Furman and Western Carolina have had some thrilling performances when the two have met on the college football gridiron over the years, however, Saturday’s contest between the Paladins and Catamounts at EJ Whitmire Stadium in Cullowhee, as the two teams will be meeting for the 51st time on Saturday, and it will be one of the biggest games in the history of the rivalry, and the first time the two have squared off against each other with it being the first time both have been ranked in the Top 10.
The Paladins and Catamounts will be meeting each other for the first time as ranked opposition since the 2006 season, when the Paladins entered the clash ranked No. 3 in the nation, while the Catamounts came in ranked No. 22. It will mark just the seventh time in the history of EJ Whitmire Stadium that the facility has hosted a game between a ranked foes and the first time that same ‘06 season, when the 24th-ranked Catamounts dropped a 24-14 contest to No. 25 Georgia Southern.
In terms of Western Carolina and Furman meeting as ranked opposition, it will mark just the fourth time the two have met as ranked opposition and the first time this rivalry has ever played host to a Top 25 clash.
The Story of 1983
It’s arguably the biggest matchup between the two teams in four decades, as the two SoCon rivals squared off in the 1983 Division I-AA semifinals, with Western Carolina coming to Greenville and taking a 14-7 win at Paladin Stadium. That particular meeting would see NFL players on both sides of the ball and it was a classic matchup of the outstanding Catamount defense facing the vaunted ground attack of the Paladins.
In that era, the two programs were led by a pair of Hall-of-Fame head coaches, with the Paladins having been led by the late Dick Sheridan, while the Catamounts were led by the late Bob Waters. Waters, who would tragically pass away of the debilitating disease known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, like Sheridan, is a product of the Palmetto State. He would coach up until a year before his death, which was in May of 1989. He would finish is 19-year career posting a program standard 116 wins (116-94) in 20 seasons at the helm.
The two head coaches are revered at their respective institutions, as both are known for sparking the football traditions at both schools. Furman had never won a Southern Conference title when Sheridan came to Furman as a young assistant in 1973 under the direction of Art Baker, however, in his first season at the helm in 1978, Sheridan would lead the Furman football program to its the first of its league standard 14 SoCon regular-season crowns.
Sheridan, after all, is responsible for designing the iconic Furman diamond logo, as the Paladins are 50 years removed from the first season in which they wore that certain logo on their helmets. Under Sheridan, the Paladins would win six Southern Conference regular-season titles in his eight seasons as the head coach.
While Western Carolina has never won a Southern Conference title, Catamount nation owes plenty to Waters, as he helped transition the program from NAIA to NCAA Division II and then from Division II to NCAA Division I as a member of the Southern Conference, and the SoCon would be re-classified to Division I-AA in 1982.
Waters took over the Catamount football program in 1969 and would have some immediate success, and like Sheridan, would lead Catamount football to one of its best campaigns in program history in his very first season as head coach, as the Catamounts would post a 9-1-0 record, however, due to a loss in the final game that season—a 28-17 setback to his alma mater Presbyterian College—Waters and the Catamounts were left out of the NAIA Playoffs.
The Catamounts would have to wait a full five years to make their first postseason appearance in its college football history, and that 1974 campaign would also just happen to be the inaugural season for EJ Whitmire Stadium. The ‘74 Catamounts would open the season with a 10-3 loss vs. Murray State in what was the first-ever game to be played inside the facility. Waters’ Catamounts would win their next nine games to qualify for the NCAA Division II playoffs before losing, 10-7, to Louisiana Tech in the opening round of the Division II playoffs.
Two years later, the Catamounts would make their transition to Division I football, and in particular, the Southern Conference, as the Purple and Gold would join the league in 1976, however, wouldn’t play their first official season inside the league in 1977. Some six years later, Waters would lead the Catamount football to another watershed season as a program.
Furman and Western Carolina would meet twice during that 1983 season, with neither resulting in a Paladin win. The first meeting between the two that season would take place on Oct. 15, 1983 at EJ Whitmire Stadium. The first matchup would see neither able to gain an advantage in the contest, and the game would end up finishing in a 17-17 tie.
