a familiar foe on the other side, which wasn’t too easy to defeat the first time around.
An ominous fog and a local forecast that hinted of a deluge during Furman’s second round home playoff test was news week that could’ve dampened some spirits, but by the time a glimpse of the top of Paris Mountain began to appear out of the fog early in the fourth quarter, it was clear that Furman had learned much from its humbling at the hands of the Terriers a couple of weeks ago, and were going to somewhat easily bypass its first test of the 2023 FCS playoffs.
It took almost a quarter, but Furman started to shake off the rust, and its line play started to dictate the rules of engagement for the remainder of the afternoon. The Paladins were akin to a German engineered diesel Mercedes in efficiency with which they were engineered with for the remainder of the afternoon, grinding away with a relentless determination en route to the win. Furman’s football team isn’t at all about flash, it grinds you on both sides of the football over the course of 60 minutes nicely packed into 15-minute quarters. Its efficiency and relentlessness is its strength. The machine churns and churns, and it doesn’t waver over the course of the game.
“You could tell they [Furman] hadn’t played in a week…a little bit…not a lot…They played some things a little better and that was the biggest difference and we knew we were going to have to make the game a little ugly and we couldn’t just go and score 35…that’s not really how we’re built right now,”Chattanooga head coach Rusty Wright said postgame.
It was Chattanooga, though, that came out and took the game to Furman. The Mocs won the toss and deferred, giving the ball to the Huff and the Paladin offense to open the game. Things started well for the Paladins, as Wayne Anderson Jr. returned to the kickoff to the 41 to set up Tyler Huff and the Paladin offense in an excellent position.
Huff and the Furman offense had some offensive success early, and a 16-yard scramble by Huff set the Paladins just outside the Mocs red zone with a first down at the Chattanooga. After Huff’s beautiful spiraled aerial was just out of the reach of a diving Kyndel Dean inside the five, the Paladins had missed a golden opportunity to take control of the game from the outset.
On the very next play, Clay FIelds III would respond by making the biggest play of the day for the Mocs, picking off Huff, flipping the momentum and giving Chattanooga the ball at their own 19.
Eleven plays later, Reggie Davis scampered around right at the right end after changing course, catching the Paladin defense by surprise and giving the Mocs a somewhat surprising early 7-0 lead with 7:40 remaining in the opening frame. The drive would cover 84 yards in 11 plays, however, Furman’s defense wouldn't do much of anything over the final 54:20 of game action, as the Paladins limited the Mocs to just 119 yards the rest of the day.
Furman would tie the football game early in the second quarter when Dominic Roberto plunged in from a yard out to make it a 7-7 contest with 10:23 to play in the opening half. The Paladins would get on the board one more time just before the half, as Ian Williams connected on a 44-yard field goal with 25 seconds remaining in the second half as the Paladins carried the momentum and a 10-7 lead into the half.
Early in the third quarter, Travis Blackshear would set the tone for how things would go the remainder of the day when Schomburg forgot about No. 1, and with Furman’s defensive line causing anxiety on nearly every play, a hurried throw allowed the savvy veteran to break on the ball and pounce on the opportunity, returning it 29 yards down to UTC 2 after being forced out by Schomburg. On the next play, Roberto rumbled over for a 2-yard score to give the Paladins a comfortable, 17-7 lead with 11:15 left in the third. It was Roberto’s 29th-career rushing score. Williams added a 31-yard field goal with just over six minutes left in the third quarter, giving the Paladins a 20-7 lead heading into the final 15 minutes.
Place-kicker Ian Williams would provide the rest of the Furman scoring in the afternoon, tacking on field goals of 37 and 20 yards, respectively, in the final quarter to close out the dominating win.
The Mocs had a total of just eight yards in the third quarter, as the Paladin defense continued to enforce its will. Unlike Furman’s last game a couple of weeks ago against Wofford, allowing just 43 yards over the final 30 minutes and lost a 19-13 game to the Terriers, the Paladins surrendered just 49 yards and no points against the Mocs en route to capturing its second-straight 10-win season and first since doing so in consecutive seasons in 2004 (10-2) and ‘05 (11-3), respectively.