Furman’s Memorable Season Ends at Montana

Explore Furman's intense playoff showdown against Montana, a defining clash that shaped their season's dramatic journey in the FCS playoffs.

Furman's QB Tyler Huff throws a pass against Montana in the quarterfinals of the 2023 FCS Playoffs.
Source: John Sieber / Furman Athletics

MISSOULA, MT — Over the years in playoff football, Washington-Grizzly Stadium has been a place of heartbreaking, season-ending losses for Southern Conference opposition, as Montana took down former league member Appalachian State twice a game shy of the national title in 2000 and '09, respectively, and on Dec. 8, 2023, the latest of those heartbreaking ends for a SoCon member, however, it would come a round earlier than normal, as the No. 2 Grizzlies handed Southern Conference outright champion and No. 7 seeded Furman a 35-28 loss in overtime in front of a crowd of 20,884 fans on-hand at Montana’s Washington-Grizzly Stadium to take in the classic FCS quarterfinal clash between FCS tradition-rich programs on opposite sides of the country.

While Montana moves on to a semifinal showdown next Saturday in Missoula, Furman’s seniors also move on in life, however, and for the 43 seniors who may or may not have played their final down as a Paladin football player, they will live on the lore of the program’s rich history, becoming a class that will never be forgotten by Paladin football fans.

That group of seniors will be to those who follow Furman football, as those “Unforgettables” were to that Kentucky basketball program (1987-92), which lost in the Elite Eight to Duke on a buzzer-beating shot by Christian Laettner in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, remembered by the Wildcats faithful for being a class that was an unheralded one coming off probation, however, also being one that saw Kentucky could once again get back to its tradition-laden past on the hardwood as one of college basketball’s blue bloods.

In the same way, Furman’s drought of being an elite football program at the FCS level is over, and it was this “unforgettable” collective group of seniors and that showed an uncanny commitment to a standard of excellence and loyalty to a common goal, which is sadly no longer recognizable in most college football programs at the NCAA Division I level—FBS or FCS.

Montana improves to 12-1 overall and will move on to face North Dakota State next Saturday in the FCS semifinals, with a time and kickoff for that contest slated for 4:30 p.m. EST. For a second-straight season, Furman sees its season end after 13 games played, posting an identical 10-3 mark as to that of last season. The win over Furman sees the Grizzlies advance to the final four of the FCS postseason for the first time since 2009. Furman falls to 21-19 all-time in the FCS postseason in what was their 20th all-time FCS playoffs appearance—most among any of the SoCon’s current membership.

Montana will be making its first appearance in the FCS semifinals for the first time since 2009, when it lost 23-21 in the national championship game to Villanova. The crowd of 20,884 fans on-hand at Washington-Grizzly marked the largest the Paladins have played in front during their 40-game playoff history, eclipsing the 16,820 fans that were on-hand at Fairfield Stadium to witness Furman take down Marshall, 13-9, in Huntington, WVa.

The 2023 classic between Montana and Furman will be a memory that will be filed in the memory banks for years to come, with the loss being one that will serve as proof that Furman could still reach the elite level of FCS football after fighting almost two decades to get back to a level many had questions as to which could be achieved prior to the 2022 season. Over the past couple of seasons, Furman’s veteran, mature football team that bucked the trend of the transfer portal era showed that theirs more than to being a great football program at the FCS level than recruiting players from the portal, recruiting budgets and facilities upgrades, and while those things certainly help, it was the element of team, the right collective mix of players, a tough, physical defense and player development were just as crucial to being an elite football program. Furman’s 20-6 record over the past couple of seasons proved the Paladins could win and in doing so, established an identity that looked familiar to former players that watched Friday night’s classic. It was just as recognizable to a Paladin from 1988 as it was to a player in 2001, and that’s a testament to the leadership in place that hearkens to that past, in Furman head coach Clay Hendrix.

