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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Paladins Wake Up the Echoes in Remarkable Win (Part 2)

No one expected the Furman Paladins to win the Southern Conference championship in 1978. As unlikely as their first championship was, lucky #13 that came against Wofford was on the verge of impossible, and certainly unimaginable to everyone outside of the Paladin locker room.

In fact, this SoCon title was as unexpected as anything since the 1988 National Championship--and that's not overstating the matter. That team was at least picked fourth in the conference, while this team was picked no higher than fifth (You know the policy on how these are counted--without AppSt and Georgia Southern).

Just consider for a moment that the 2013 Furman Paladins were a blocked field goal away from losing to Presbyterian and going 0-3 (all against the Big South) to start the season.

Some other obligations kept me away from the stadium that day, but I was following along (as usual) on my phone. My wife and I were sitting at a restaurant when PC went ahead 20-7, and I told her, "If they lose this game, they might not win a game this year".

How in the world could anyone dream that they would be sitting with her in a restaurant on Nov. 24, watching to see if Samford could pull of a win that would send this Furman team to the playoffs? Nor did I see this coming after a putrid performance at Chattanooga that spurred the locker room to decide it was time to start playing football.

That decision marks one of many turning points to this season. This team started the season with 45 freshman or redshirt freshman on the roster. On top of that, they had a rash of injuries that included every quarterback on the roster. At one point, the team turned to true freshman walk-on Duncan Fletcher, who was playing 1-A high school football in 2012. They had to move defensive back Richard Hayes III to the Wildcat QB, just to have someone else to run the offense if Fletcher went down.

It's hard to imagine how steady Bruce Fowler and his staff had to be to push this team through a rash of injuries, inexperience and adversity. But several great moments, even beyond that blocked field goal against PC, helped with that push. And none was greater than a play for the ages against Appalachian State.

App State has their wretched "Miracle on the Mountain", but Furman now has the "Pickoff at Paris Mountain". (Yes, I know that's some gosh-awful alliteration...better suggestions will be gladly accepted!).

Wilkins' INT was poetic justice in the final meeting with Appalachian State
Gary Wilkins' 98-yard interception return for a touchdown--complete with an Edwin Moses over Appalachian wide receiver Andrew Peacock, will go down as a season-changing play for the ages. Just as the Mountaineers were about to take the lead, Wilkins interception return put Furman ahead 13-3.

And they've never looked back. That oh-so-satisfying victory in the final game ever against the Mountaineers sent them back up to Boone with their tails between their legs and the Paladins on what might be the most unlikely run in their football history.

Starting with that game, the Paladin defense has produced 20 turnovers in their last seven contests. Their overall turnover ratio for those games is +13. Getting QB Reese Hannon healthy rejuvenated the passing attack and helped Furman take care of the football.

Signs that something special was on tap came the following week in Baton Rouge, when the Paladins played a stellar first half and only trailed #13 LSU 20-16 at half time. (Except for a bogus false start, the score would have been tied). After the confidence boost of that game, Furman reeled off four straight to earn its 13th conference title.

No team in the history of the Southern Conference--including the charter members or the more academically-challenged, ready-to-depart members--can match that total. No one. 13 is a record that looks to stand for quite some time. And along with that 13th SoCon title, we can also wave good-bye to some of the "Fire Bruce Fowler" talk. What he has accomplished with this team leaves no doubt about who the head coach needs to be.

Now, following a win against South Carolina State in their first playoff triumph since 2005, Furman travels to the "balmy" world of North Dakota to take on the number one team/program in the nation in the North Dakota State Bison.

It took some coaxing to get them out of the stands, but the Furman students finally embraced their football team.
This is the two-time defending national champion, a team that has defeated four straight FBS opponents. They're the only game in town in Fargo. They don't have to compete with a slew of other FCS or FBS opponents at their own back door. 

Stunningly, Saturday will provide the most significant challenge that this group of Paladins has faced. It's bigger than overcoming a 2-4 start and having to beat teams with a combined 9 national championships in the second half of the season. It's bigger than the 15 major surgeries to players throughout the season. It's bigger than having to win six of their last seven games just to get to this point. And it's bigger than beating South Carolina State for their first playoff win since 2005.

Yes, this game is about as huge as it can get at the FCS level.

And yet, it really doesn't matter whether or not this group of Paladins loses (no, I can't believe I'm saying that). As much as I despise the phrase, this team is playing with "house money". They've overcome so much just to be here that everything else is just icing on the cake. There are plenty of reasons to be proud, no matter the outcome in Fargo.

But I doubt seriously that these players are taking that perspective. They seem absolutely unfazed by any challenge that stands in their way. They've overcome every possible obstacle in the last seven games in order to be here, so who's to say they can't overcome the powerful Bison on Saturday? Or two additional obstacles on their way to Frisco, TX?

"Playing with House Money" is about the only way to put it for this particular team, as they have exceeded the expectations of just about everyone. They've played beyond imagination for seven straight weeks, and nothing is holding them back from laying it all on the line for at least one more.

They are probably playing a year ahead of schedule, and there is a lot of work to be done, particularly with an offense that should be far more prolific than it is. Yet, this team exudes a spirit and attitude that doesn't seem to give losing a second thought. They just go about their business and execute, with every belief that this will lead them to another "W".

Here's the thing:  No matter what happens on Saturday, this team has already established itself as something special, a team that knows how to far exceed expectation, baffle the experts, and beat the odds. There is no reason to think that they might not have a shot to do those things at least one more time.

But even if they don't, the 2013 Paladins have given Furman fans plenty of reason to believe again. They have restored the once-proud legacy that started in 1978. Here's to hoping they can keep it going for at least one more week.

And if we're lucky, maybe they'll keep it going all the way to January 4.

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