PALMETTO STATE PLAYOFF TEAMS
Furman (8-5) at No. 1 North Dakota State (11-0)
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Fargodome, Fargo, N.D.
Coastal Carolina (11-2) at No. 8 Montana (10-2)
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Washington-Grizzly Stadium, Missoula, Montana
Furman defensive back Jairus Hollman had a simple explanation for his 90-yard punt return for a touchdown in last week’s playoff win at South Carolina State.
“I just caught it and ran with it,” the sophomore from Atlanta said after the Paladins’ 30-20 victory pushed Furman to the second round of the FCS playoffs, where they will play at top-seeded North Dakota State on Saturday.
Paladins coach Bruce Fowler doesn’t have much more of an explanation for the many happy returns that have fueled Furman’s mid-season turnaround from a 2-4 record to the last Southern Conference team standing.
Furman (8-5) has returned a school-record four interceptions for touchdowns this season, all of them as the Paladins have compiled a 6-1 mark over the last seven games. Along with Hollman’s punt return against S.C. State, that’s five returns for touchdowns over the last seven games.
The pick-six list:
Hollman also ran an interception back 34 yards for a TD against S.C. State, giving Furman a 27-13 lead in the third quarter.
Marcus McMorris took a pick back 89 yards for the clinching score in a 35-17 win at Samford.
Defensive end Gary Wilkins rumbled 98 yards for a TD with an interception in the second quarter at Appalachian State, setting the tone for a 27-10 victory.
And in a 48-16 loss at LSU, a 74-yard interception return by Reggie Thomas gave the Paladins a brief 7-0 lead.
“Interceptions are a hard thing to put your finger on,” said Fowler, who has been defensive coordinator at Furman and Vanderbilt. “But we’ve played well in coverage, and do a good job of reading our keys. Sometimes it’s good fortune when you catch a ball in some open spaces; a couple of times we’ve made good runs after the catch. But we play pretty aggressively and have done a good job making a play on the ball.”
Furman’s secondary, coached by Mark Moehring and Antonio Goss, is one area of the team that has remained relatively healthy and has some experience in senior safety Greg Worthy and senior cornerback Austin Williams. Freshman Trey Robinson has cracked the starting lineup at free safety and picked off a pass against Samford.
Picked to finish seventh in the SoCon, Furman is not going to intimidate two-time national champ North Dakota State (11-0) with statistics. The Paladins were last in total offense and sixth in total defense in the SoCon this season.
But the Paladins have shown a knack for making plays and for creating turnovers. Running back Tannker Skogen has thrown two TD passes, of 46 and 75 yards, in recent wins; All-SoCon kicker Ray Early had six field goals at Western Carolina; and the Paladins are +13 in turnover margin over the last seven games.
“There’s not one thing to point at, we’re not spectacular in any statistics,” Fowler said. “But we’ve got a good team right now that plays well together.”