Though Washington-Grizzly Stadium was not the venue for Furman’s 2001 national championship clash with Montana, the loss to the Grizzlies in what still remains tied for lowest scoring title game in the history of the FCS postseason still grinds the gears of former ‘Dins, who were apart one of those three teams to make it that far, conjuring up memories and comments upon me posting one photo on the Facebook platform. If there is one major positives to social media platforms such as and Facebook is that it allows former teammates to discuss a game in real-time and the emotions of the game and that special time spent together as players for four years.

So when I posted a picture of Furman taking the field, it came as little surprise to see the comments popping up about that low-scoring affair back in 2001, and the angst still felt by many of those players that were part of a team that finished 12-3, but it rallied them in unison to talk about and comment about how great it would be to knock off Montana and while it ever replace the what could’ve been feeling for the ’Dins, it could at least help in get back some measure of revenge from that game some 22 years ago when the Paladins took the field in their snow white uniforms before a loud and rowdy crowd of Furman fans on a chilly night in the Scenic City some 22 years earlier.

On the second Friday of December in 2023, social media gave us the ability to discuss both in real time, and that truly is one of the neat things about social media and how it can bring the intrigue and anticipation of a matchup like Furman vs. Montana to life, which had only taken place before. Former players from that 2001 Furman team—players like defensive tackle, as LeBryan Sperling, linebacker Mike Killian, wide receiver James Thomas and linebacker Sterling Frierson all discussed Furman’s side of the game and their reaction to some of the photos about the Paladins taking the field prior to the 2001 championship game. It was a neat link between Furman’s football past to its football present in real time.

The confines of Washington-Grizzly stadium have produced harsh endings on one side for Southern Conference programs in the past, while heroes forever remembered and stories forever told on the other.

Such was the case in both 2000 and ’09 for Furman’s former Southern Conference rival Appalachian State, as the longtime SoCon and FCS power saw its 2000 campaign come to an end following a similar heartbreak to that of Furman’s some 23 years later, as star receiver Jimmy Farris hauled in a Drew Miller 15-yard game-winning pass in overtime, and the Grizzlies could hard-fought, 19-16, win in a battle of SoCon vs. Big Sky powers.

Nine years later, Montana would score what proved to be the game-winning touchdown with just 1:38 left, as wideout Jabin Sambrano hauled in a beautifully lofted aerial from quarterback Andrew Selle, catching it over his shoulder and just inside the boundary pylon to ultimately provide the game-winning points in the 24-17 victory and the end of an era for FCS and Appalachian State football, marking the final game of Mountaineers’ start quarterback and two-time Walter Payton Award winner Armanti Edwards’ standout career. On the ensuing offensive possession, Appalachian State moved the ball all the way down to the Montana 3-yard line, but Edwards’ pass for star wideout Brian Quick was dropped, and the Grizzlies managed to end the Appalachian State dynasty, fostered largely by the play of its dual-threat signal-caller in another snowy postseason encounter.

Some 14 years later, and the Grizzlies were at it again, and the finality of a magical ride for Furman’s huge senior class of over 40 players ended as harshly and as brutally cold as both of those Mountaineer campaigns had in 2000 and ’09, respectively, as Paladin field general Tyler Huff and his band of valiant Paladins fought a battle that, in the minds of many nationally, was worthy of respect earned back for both Furman as one of the storied FCS blue blood football programs, as well as the Southern Conference that remains a league that is seemingly on the precipice of breaking through as a top three conference in FCS football.

Unfortunately, the cruelest part of such a loss is that it came in an unexpected way, as Furman gave up the rare 14 points on special teams, yielding both a punt return and a kick return for a touchdown in the same game, and it was the same player to accomplish both of those feats, as Junior Bergen opened the game with a 99-yard sprint for a score, and then with 9:40 remaining in the game, Bergen’s 59-yard punt return—a Montana school record fourth of his career—with Furman leading 21-20 win just about 10 minutes remaining was especially disheartening.

The Bergen returns marked the first time since the 2015 home opener against Coastal Carolina that the Paladins have surrendered a kickoff return for a score, scampering 100 yards in the first quarter of that contest, while his 59-yard punt return for a score marked the first time a Paladin opponent has returned one of those for a score since the 2021 COVID-19 spring season, which came from Samford’s Montrell Washington, who returned a punt 90 yards for a score in a game that the Paladins would eventually end up winning in overtime.

