published Saturday, December 7th, 2013

Lone SoCon survivor Furman has rugged task

FCS playoffs second round

Today

Fordham at No. 7 Towson, 1 p.m.

Coastal Carolina at No. 8 Montana, 2 p.m.

New Hampshire at No. 5 Maine, 2 p.m.

Tennessee State at No. 2 Eastern Illinois, 2 p.m.

Furman at No. 1 North Dakota State, 3:30 p.m.

South Dakota State at No. 3 Eastern Washington, 4 p.m.

Jacksonville State at No. 6 McNeese State, 7 p.m.

Sam Houston State at No. 4 Southeastern Louisiana, 8 p.m.

Seven weeks ago Furman was the outsider, the long shot.

While the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Samford and Wofford appeared in mid-October to be the front-runners for the Southern Conference football championship, the Paladins still had a mathematical shot of sharing the title. They had to win out to get there.

Now, with six wins in its last seven games -- the lone loss to the LSU Tigers -- Furman (8-5) is the only SoCon team still playing. The Paladins are in Fargo, N.D., today to face top-seeded two-time defending national champion North Dakota State (12-0) in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

"Early in the season we faced a lot of adversity and a lot of things didn't go our way, but we didn't let that stop us," said quarterback Reese Hannon, who missed several games with a knee injury, including UTC's 31-9 win on Oct. 12. "We kept coming every day and were willing to fight and get better. Every day we've gotten better, and you can tell on Saturdays."

Since the Mocs beat Furman, dropping the Paladins to 2-4 overall and 1-2 in the SoCon, every game has been a playoff game, Hannon said.

"It would have been really easy to fold," he said. "And that's what I love about this team. There's no fold in this team."

Furman and Samford shared the SoCon title with UTC, but only the Paladins and Bulldogs made the 24-team playoff field. At 7-5, Furman, which earned the automatic bid via tiebreakers, had the second-worst record of any team in the field. Only Patriot League automatic qualifier Lafayette, at 5-6, had more losses.

The Paladins went on the road last week in the first round and beat South Carolina State 30-20. Furman defensive back Jairus Hollman returned a punt 91 yards for a touchdown -- the longest return in school history -- and scored on a 34-yard interception return. It was Furman's first playoff win since 2005.

"I was talking to [Furman coach] Bruce Fowler on the field before the game and he said it's a cliche, but all you can do is win the game you've got in front of you," SoCon commissioner John Iamarino said. "On paper they may not be the most impressive team you've ever seen, but they are really playing well together and they are extremely opportunistic."

Furman has returned a record four interceptions for touchdowns this season. The Paladins will need more of that today, and likely a few more things to go their way, against a North Dakota State team that has been called the Alabama of the FCS.

The Bison have a 20-game win streak and are going for a third straight FCS title, which would match Appalachian State's record-setting run of three in a row from 2005 to '07.

"They've won 39 out of their last 41 games, and they've won two national championships and 11 straight games this year," Fowler said. "It's not by accident, obviously."

The Bison are familiar with SoCon squads. They defeated Wofford (14-7) and Georgia Southern (23-20) in the playoffs last season.

Contact John Frierson at jfrierson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.

about John Frierson...

John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...

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