It would end up being the Catamounts’ lone blemish in the regular-season schedule against Division I-AA competition (now known as FCS). The lone two losses of the ‘83 season for Western Carolina came in the first two games of the season, dropping games to both Clemson (L, 10-44) and Wake Forest (L, 0-21), however, the Catamounts would promptly reel off three-straight wins over East Tennessee State (W, 17-16), at Marshall (W, 21-7) and at Tennessee Tech (W, 44-10) heading into the showdown with the Paladins.
By the time the Catamounts arrived at their major mid-season test against Furman, it had become clear that head coach Bob Waters’ team had one of the top defensive units in the nation. What would turn out to be one of the best seasons in the history of Western Carolina football almost never got off the ground, as the Catamounts had to rally from a 16-6 deficit in the final two minutes of the game, however, the Catamounts would make a miraculous rally to garner a one-point, 17-16 win.
The Paladins had gotten off to a strong start under Sheridan during the ‘83 campaign—now a full decade after arriving in Greenville as an assistant under former head coach Art Baker—-as the Paladins owned wins over Carson-Newman (W, 52-7), at Georgia Tech (W, 17-14), Marshall (W, 31-7), and at VMI (W, 49-0) after having opened the campaign with a 13-3 loss to South Carolina State in Orangeburg. However, by the time the Paladins arrived at EJ Whitmire Stadium for their mid-season showdown with Western Caroline, they were ranked No. 8 in the nation following those four-straight impressive wins.
In the first meeting against Furman during the ‘83 campaign, it looked as though the Catamounts were going to win going away inside the friendly confines of EJ Whitmire Stadium, as Leonard Williams scored on runs of 5 and 1 yards, and that was sandwiched by a Dean Biasucci 40-yard field goal, as Western Carolina assumed a 17-0 second quarter lead. In what would be the first of two defensive battles between the two teams that season, the Paladins would finally get on the scoreboard just before the break, as Dennis Williams scampered to pay dirt from five yards out and the Paladins were on the board, heading into the half trailing 17-7.
In the second half, it was the Paladin defense, which was led by the likes of Steve Squire, Ernest Gibson and Mark Bridgman, held the Catamount offense, which was led by quarterback Jeff Gilbert, running back Leonard Williams, and talented Catamount Hall-of-Fame wideout Eric Rasheed, to just 339 yards of total offense.
The Paladin offense would score the only 10 points of the second half on a rare run of 20 or more yards in a game dominated by two of the classification’s top defenses, as eventual SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Stanford Jennings scored on a 23-yard run with 8:37 remaining.
Just over eight minutes later, Kevin Esval connected on a 24-yard field goal and the Paladins escaped Cullowhee with a 17-17 tie. Furman’s 299 yards of total offensive output in the first meeting against the Catamounts would end up being the second-lowest output of the season, which would only be eclipsed in the Division I-AA semifinal meeting between the two at Paladin Stadium.
Under the direction of Waters, the Catamounts would reel off wins over Wofford (W, 37-20), Chattanooga (W, 25-15), at The Citadel (W, 44-17), Gardner-Webb (W, 43-7), and vs. Appalachian State (W, 41-15) to reach the Division I-AA playoffs as an at-large qualifier out of the Southern Conference with an 8-2-1 mark, which included a 5-0-1 league mark and ranked No. 9 in the nation.
Furman, in turn, would finish out the ‘83 regular season with wins vs. Appalachian State (W, 49-0), at Davidson (W, 55-7), vs. East Tennessee State (W, 28-7), vs Chattanooga (W, 28-14), and at The Citadel (W, 49-21) to finish the regular-season ranked 9-1-1 and ranked No. 2 in the nation.
The Catamounts would face a pair of Patriot League foes in two tough battles before they were able to garner a rematch with their purple-clad rival, as the Catamounts had to come from behind against Colgate to get a thrilling 24-23 win in Cullowhee in what remains one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the program.
Western Carolina found itself in a 23-0 hole in front of the hometown crowd, the Catamounts got a touchdown and much needed momentum just before the half, as quarterback Jeff Gilbert found Eric Rasheed for a 19-yard score with 18 seconds remaining in the half to make it a 23-7 game.
In the second half against the Red Raiders, it was all Catamounts, as Western Carolina’s vaunted defense—led by the likes of defensive lineman Clyde Simmons and defensive back Tiger Greene—limited a Colgate offense that had rolled up nearly 300 yards in the opening half of play en route to a 23-0 lead to just 91 yards in the second half—and the Catamount offense launched an all out aerial assault, with the combo of Gilbert-to-Rasheed proving unstoppable for the visitors from Hamilton, NY.