All told, Bergen’s two touchdowns helped Montana to 14 of its 28 points in regulation he defensive slugfest, as the Paladin defense showed up and showed out, arguably posting collectively its best performance of the season. The game marked Furman’s third overtime game in its FCS playoff history, as the Paladins dropped to 0-3 in overtime games in the FCS postseason. Furman also dropped games to Nevada (L, 35-42 in 3 OTs) in 1990 and 1999 UMass (L, 23-30 OT), respectively.

The Furman defense was able to limit the Montana offense to just 356 yards of total offense, which was slightly under the 383.0 YPG it averaged entering the contest. Meanwhile, the Montana defense, which ranked fourth nationally coming in, was even more impressive, holding the Paladins to just 282 yards of total offense, including a 4-of-21 performance on third down conversions. The Paladins were able to hold Montana’s strong ground game to just 148 yards on 44 carries, limiting Jerry Rice Award winner Eli Gallman to just two rushing yards on nine carries.

Offensively, the Grizzlies would end the contest being paced by quarterback Clifton McDowell, who rushed for 118 of the team’s 148 yards on the ground, which included an opening quarter touchdown on an 8-yard run, which put the Grizzlies back on top, 14-7, with 6:44 left in the quarter. In addition to what McDowell did in the win, he also connected on 17-of-31 passes for 208 yards with a touchdown and an INT.

McDowell’s top option in the passing game was Keelan White, who hauled in five passes for 91 yards and a touchdown, while Aaron Fontes hauled in four passes for 57 yards. Junior Bergen rounded out the solid night for the Grizzlies catching the football, as he finished with four receptions for 44 yards.

Furman quarterback Tyler Huff didn’t have his best afternoon as the Paladins’ quarterback, however, in somewhat remarkable fashion, he still had Furman in position to win the football game, despite facing relentless pressure from the Grizzlies Buddy Ryan-like blitz scheme, which brought heat on nearly every play it seemed Friday night. The commissioned 2nd lieutenant with Army Reserves finished the afternoon by connecting on 16-of-47 passes for 188 yards, with a touchdown and an INT. Huff was Furman’s leading rusher, as he finished the night by rushing it 11 times for 71 yards, which included a 53-yard run with 5:21 remaining in the opening quarter.

Huff often said that he needed Furman more than Furman needed him, and that’s the type of person he was. He will always be remembered as one as a winner, and Furman’s football program, which had at one point become one of the forgotten programs among those that had enjoyed former glory, starting the 2016 season with an 0-6 record. It’s almost remarkable to see such a turnaround in a seven-year span, as the Paladin football program endured one of its worst periods in history from 2014-16, posting just a 10-24 overall mark, including a 7-15 ledger in a really weak Southern Conference.

The Paladins needed a spark following Darren Grainger’s departure for Georgia State following the 2019 season, and a pair of less than spectacular campaigns in the COVID-19 2020-21 spring season and the fall of 2021 campaign, with the Paladins having produced just a 9-9 overall mark of a two-year span and an offense that had taken a major dip statistically following Grainger’s departure. Huff, who came to Furman off an ACL injury and then was benched under new head coach Kevin Kelley in favor of a walk-on transfer from Michigan.

Huff would follow the coach that recruited him—Tommy Spangler—who was hired as Furman’s special teams coach during the same spring after being unceremoniously let go by the Blue Hose after leading the program to its best finish since becoming a Division I football playing member following the COVID-19 shortened 2020-21 season.

Huff shined from the outset, and he’s put Furman’s storied football program back in the limelight yet again for all the right reasons.

He finished his career with only two losses to FCS programs, with both of those coming in the postseason by a combined 10 points, as the Paladins dropped a 41-38 loss to UIW last season, and of course Friday night’s 35-28 overtime setback to the Grizzlies. His final mark as a Paladin signal-caller was 18-4, including a 13-0 record against Southern Conference competition as a starter. He finished his career having one 18-2 against Southern Conference competition.

