Friday, December 8, 2023

Defense on display when Furman visits Montana

Furman's Alex Maier (46) hauls in an interception as Hugh Ryan looks on in the
Paladins' 26-7 win over Chattanooga last Saturday. Photo courtesy of Furman

When Furman takes on Montana Friday night at 9 p.m. in a nationally televised FCS playoff quarterfinal, it will be just the second meeting between the two FCS traditional powers. The other came in the 2001 national championship game when the Grizzlies defeated the Paladins, 13-6, in Chattanooga.

There's not many 13-6 games these days, but based on both teams' defensive numbers this season a similar score Friday night on ESPN2 would not be all that shocking. Montana ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense, allowing 14.8 points per game, while Furman is seventh at 16.8 points allowed per game.

Both defenses have been especially stingy over the second half of the season. On Oct. 14, the Paladins won at Samford 27-21 while the Grizzlies won at Idaho 23-21. Since then, Montana's defense has allowed six touchdowns and 43 points over five games, while Furman's defense has given up six touchdowns and 54 points over six games.

"When I watch Montana, it's like I'm kind of looking at us. Just the way they're built and the way they play. I think we believe in a lot of the same things," Furman coach Clay Hendrix said during his weekly press conference Monday. "They're probably not as big, but a little more athletic up front offensively and defensively. I mean they've got the (defensive) player of the year as an interior defensive lineman (Alex Gubner) in the Big Sky.

"They're just big, strong and tough. You can just tell that's the way they play and that's how we try to play. In their home environment, they're that much tougher."

Turnovers and sacks have been keys to the Paladins' defensive success. After leading the country in takeaways last season, Furman leads the country in turnover margin this season with 26 forced turnovers and nine allowed. The Paladins' regular season school record of 36 sacks ranks sixth nationally.

While those two factors have been huge for Furman's defense, last week proved they aren't necessarily a must-have for defensive success. Last Saturday's 26-7 win over Chattanooga was the second time this season that the Paladins didn't record a sack. Last week's 2-1 edge in turnover margin wasn't that much of an advantage as Furman scored 10 points off its two interceptions and the Mocs' lone score came after its interception.

Following an 81-yard touchdown drive Chattanooga had on its opening drive, the Mocs were held to 119 yards the rest of the way. That included just 42 yards in the second half.

"We've really been good at rushing the passer and it's definitely helpful. Our reputation of getting to the quarterback only helps us in the back end," Furman safety Hugh Ryan said. "But I think we have shown we can be successful in a lot of different ways on defense."

The Paladins were a couple of dropped touchdown passes away from a really outstanding day offensively last week as well. In his first game back since a shoulder injury four weeks earlier at Chattanooga, Tyler Huff was unfazed by an interception on Furman's opening drive as completed 18-of-29 passes for 192 yards and rushed for 32 yards on seven carries.

That improved Huff's record to 18-1 as a starter against FCS competition. Montana is fully aware of what the SoCon coaches' Offensive Player of the Year brings to the table.

"Huff is the guy that makes them go. I just love that dude. He's a great player and competitor," Montana coach Bobby Hauck said during his weekly press conference. "He's a tough runner, a good thrower and a military guy. He's awesome."

Furman's defense will also have to contend with a dual-threat quarterback, which is something it really hasn't seen very much this season. Montana's Clifton McDowell, who's now at his fourth school, has thrown for 1,493 yards with 11 touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for 616 yards and eight scores this season. The Grizzlies are 8-0 since he took over as the starter.

In the backfield with McDowell is this year's Jerry Rice Award winner as the top freshman in the FCS in Eli Gillman. Gillman has rushed for 899 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The lone Friday game out of the four FCS quarterfinal games this weekend made for a short, busy week for Furman, which included final exams that began. On Thursday, the Paladins made the not quite five-hour flight to Missoula. Hendrix said he told the team it was basically the bus ride to Samford that it makes every other season.

Whether its the short week, long flight, cold weather, hostile environment or being a 17.5-point underdog, Hendrix is confident none of those things should affect his team.

"We have the chance to go play in one of the great venues in FCS football. I didn't have to look up Washington Grizzly Stadium. I knew about the place," Hendrix said. "It will be great, tough environment to go play against a really, really good team. ... We will have to play exceptionally well to have a chance. I'm not sure a lot of people give us a chance, but we're going to go anyway."

What makes Montana's home stadium one of the great venues is the raucous home crowds. Last week, 20,580 braved a snowstorm to watch the Grizzlies defeat Delaware 49-19. Every other home game this year, Montana has had an attendance of more than 25,000 fans. That's where the experience of playing in SEC and ACC stadiums can help Furman.

"The only way we can affect the crowd (noise) is to play well. ... We played at South Carolina in a sold-out stadium. That game was tied with 50 seconds left in the first half, so it wasn't like they (fans) weren't into the game. I thought we handled that incredibly well and it wasn't a factor in the game. What took us out of that game was a lack of execution," Hendrix said. "The weather isn't a concern. There's a reason why we have spring practice in February. Even in South Carolina, it can be pretty nasty out there in February.

"We've been working for a year to get in this position. If we let two-and-a-half hours of cold weather and crowd noise have that big of an effect on us, then we're not who I thought we were. ... At the end of the day, the biggest challenge is that team you're playing. They're a really good team with really good players who are well coached."

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