After future Indianapolis Colts star place-kicker Dean Biasucci connected on a 51-yard field goal to make it a 23-10 game early in the third quarter, Rasheed would haul in a 34-yard scoring pass from Gilbert with under a minute left in the third quarter, as WCU got to within six points (23-17) as the two teams headed for the final 15 minutes of football.
The game-winning points, fittingly for Western Carolina, would come via the air, as Gilbert hooked up with wideout Kristy Kiser for a 27-yard scoring strike to give the Catamounts a 24-23 lead following Biasucci’s PAT. The Catamount defense would do enough to hold the Red Raiders scoreless over the final 13:26 to hold on for the program’s first-ever Division I-AA playoff win in front of 6,500 fans at EJ Whitmire Stadium.
Following the opening round triumph, the Catamounts went on the road to Worcester, MA, to face Holy Cross in the next phase of the tournament, and just as Waters’ Catamounts did in the opening round of the Division I-AA playoffs, Western Carolina would be forced to come from behind, doing so twice in the contest.
The Catamounts faced deficits of 7-0 in the second quarter and 14-7 in the third, and weren’t able assume the lead in the contest until the fourth quarter. Kristy Kiser’s 15-yard scoring catch from Gilbert early in the fourth quarter, giving the Catamounts a 21-14 lead. Holy Cross would respond on its ensuing drive, as Chuck Doyle scored on a 2-yard run midway through the fourth quarter to tie the game, 21-21.
It would set the stage for some late-game heroics for the Catamount offense and quarterback Jeff Gilbert. Gilbert would find speedster Eric Rasheed for a 25-yard scoring strike with just under five minutes remaining.
The score by the Catamount offense would leave the final job to the Catamount defense, which would be tasked with turning away a talented Crusader offense one more time in the game to hold on for the win. The Crusaders would get as close as the Catamount 15 yard line with just under three minutes remaining, however, could advance no further, as on fourth down Catamount defensive back Richard Dukes broke up a pass intended for the Holy Cross tight end at the five yard line to seal the win. The Catamounts had knocked the No. 2 seed out of the tournament.
It set up the ultimate rematch in the semifinals just a couple of hours south, as the Catamounts would now face SoCon rival Furman in the Division I-AA semifinals for the right to become the first-ever SoCon representative in the Division I-AA championship game to be played at The Citadel’s Johnson Hagood Stadium in Charleston.
While Western Carolina would weave its path to the semifinal clash with Furman by taking down a pair of Patriot League rivals, the Paladins, who had a bye in the opening round by virtue of being the No. 3 overall seed in the 12-team playoff field, opened their ‘83 playoff account with a quarterfinal clash against the now defunct program of Boston University out of the Yankee Conference (now CAA).
Sheridan’s Paladins would make it to the semifinals in a little easier fashion than the Catamounts did, opening the postseason by winning with relative ease, posting a 35-16 win over the Terriers. Furman quarterback David Charpia was able to throw for 202 yards and three TDs, with Furman jumping out to the 21-0 lead before Boston knew what hit them. Chas Fox hauled in an eight-yard scoring pass first from Charpia, and then saw SoCon Offensive Player of the Year Stanford Jennings scamper for a 50-yard TD run to put the Paladins ahead 14-0 with 10:52 remaining in the half.
That would remain the score when the two teams headed into the locker room at the half. Furman resumed their dominance of the Yankee Conference foe in the third quarter, essentially putting the game out of reach when Fox hauled in a second score from Charpia—this one 25-yard strike—giving the Paladins a comfortable 21-0 lead midway through the third quarter.
Steve Shapiro’s 27-yard field goal would get Boston on the board, however, with a little over five minutes left in the third. From there, however, the Paladins would tack on a couple of more TDs from running back Dennis Williams (11-yard run) and wide receiver Billy Risher (20-yard scoring catch) to take a 35-3 lead. Boston would tack on a pair of scores in the fourth quarter to make the score more respectable. Despite having trouble generating points, the Terriers would manage to amass a gain 422 yards against Furman’s defense, which was the most it would surrender during the ‘83 season.
