2013 NDSU/Furman Preview
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Coming off one of the most disappointing seasons in modern history, the 2010 North Dakota State football team won nine games (including two in the playoffs) with a simple formula: run the ball, play solid defense, and don’t make mistakes. It’s a formula that many teams stick to as the end-all formula for college football and the tenets that have won the Bison a pair of FCS National Championships since that 2010 season.
Bison fans will understand the success their first opponent in the 2013 FCS playoffs has had this season, then, as the Furman University Paladins have used a strikingly similar formula to earn the Southern Conference autobid and win their last six straight games against Football Championship Subdivision opponents. It’s a formula that has the Paladins leaving Greenville, S.C., with some fire in their eyes as they look to challenge the two-time defending national champion Bison.
Coming off a 30-20 win against South Carolina State, who won the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship this season and wowed the FCS world by racking up 62 sacks in the regular season, Furman began their 2013 campaign with a lackluster start. Starting out the year 2-4, with just one of those losses coming from a playoff team, the Paladins then rallied to win five of their final six games. The lone loss came by way of nationally-ranked Louisiana State, and the Paladins have been red-hot since.
The Paladins won those games with a balanced offense that totaled just shy of 2,000 rushing yards on the season but actually eclipsed that number in passing yards despite rushing 479 times and attempting only 307 passes. That fits the schematic of a team that looks to run the ball first, and with junior Hank McCloud leading the way as the team’s main ball carrier with 211 rushes on the year; his nearest competitor has just 53. McCloud, though, was injured in the game against S.C. State and is considered questionable for Saturday’s game.
The Furman rushing attack is likely look to sophomore Tanner Skogen, who led the way with 116 yards on the ground versus that stout SCSU defense. Interestingly, Skogen had just 19 rushing attempts on the season prior to last week’s game, but was the featured rusher versus SCSU. One of Skogen’s key plays of the season came when he broke off a 53-yard run versus SCSU, setting Furman up inside the opposing 10-yard line and eventually leading to a 1-yard touchdown dive by quarterback Reese Hannon.
Speaking of Hannon, part of the reason for the Paladins’ struggles to win early in the season came due to the lack of their sophomore signal-caller Reese Hannon, who sat out the season opener against Gardner-Webb and was later out with foot and knee injuries against Appalachian State and Chattanooga, who were the only two Southern Conference teams to beat Furman. With Hannon back, the Paladins were able to pull off a stunning five straight FCS victories when their season more or less hung on every win – especially in a year when 12 games were allowed to be played, and the Paladins wrested the conference autobid from a game Chattanooga squad.
Hannon’s numbers aren’t flashy: 152 yards per game through the air, 59-percent pass completion, seven touchdowns and four interceptions. He has garnered a 123.1 passer rating, though, and this depicts him as the steady hand guiding the Furman offense down the field, setting up the big play for his running game and keeping the offense on the field – the Paladins average a push at 30 minutes per game in time in possession, impressive considering their first six games had them as 33-27 underdogs in TOP per game.
The story of the Paladins’ offense, though, can’t be told without mentioning Dakota Dozier, a senior offensive lineman who has earned accolades as one of the best blockers in the league. Dozier rarely lines up in the same spot in a game; rather, the coaching staff seems to move him around and run the ball behind him, letting his 6-foot-5-inch, 303-pound frame clear the way. Consequently, Furman averages 4-1 yards per rushing attempt: not a number that will blow you away, but the variable in the Paladins’ game formula that speaks of steady offense that will try and grind the game out, particularly against a very talented North Dakota State defense.
Dozier has earned his respect nationwide, too, being named an all-conference player three years in a row and getting looks from numerous NFL scouts who tout him as one of the best lineman not just in the FCS, but in the entirety of college football. Dozier’s pro prospects have some comparing him to a player NDSU fans may be familiar with: former University of South Dakota offensive lineman Tom Compton, a sixth-round pick in 2012. Dozier is expected to go considerably higher when draft season comes around. In the meantime, though, he’ll have one of the FCS’s best defensive lines to demonstrate his talents against.
Defensively, no single stat jumps out as overwhelming on the Paladins’ box scores. Furman clocks in at 72nd in the FCS in total defense, giving up nearly 400 yards per game, and allow 23.2 points per contest, good for 36th nationally. These numbers do include playing a few offenses that are traditionally considered “high-octane,” particularly against LSU and former Bison opponents Georgia Southern and Wofford. The Paladins gave up 48, 14, and 14 points, respectively, to those teams, and also defeated traditional power Appalchian State 27-10, although 2013 could hardly be called a banner year for the Mountaineers.
Perhaps the single stat to look at when pondering Furman’s chances in Fargo on Saturday is the team’s turnover margin. The Paladins have turned the ball over 16 times this season (seven fumbles and nine interceptions, four by Hannon) and have forced 29 turnovers against opponents this year. This leaves Furman at +13 in turnovers on the season, good for seventh nationally in that category, and sums up the formula for their team: minimize mistakes and capitalize on those of the other team. Interestingly, this is one of the few areas where Furman is better statistically than NDSU; the Bison actually sit at -1 on turnovers for the year, and this will doubtless be a major factor to keep an eye on when Saturday’s game kicks off. Both teams excel at making opponents pay for their mistakes, and if Furman hopes to spring the upset, it will need to come by way of Bison giveaways.
Ultimately, the Furman Paladins have won their games by being the disciplined team. They employ a style of play NDSU knows well, and perhaps more importantly they have won every game they have needed to since October 19th, essentially playing the entire second half of their season in a “lose and it’s over” mode that has galvanized a team with an unreal 64 underclassmen into a band of brothers that faced their quandary and emerged as the cream of the SoCon crop.
The Bison, though, aren’t to be trifled with. The running game of Furman is one that plays directly into the hands of the FCS’s second-best run defense, and if the Bison can force Hannon into throwing into the waiting hands of Marcus Williams or C.J. Smith, then this game has the makings of a victory for North Dakota State.
The key matchup of the game will be the Bison defensive ends, the talented duo of senior Cole Jirik and junior Kyle Emanuel, facing off against Dozier. If the ends can bottle up the outside run for Furman and force runs up the middle to be gobbled up by talented linebackers Travis Beck and Carlton Littlejohn, then the Bison could separate themselves early and it’s unlikely that the steady offense of Furman could accelerate into the necessary throttle needed to keep up with the Missouri Valley’s most effective offense. In the end, the Bison will prove to be too much for Furman and end the Paladins’ remarkable 2013 season by a score of 34-20.