He was the 2023 Southern Conference Coaches Player of the Year, and finished out his two seasons under center by completing 383-of-593 passes for 4,068 yards, with 25 TDs and 14 INTs. After setting a new single-season school record for rushing yards by a quarterback (694 yds/8TDs) in 2022, Huff followed that up by finishing with 591 yards and six scores in his final season. All told, Huff finished his career amassing 1,289 rushing yards and 14 scores on 210 attempts, averaging 6.1 YPC. All told, Huff finished his two-year Paladin career with 5,357 yards of total offense and 39 touchdown responsibilities. Huff will leave for Arizona to begin serving the United States Army on Jan. 9, 2023. He was the recipient of the prestigious Armed Forces Merit Awards in early November.

Huff, who was injured late in the season with a separated shoulder in what was Furman’s SoCon title-clinching win over the Mocs, returned last week vs. Chattanooga to lead the Paladins to the 26-7 opening-round win at home, never looked 100% in the quarterfinal loss, and No. 2 Montana’s outstanding defense also had plenty to do with that.

Ever since Furman’s 31-28 escape at Kennesaw State, the Paladins struggled to stay healthy at running back the rest of the season, and star running back Dominic Roberto was not 100% for the remainder of the season. The Paladins also lost Jay’Quan Smith for the season in a mid-season win over The Citadel, while Grant Robinson had only just returned to the Furman lineup after sustaining a broken ankle earlier this season against South Carolina.

As far as Furman’s receiving options were concerned against the Grizzlies, Mason Pline was the top option in the Paladin passing attack, and became Huff’s favorite target down the stretch in the game, ending the game with nine catches for 78 yards and a touchdown.

Furman’s defensive efforts were led by three players that finished the night with double-digit tackle totals, with Evan DiMaggio pacing the Paladins with a career-best 15 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and had one of the team’s two sacks. Braden Gilby, who was playing in his school-record 60th game as a Paladin linebacker, finished out his career strong with 11 stops, while safety Hugh Ryan rounded out the strong performances in the tackles department with 10 stoops. Micah Robinson picked off his second pass of the season and recorded Furman’s 18th pick of the season as a defense.

Over the past two seasons, Furman has posted 56 takeaways, including 35 INTs. The Paladins finished the 2022 campaign with an FCS best 29 takeaways (17 INTs, 12 FRs). The Paladins finished the 2023 season with 27 forced turnovers (18 INTs, 9 FRs).

Furman’s defense was impressive the entire season, and it had arguably its best performance of the season Friday night, with 12 tackles-for-loss and a pair of sacks. The two sacks in the contest brought its overall total to 38 quarterback takedowns this season, which is second to only the 1989 team, which posted a school record 39. The Paladins’ 36 regular-season sacks were the most ever recorded by a Furman defense in an 11-game regular-season.

Montana’s defensive efforts were paced by Braxton Hill’s 10 tackles, while defensive back Ryder Meyer finished with nine stops. Linebacker Riley Wilson finished with five tackles, including two of the team’s three sacks in the game. Defensive back recorded Montana’s lone turnover of the night, as defensive back Trajon Cotton picked off Huff late in the game.

How It Happened

It didn’t take long for Furman to find out what they were up against, as Junior Bergen returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, as he went 93 yards untouched to give the Grizzlies a 7-0 just 14 seconds into the contest and the noise at Washington-Grizzly Stadium was deafening.

Three plays into Furman’s first offensive possession of the evening and faced with a 3rd-and-6 at its own 29, Montana brought the house, and Huff, recognizing it prior to the play, checked out to a quick slant to his freshman receiver Colton Hinton, and he went 70 yards before being tackled at the 1. On the next play, the Paladins tied the game when Dominic Roberto bulled over from a yard out to tie the contest.

Both defenses were solid on the opposing offense’s next two possessions, with both Montana and Furman, who entered the contest ranked inside the top 20 nationally in total defense, forcing consecutive punts on the next two offensive possessions.