That would set the stage for the 1983 clash between Waters’ Catamounts and Sheridan’s Paladins at the penultimate stage of the Division I-AA playoffs.
No. 9 Western Carolina 14, No. 2 Furman 7 (Division I-AA Semifinals/Dec. 10, 1983)
Certainly the most memorable win for Western Carolina fans occurred in the Division I-AA semifinals in 1983, as the Catamounts came to Greenville and claimed a 14-7 win over the second-ranked Paladins to advance to the Division I-AA national championship game against top-ranked Southern Illinois. It was one of legendary and SoCon and Western Carolina Hall-of-Fame head coach Bob Waters’ finest moments in Cullowhee, and it remains Western Carolina’s lone trip to the playoffs and national championship game in its Division I football history.
At least a couple of thousand Catamount fans made the short trip down to Paladin Stadium in Greenville, S.C., hoping the Catamounts could secure their first win over the Paladins in 11 years , and garner what would be just the second win the 11 meetings between the two proud football programs.
Furman football fans will remember some of the great names on that Catamount defense, with the likes of Tiger Greene, Clyde Simmons and Louis Cooper, and the Catamounts had one mean pass-rush, with a couple of the two school’s premier pass-rushers at the program and in Southern Conference history on the same defense, in Simmons and Cooper. Western Carolina’s win in Greenville in the Division I-AA semifinals in 1983 was just the second win by the Purple and Gold in Greenville, and their first-ever win in Paladin Stadium.
The Catamounts and The Catamounts would win their next two at Paladin Stadium after that ‘83 triumph, claiming wins in ‘84 (20-19) in what was another classic, and then in 1986, which saw the Catamounts claim a 19-13 victory in Greenville. The Paladins and Catamounts, which had met earlier in the ‘83 season in Cullowhee, saw the two teams play to a 17-17 tie.
Furman’s outstanding running back Stanford Jennings, who went on to play in the NFL for the Cincinnati Bengals, and even returned a kickoff for a TD in the 1988 Super Bowl against the San Francisco 49ers, was held to just 25 yards on 13 carries, and the star-studded WCU defensive unit would hold the Paladins to mere 208 yards of total offense.
The Paladins had trouble generating any kind of offensive success against the Catamount defense, as the Paladins would be limited to a season-low 208 yards of total offense, and Jennings seemingly couldn’t find the normally large holes to run through, as he finished the contest with a meager 25 yards rushing on 13 attempts.
The game, which was televised by CBS in 22 different states, was the kind of exposure for both programs that neither had been accustomed to receiving nationally previously.
Not only was the game tough treading for the Paladins’ talented running back, it was also particularly frustrating afternoon for Furman quarterback, who found that the Catamounts’ defensive backs were indeed as good as advertised, throwing three picks, with two coming at critical stages of the fourth quarter. Also, the Catamounts limited one of the nation’s ground attacks to just 18 total yards on the ground.
Western Carolina trailed, 7-6, entering the fourth quarter, however, the Catamounts took the football at its own 10 yard line with 11:20 left in the contest. It took the Catamounts nine plays to cover the needed 90 yards. The drive appeared to have resulted in what would have been a go-ahead field goal by Dean Biasucci, however, the Paladins were flagged for roughing the kicker penalty, giving the Catamounts the option to take the penalty and a fresh set of downs, taking the points off the board. That would be just they would choose.
Once a backup to Georgia’s Herschel Walker, Melvin Dorsey transferred to Western Carolina in order to see his number 34 jersey called more often. With just over six minutes remaining in the game, his number would end up being called on one of the most important carries in the history of WCU football, and his four-yard scoring run would give the Catamounts a six-point, 13-6, lead. The Catamounts elected to go for two and a seven-point lead following Dorsey’s short scoring run. Tight end Eddie West hauled in a short scoring pass from Jeff Gilbert, extending the Cats lead to seven.
WCU’s defense slammed the door shut on the Paladins, intercepting Charpia twice and muffed a punt, and were never able to seriously threaten to tie or perhaps win the game for the remaining six minutes of the game.
The Catamounts would go on to become the first-ever SoCon team to make a national title game, and would ultimately lose that contest to talented and top-ranked Southern Illinois, 43-7, in Charleston. But the 1983 season will be remembered more for the two head coaches and their friendship away from the sport, and this game, which would end up sparking a rivalry that today sees it once again capture the attention of the FCS world some four decades later.
