When South Carolina State and Furman combined to go 0-4 during the first two weeks of the football season, the FCS playoffs seemed but a distant fantasy.
Who: Furman (7-5) at South Carolina State (9-3)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Dawson Stadium, Orangeburg
After all, S.C. State at that point had lost nine of its last 14 games dating back to last season. And the Paladins at midseason were 2-4 and barely hanging on in the Southern Conference, where they were picked to finish seventh.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
Opp. Result Record
at Gardner-Webb Lost, 28-21 0-1
at Coastal Carolina Lost, 35-28 0-2
Presbyterian Won, 21-20 1-2
at The Citadel Won, 24-17 2-2
Elon Lost, 28-25 2-3
at Chattanooga Lost, 31-9 2-4
App State Won, 27-10 3-4
at LSU Lost, 48-16 3-5
at Ga. Southern W, 16-14 4-5
Samford Won, 35-17 5-5
at Western Carolina Won, 32-20 6-5
Wofford Won, 27-14 7-5
South Carolina State (9-3)
Coastal Carolina Lost, 27-20 0-1
at Clemson Lost, 52-13 0-2
Alabama A&M Won, 32-0 1-2
Benedict Won, 59-6 2-2
Hampton Won, 30-6 3-2
N.C. A&T Won, 29-24 4-2
at N.C. Central Won, 44-3 5-2
at B-Cookman Lost, 14-3 5-3
at Savannah State Won, 45-9 6-3
Florida A&M Won, 25-21 7-3
Morgan State Won, 38-3 8-3
at Norfolk State Won, 17-3 9-3
But thanks to remarkable turnaround jobs pulled off by S.C. State coach Buddy Pough and Furman’s Bruce Fowler, the Bulldogs and Paladins meet Saturday in Orangeburg in one of most unlikely pairings in the 24-team FCS bracket.
S.C. State (9-3), hosting a playoff game for the first time, rallied from its 0-2 start, and from last year’s 5-6 disappointment, by riding a salty defense to nine wins in its last 10 games. The Bulldogs earned a share of the Mid-American Athletic Conference title and an at-large bid to the playoffs.
Furman (7-5) finally got healthy at quarterback and cashed in on an opportunistic defense down the stretch to win five straight Southern Conference games, claiming a share of the SoCon title and an automatic bid to the playoffs. It will be Furman’s first playoff appearance since 2006; the Paladins won a national championship in 1988.
Both coaches credit staff and players for hanging in through the tough times.
“It means a bunch,” said Pough, who is 97-42 in 12 seasons at S.C. State. “It’s a big turnaround from where were last year to where we are now. I’ve got to give credit to the staff and kids and the university as a whole, as we go about retooling ourselves to be what S.C. State is expected to be.
“We’ve changed a lot of things around here to get better, and some of them have worked out.”
S.C. State’s defense, led by coordinator Mike Adams, ranks first in the MEAC in scoring defense (14 ppg) and total defense (234 ypg). And that includes a 52-13 loss at Clemson in the second week of the season.
Senior linebacker Joe Thomas leads the defense with 116 tackles (19 for loss), and the Bulldogs have racked up 62 sacks this season. Junior linebacker Andrew Carter has 9.5 sacks and junior defensive end Alex Glover 11.
“We’ve had a tremendous year defensively, and those guys have been a lot of fun even for me to watch on Saturdays,” Pough said.
The Bulldogs are balanced offensively, with senior quarterback Richard Cue, tailback Justin Taylor and receiver Tyler McDonald, a senior from Summerville High School. Former Citadel assistant Danny Lewis is the Bulldogs’ quarterback coach and recruiting coordinator.
McDonald, 6-3 and 190 pounds, has 46 catches for 894 yards and seven touchdowns, and a chance to play pro football.
“Tyler has had an exceptional year with all the records he’s broken,” Pough said. “I look forward to seeing if he can play at the next level, because I think he will have a chance.”
Furman’s turnaround hinged on the health of sophomore quarterback Reese Hannon, who missed 31/2 games early in the season with a various injuries. In nine games, Hannon has completed 60.9 percent of his passes for 1,456 yards and six touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Coupled with tailback Hank McCloud’s 1,020 rushing yards, the Paladins also have a balanced offense. But Furman’s key to success has been turnover margin: In the Paladins’ five straight SoCon wins, they collected 14 turnovers and committed just five, a margin of +9.
Furman has gone from worst to first in turnover margin in the SoCon, from -7 last season to +13 this season.
“We went through really rough stretch there,” said Fowler, a 1981 Furman grad who is now 16-18 in three seasons at his alma mater. “But we stuck together pretty well and started making some plays here and there. We’ve played well in patches, and when adversity or tough times hit, we’ve responded well.”
Furman and S.C. State have not met since 1998, and the Paladins lead the overall series by 10-4. The teams’ first met in 1982, Furman’s first playoff appearance, and the Bulldogs won by 17-0. The two teams will resume their regular-season rivalry in 2014 when Furman returns to Orangeburg. S.C. State will go to Greenville in 2015.
The prize for the S.C. State-Furman winner? A trip to Fargo, N.D., to face the top-seeded and 11-0 North Dakota State Bison. The good news? At least the Bison play indoors, at the 19,000-seat Fargodome.