On Montana’s third possession of the evening, the Grizzlies would start with excellent field position after one of Ryan Leavy’s 12 punts in the game traveled only 31 yards, setting up the Grizzlies just inside Furman territory at the 48. Montana quarterback Clifton McDowell would do all the heavy lifting, gaining 40 yards on the first play from scrimmage before scoring on the next play, which was an 8-yard scamper to give the Grizzlies a 14-7 lead with 6:44 left in the first.

Just as it had earlier in the quarter, Huff and the Paladin offense wouldn’t allow Montana’s seven-point advantage last long, as the Paladins needed just three plays to move the ball 75 yards tie the score, with Huff scampering 53 yards on 3rd-and-3 to tie it all up, 14-14.

Montana would add a pair of field goals for the only scoring of the second quarter, as Nico Ramos added field goals of 39 and 28 yards, as the Grizzlies would take a 20-14 lead into the half. It was a quarter largely dominated by the Grizzlies, however, Furman’s defense kept it in the game by forcing the Grizzlies to settle for a pair of field goals on drives that looked to yield more promising results.

Leading 20-14 with just under nine minutes remaining in the third quarter, Furman’s defense would come up with a big play and force its only turnover of the night, as Micah Robinson picked off a McDowell pass and returned it 34 yards to the Montana 19, setting up the Paladin offense in excellent field position.

Huff would call his number on the first two plays, gaining two and nine yards, and then found Wayne Anderson Jr. over the middle for a gain of seven yards to get the ball down to the 1-yard line. For the second time in the game, the Paladins would call on less than 100% running back Dominic Roberto, who rumbled over from a yard out to give Furman its first lead of the game, at 21-20, following Ian Williams’ PAT made it 21-20 Paladins with 6:22 remaining in the third quarter.

That’s exactly how the two teams would enter the fourth quarter. Montana’s final points of regulation would once again come from Junior Bergen, as he returned a 53 yards for a score, and once again brought the noise level to a deafening decibel-level. The Grizzlies then converted a two-point conversion, taking a perfect seven-point lead when McDowell found Sawyer Racanelli on the two-point play, giving Montana a 28-21 lead.

Furman was seemingly down to its final chance to tie the game, facing 4th-and-10 with just over two minutes remaining, however, Huff’s pass was picked off to apparently end all hopes of a comeback, however, the Paladins still had all three timeouts remaining and used all of them to force a Montana punt with 1:50 remaining in the game. Joshua Harris returned it 14 yards to the Furman 43 with 1:37 remaining.

Huff completed passes for four and seven yards to get the ball to the Montana 46. Huff would eventually get the Paladins all the way down to the 13, aided by the lone flagged penalty of several blatantly pass interference infractions that were obvious, helping the Paladins gain some of that yardage without having to execute a successful offensive play. After three-straight incompletions, Huff faced a make-or-break moment. It was 4th-and-10 at the 13-yard line, and the entire Paladin season relied on this play. Montana brought a heavy blitz on fourth down, but Huff found a leaping Mason Pline in the back of the end zone to give the Paladins a chance to tie or win the game with 13 seconds to play. Furman’s offense stayed on the field to attempt the potential game-winning two-point play, however, the Paladins jumped offsides and were forced to settle for the Ian Williams PAT and overtime.

Furman won the coin toss in overtime and elected to go on defense first. The Grizzlies needed just four plays before McDowell was able to find and connect with wideout Keelan White for what would prove to be the game-winning points, as the Grizzlies assumed a 35-28 following the Nico Ramos PAT. McDowell’s throw was a thing of beauty, fitting the ball between a pair of Furman defensive backs and into the arms of the waiting White for the score.

Paladin running back Wayne Anderson Jr. was stuffed for a loss of five yards on first down, and after Huff threw incompletions to both Harris and Nick Cannon on the next couple of plays, his pass fell incomplete for Knydel Dean 4th-and-10 along the right sideline, ending the game and for Furman, the 2023 season.