Sadly, both coaches are no longer with us, with Waters succumbing to ALS on May 29, 1989, while Sheridan passed away on July 6, 2023. Sheridan would first establish the Diamond F logo on the Paladin helmets some 50 years ago, while the iconic cursive “The Cats” on the side of WCU’s helmets was the brainchild of Waters. It’s fitting that this game now takes place with the two friends and legendary coaches able to re-live the memories of this game and this rivalry once again from above.
When Furman and Western Carolina meet for the 51st time in series history, it will mark the biggest meeting between the two in the regular-season in series history. In fact, Saturday’s “Battle For Purple Supremacy” will feature the first Top 10 clash between the two since the 1983 Division I-AA semifinal game, with the Paladins entering that particular clash ranked No. 2 in the nation, while the Paladins entered that clash No. 9.
Forty years later, Furman’s No. 3 ranking in the AFCA Coaches Poll is its highest ranking its had since 2006, while the No. 8 ranking for Western Carolina entering the clash matches the highest ranking in school history and it’s highest ranking in either of the two polls since rising as high as No. 8 during the Steve Hodgin era as the head coach some three decades ago (1993). It marks the fifth-straight week the Catamounts have found themselves in the rankings. Furman’s highest ranking entering this clash has been No. 2 on two occasions, losing both of those, including a 41-21 setback as the No. 2 team in the FCS in 2005.
In terms of streaks, the Catamounts have won all five of their games against FCS foes this season, and are owner’s of eight-straight wins over FCS opposition dating back to wins in its last three games over Wofford, East Tennessee State and Chattanooga. Furman has claimed 10-straight SoCon wins entering Saturday’s “Battle For Supremacy”, marking the Paladins’ best run in the SoCon since 1990. The Paladins are 8-1 in their last nine road games against FCS competition, with the lone loss during that span coming in the second round of the FCS playoffs at Incarnate Word, dropping that contest, 41-38, in San Antonio.
The 51st battle between the two programs will feature arguably the greatest Catamount offense of any of the former meetings. In fact, just last season the Western Carolina’s offense set a new program record for yards gained (5,339 yds), surpassing that memorable 1983 team (5,333 yds).
The 485.4 YPG averaged by WCU last season ranked as the ninth-best offense in SoCon history. The past two meetings have seen close finishes, with the Paladins holding on for a 47-40 win last season, while the Catamounts were able to get a 43-42 come-from-behind win the last time the two met in Cullowhee in 2021.
Western Carolina enters Saturday’s mid-season battle coming off its off week, and through the first six games this season, ranks even higher than it did a year ago, as WCU leads the nation in total offense average (531.8 YPG), while also ranking fifth nationally in scoring offense 44.0 PPG.
The Paladins, which posted nine sacks in a 27-21 win at Samford, marking for the first time since the 2001 Division I-AA playoffs vs. Lehigh, boast a defense that enters Saturday’s showdown ranking a modest 67 nationally in total yardage of output allowed (372.0 YPG), while the 22.3 PPG allowed by the Paladins ranks them No. 29 in the FCS in scoring defense. In 11 of its last 13 games against FCS competition, the Paladins have allowed less than 30 points to their opposition. In fact, the only two foes to score more than 30 against the Furman defense over the past 13 games were both Western Carolina (40 pts) and Incarnate Word (47 pts), with both occurrences coming in 2022.
The Paladins claimed a 47-40 mid-season win over Western Carolina in 2022, while dropping a 41-38 decision to Incarnate Word in the second round of the FCS playoffs. In the regular-season win over Western Carolina in 2022, the Catamounts posted 691 yards (a school record for yardage allowed in a single game), while Incarnate Word posted a total of 613 yards in the FCS second round win last season. WCU’s 462-yard effort in passing yards also marked the fifth-most yards through the air allowed by a Paladin defense in program history.
The Catamounts will have many of those same faces still around from last season, as well as that Catamount team that took down the Paladins, 43-42, back in 2021 in Cullowhee in one of the most thrilling games in series history a couple of years ago at EJ Whitmire Stadium.
This season, when you talk about the WCU offense, it all starts with running back Desmond Reid (115 rush att, 847 yds, 12 TDs, 7.4 YPC), who can do it all. In the preseason, I referred to him as the SoCon’s version of Marshall Faulk, and that assessment appears to be at least somewhat accurate. And if Reid is Faulk, then Western’s offense as a whole is not unlike that of the St. Louis Rams (1999-2001) referred to as the “Greatest Show on Turf”, which featured the likes of quarterback Kurt Warner, wide receivers Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce, and of course, the aforementioned Marshall Faulk.
Reid enters Saturday’s contest in Cullowhee having never faced a Paladin defense, but every other he’s faced, he’s made look bad, due to his outstanding speed and vision, as well as his ability as a receiver and his threat in the return game. Stopping him and the Catamount offense would give the most seasoned of offensive coordinators nightmares, and that means sleep has probably come at a premium this week for Paladin defensive coordinator Duane Vaughn.
While Reid can stress a defense even as good as Furman’s, he is only one of several weapons that the Catamounts have within their arsenal to stress opposing defenses. Reid’s 847 yards rushing this season leads the SoCon and ranks second nationally in the FCS. His 12 rushing TDs also rank second in the FCS, while also ranking third nationally in total touchdowns scored.
When Reid exited the game a couple of weeks ago in the 52-50 win over Chattanooga with an apparent hamstring injury, the Catamounts didn’t miss a beat at running back when Branson Adams (36 rush att, 247 yds, 1 TD, 6.9 YPC) came into the contest, and the Purple and Gold offensive show continue to seemingly find new ways and new players to produce the big plays. Adams came in rushed for 61 yards and a touchdown on just six carries. His 37-yard scoring run with just under a minute in the third quarter, allowing the Catamounts to regain what was a 35-34 lead in the see-saw battle.
Reid, who rushed for 211 yards and a pair of scores on just 15 attempts, had long scoring runs of 70 and 58 yards, respectively, averaging a ridiculous 14.1 yards-per-carry. With 817 yards in his final five regular season games, Reid would set a new school record for single-season rushing yards, which was originally set back in 1998 when he rushed for 1,663 yards. Conventional wisdom would seem to indicate that there will be more than five games remaining in the season for Western Carolina.
Not only is Reid a threat with his 4.3 speed in the running game, he’s also a big-time threat in the passing game as a receiving threat, having hauled in 13 passes for 143 yards (11.0 YPR) so far this season.
While the Paladins didn’t face Reid last season, the Paladins did face talented sophomore quarterback Cole Gonzales (105-of-151 passing, 1,532 yards, 14 TDs, 2 INTs), who entered the contest at Paladin Stadium last fall in the third quarter and would end up lighting up the Furman defense, completing 12-of-16 passes for 253 yards and a pair of TDs in about 1.5 quarters of action. The Furman game was the first time the nation kind of got introduced to Gonzalez and he thrived.
Now a sophomore, Gonzales is lighting up opposing defenses regularly and he has been a big reason why the Catamounts come into Saturday’s contest having won six-straight SoCon games. Primarily as a result of the Catamounts having the week off, Gonzales dropped a little among the national passing leaders, but is one of three passers from the SoCon to rank in the top 21 nationally in passing.
Not only is Gonzalez a good passer in terms of accuracy, he’s also a solid running threat, as he has rushed for 85 yards on 24 attempts so far this season. His top targets in the passing game for the Catamounts this season have been the trio of Censere Lee (22 rec., 421 yds, 6 TDs, 19.1 YPR), AJ Colombo (19 rec, 320 yds, 4 TDs, 16.8 YPR) and David White Jr. (15 rec, 214 yds, 2 TDs, 14.3 YPR).
Lee was the wideout that proved nearly unstoppable for the Paladin defense during the fourth quarter of last season’s 47-40 Paladin win, as he finished the game hauling in five passes for a career-high 164 yards and a pair of scores. In the past four games, Lee has had at least 80 yards receiving, with no less than two catches.His top performance of the season catching the football for the Catamounts came in the 49-14 win over The Citadel, as he hauled in six passes for 83 yards.
There may not be a better receiver in the clutch than Colombo, and that was especially true in wins at Chattanooga and at Eastern Kentucky, as Colombo provided clutch catches in each game, which proved pivotal in seeing the Purple and Gold offense put talented place-kicker Richard McCollum (6-of-7 on FGs this season) in position for game-winning field goals in each.
The leading target at tight end for the Catamounts this season have been Ajay Belanger (12 rec, 136 yds, 1 TD, 11.3 YPR) and Clayton Bardall. The two veterans have provided Gonzales a pair of big, veteran targets in the passing game. Bellanger was a preseason All-SoCon selection.
The unifying element of this Catamount offense and the primary reason the Purple and Gold find themselves in a position to win their first-ever SoCon football crown is the continuity and talent of the WCU offensive line. The unit, which is one of the biggest in all of FCS football, with four of its WCU’s five starters along the offensive line weighing in at 300 lbs or more.
The strength of the OL is the left side of the front, which is anchored by left tackle Tyler Smith and left guard Christian Coulter. The biggest offensive lineman is Xavier Graham at right guard, as he is 6-2, 330 lbs. The unit has combined to give up only three sacks through the first six games, and has helped WCU field the top offense (531.8 YPG) in FCS football so far this season.
Furman brings an elite defense to Cullowhee for Saturday’s Top 10 showdown. The Paladins are coming off one of their best performances collectively as a defensive unit this season against an explosive Samford offense last weekend, as the Paladins limited Michael Hiers and the high-powered Samford attack to just 342 yards on 79 plays, including sacking Hiers and FCS season-high nine times this season.
Like the WCU offense, it all starts up front for the Furman defense, where it will rely on a veteran unit that has started nearly every game over the past couple of seasons, and has one of the oldest players in program history, in Matt Sochovka (8 tackles, 3.0 TFL, leading the charge, while Jack Barton (12 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 3 QBHs, 1 blkd kick) and Xavier Stephens (10 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 INT, 3 QBHs) have the most potential to get after the Gonzales and cause problems.
Linebacker is a no non-sense position for Furman, and while none stand out glaringly on the stats sheet, it’s the collective group that makes them so good. Holding things down in the middle are pre-season all-conference selection Braden Gilby (35 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FR), Dan Scianna (21 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 TD), and Evan DiMaggio (30 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF), who is having an outstanding year in the middle of that Paladin defense. The players most likely to get pressure off the edge include Luke Clark (27 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 QBHs) and Jalen Miller (9 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF), while Cally Chizik (32 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 INTs) will be used more as a nickel in passing situations. Chizik played especially well in Furman’s win in Birmingham last week over Samford, posting a career-high 13 tackles.
The secondary will be a position of interest for many reasons. Furman might have the top cover corner in the SoCon, in Travis Blackshear (17 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2 INTs, 7 PBUs, 1 TD)while Ivan Yates (22 tackles) and Micah Robinson (23 tackles,1.0 TFL, 3 PBUs) platoon the other corner spot. Blackshear’s 46-career starts at corner are the most in the history of the program and he has 11 career INTs.
An area of particular interest is safety. Hugh Ryan (40 tackles, 1.0 TFL) is as solid as any in the country at free safety, while Caleb Williams could be making his second-career start Saturday against the Catamounts.
Furman isn’t ranked highly nationally in total defense, but they have been tough to score against. Using the 30-point barrier as a measuring stick, the Paladins have been pretty good at limiting teams from getting to that particular point total, especially against FCS foes, as the Paladins haven’t surrendered 30 points against an FCS foe all season. Dating back to the start of last season, Furman has held 13 of its last 16 FCS foes to less than 30 points, having posted a 14-2 record in those games.
Only UIW (41), Western Carolina (40) and Samford (34) have eclipsed the 30-point barrier against Furman’s defense in the past couple of seasons, with all three occurrences coming last season. The Paladins only win when giving up 30 or more the past couple of seasons was a 47-40 home win over WCU in a game that the Paladins held a 44-20 lead in at one point.
WCU’s defensive strides have been notable under third-year defensive coordinator Chazmon Scales, and is perhaps an area not given enough credit overall. The Catamounts have held teams to fewer than 100 rushing yards five times, and the Catamounts enter Saturday’s contest against Furman ranking second in the SoCon and 27th in all of FCS in yardage allowed via the ground attack, limiting foes to just 117.0 YPG this season.
The Catamounts employ a 4-2-5 defensive scheme, and are lead across the defensive front by defensive ends Jayelin Davis (7 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks) and Caleb Fisher (11 tackles, 1.0 TFL), while Marlon Alexander (11 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks) and Jaquarius Guinn (15 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks) are solid on the defensive interior. There has been both notable size and strength increases across the defensive front during the off-season, which has given this unit a notable boost when it comes to stopping the opposition’s ground attack. It’s also a unit that has helped the Catamounts generate 13 sacks through the first six outings of the season, which ranks fourth overall in the league behind Chattanooga (20), Furman (15), and Mercer (14),
The second level of the Catamount defense is headlined by Va Lealamatafao (26 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 FF) and Ed Jones IV (20 tackles, 1.0 sack, 1 INT, 1 PBU). Like Furman’s defense, the Catamounts have done a pretty good job of having good tackles distribution throughout their two-deep, especially within the linebacking ranks.
Western Carolina’s strength defensively, though, could very well be its secondary, which is blessed with plenty of speed and overall athleticism. In fact, three of the four leading tacklers for WCU this season hail from its talented secondary.
Leading the way is CJ Williams (27 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 4 PBUs), who like Furman’s Blackshear, is one of the very best corners in the Southern Conference. Andreas Keaton (27 tackles, 2 PBUs) is among the top safeties in FCS football.
All told, the Catamounts enter the clash of purple with the ranking just behind the Paladins at 69th in the nation in total defense (373.5 YPG).
Furman’s offense hasn’t had trouble moving the ball against the Catamounts, the Paladins have gained a total of 910 yards and scored 89 points. Additionally, the Paladins have rushed for 742 of those 910 yards in the past two matchups against Western Carolina, with running back Dominic Roberto (87 rush att, 394 yds, 6 TDs, 4.5 YPG) having rushed for 448 of those yards, including a 252-yard output last season for the third-most rushing yards in a single-game in program history.
Up until last week, Furman quarterback Tyler Huff (111-of-160 passing, 1,057 yds, 6 TDs, 4 INTs/391 rushing yards, 4 TDs) had been the Paladins’ leading rusher, however, with Roberto’s 128-yard rushing performance in last week’s win at Samford. Huff does all the little things to help get the Paladins over the finish line. He comes into Saturday’s contest with only one career loss against FCS competition, having dropped a contest against Incarnate Word (L, 38-41) in the FCS playoffs.
Huff doesn’t make many mistakes and he shows an uncanny cool under pressure. Furman’s offense is different than WCU’s. It doesn’t thrive on big chunk plays. It thrives on putting long, drawn out drives together with a physical ground game and timely passing attack.
The Paladins, however, do have big-play capability and speed within their ranks. At wide receiver, the game-breakers include Joshua Harris and Wayne Anderson Jr. (10 rec, 68 yds, 6.8 YPR/9 rush att, 50 yds, 1 TD, 5.6 YPC), while Ben Ferguson (15 rec, 219 yds, 1 TD, 14.6 YPR) has proven to have the best set of hands on the team. Six-foot-seven Mason Pline (10 rec, 71 yds, 1 TD, 7.1 YPR) can cause matchup problems at tight end with his size.
The one area that there are major similarities between Furman and Western Carolina is the two offensive lines are comparable. The Paladins are led along their offensive front by left tackle Pearson Toomey and right guard Jacob Johanning, while Fred Norman Jr. is the biggest offensive lineman (6-7, 342 lbs) at right guard, and has had a solid campaign in his first season with the Furman football program.
This game is a proving ground for both teams. If Western Carolina can clear this hurdle, its first Southern Conference football crown will be within the sight lines, and with the game being in Cullowhee, nothing has set up better in the program’s history to win a SoCon title. With that said, the Paladins are the team that was expected to win the title coming into the season, and now have seen all the picks in this game go against them, with media doubting they can keep up. I think Furman will lose this game in close fashion, but it won’t be because they can’t keep up, rather because WCU is at home and I think the Catamounts will play the better football game on both sides of the ball. I also don’t think this will be the lone meeting between these two teams this season, and I think if that is the case, whoever the winner is will have a tough time beating the other twice in a season. I think it’s time folks give WCU its due respect. I’ll take WCU here as they take a step closer to the SoCon title.
WCU 35, Furman 31
The Rest of This Weekend's SoCon Predictions
- Samford 35, VMI 21
- Mercer 31, Wofford 10
- Chattanooga 31, East Tennessee State 17