Date: Friday, December 8th
Time: 9:00 PM (ET)
The Quick Hits
Montana (11-1) seems to be on the fast track to its first semifinal appearance since 2009 but the Big Sky champs will need to handle business against Furman (10-2) before that can happen. Aided with homefield advantage the Grizzlies are fresh off a beatdown over Delaware last weekend and are one of the hottest teams left standing. UM will again be in its element under the lights and backed by an electric crowd at Washington-Grizzly Stadium meaning that they should be the favorites once again in this primetime showdown.
The Paladins, though, come in with a sense of newfound life. After dropping the regular season finale in a bad way to a really bad Wofford squad, Furman got back on the right track last weekend, defeating Chattanooga at home. Being on the road this time around will pose a great challenge but with several key pieces back in the lineup the SoCon's top dog likely won't be a pushover. The Paladins are playing in their first quarterfinals in 18 years and they aren't ready for the ride to end just yet.
The Grizzlies have one of the best guys you can have behind the headset with a ton of experience. Bobby Hauck is the winningest coach in Big Sky history as of this year and is in his 13th season with the program (second stint). Hauck was the one that got the Griz to the big game in 2008 and 2009 but he has yet to win it. He was named this season's conference coach of the year and is a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award. Hauck has won 16 playoff games in his time with UM.
Seventh-year coach Clay Hendrix will be across from Hauck, leading the Paladins into their seventh postseason game since he's been there. He is a Furman alum, playing offensive line for the program from 1982 to 1985 then serving as an assistant on the team's staff for 19 years. He took over as head man in 2017. With an overall record of 51-28 since taking the reins, Hendrix has two SoCon titles under his belt. He is also a current finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award alongside Hauck.
Montana Offense vs Furman Defense
Montana has gotten to where they are thanks to the play of signal-caller Clifton McDowell. The senior transferred in from Central Arkansas and was named the starter after the team's lone loss back in Week 4. McDowell has provided UM a spark it hasn't seen in quite some time under center, throwing for 1,493 yards and 11 touchdowns. He's also run for 616 yards and eight scores. McDowell is excellent at keeping plays alive and extending opportunities for his targets. Furman's defensive line will need to finish the job on every snap or McDowell will make them pay.
That being said, the Paladins are really good at getting to the quarterback. Furman's defense has posted 36 sacks this year and half of those have come from their linebacking corps. Luke Clark and Evan DiMaggio are tackling machines, combining for 112 stops and nine QB takedowns this year. Senior backer Braden Gilby leads the team with 81 tackles as well.
Montana’s offensive line will have its work cut out for it. Keeping McDowell upright and opening holes for the likes of Eli Gillman and Nick Ostmo will be crucial. The Grizzlies running back duo has accounted for 18 of the team’s 29 rushing TDs this fall and has racked up a combined 1,474 yards on the ground. Their ability to navigate the stout Paladins defensive pursuit will go a long way in deciding the outcome.
On the outside there will be another key battle. Furman will field a ball-hawking secondary with guys like cornerbacks Cally Chizik and Travis Blackshear. Chizik has picked off opposing passers five times this year while Blackshear has done so four. The pair has knocked away 11 passes as well. They are two of the best in the country at reading opposing passers and locking down wideouts.
They'll see receivers Junior Bergen, Keelan White and Aaron Fontes. Bergen, who is also a return ace for Montana, leads the squad with 663 receiving yards but White is right behind him with 648. Fontes has a team-high five touchdowns to boot. McDowell will spread the ball around pretty evenly to these three.
Furman Offense vs Montana Defense
The Paladins recently received a huge boost to their offense when both starting quarterback Tyler Huff and running back Dominic Roberto returned from injury. It made a big difference in their win last week. Roberto was on pace to be among the FCS' best running backs from a yardage perspective until he got hurt. Last week against the Mocs he looked like his old self, rushing for two touchdowns.
Huff was sidelined for a few games with a shoulder injury but was also back in fine form a week ago. He threw for 192 yards on 18 completed passes in the win. On the year, Huff has thrown for 1,675 yards and nine scores. He, like his counterpart McDowell, will spread the ball around to a myriad of targets.
Montana's linebackers will need to be prepared for both a heavy dose of Roberto but also a fair amount of passing from Huff. Senior Braxton Hill will play a major role here. Hill has a whopping 96 tackles this year but also knows how to get his arms up in the passing game. He has picked off two throws and knocked down three more. He's an All-American talent that is a quarterback's nightmare over the middle.
The back end for UM is no joke either. Safety Nash Fouch and corner Corbin Walker each have five PBUs this year while Trevin Gradney has a team-best five interceptions. Picks are something Huff has struggled with periodically throughout this season and if he isn't careful any of these guys can take it away from him.
The Special Teams
When it comes to special teams, that's where Montana's bread is buttered. The previously mentioned Bergen is very dangerous in the return game. He has a punt return touchdown this year and averages well over 13 yards per runback. On kickoffs this year he has 248 total return yards on 11 tries.
The Griz also have one of the more accurate kickers in the country. Nico Ramos has not missed a field goal this season (7-of-7) and is 22-of-24 on his PATs. His career long field goal came from 43.
On the other side, Furman will go with Ian Williams for kicks. Williams has missed six field goals this year but was a perfect 4-of-4 against Chattanooga last weekend. Williams has not missed a PAT this season.
Wayne Anderson Jr. will field kickoffs and likely punts for the Paladins. Anderson averages over 25 yards per kick return and has 361 yards on his runbacks. Joshua Harris will take the punt returns, of which he has 16 on the year for 115 yards. Both Harris and Anderson are still looking for their first house call.
Furman is going to come into this game fired up and maybe they even take an early lead. But, as Delaware quarterback Ryan O’Connor admitted in his post-game presser last week, Washington-Grizzly is not an easy place to play. The atmosphere, especially on a Friday night standalone playoff game, is going to get to be too much for Furman late. McDowell is going to do what he's done all season and make some dynamite throws. Gillman and Ostmo are going to wear out the Paladins defensive front and the Griz will pour it on down the stretch.
Score Prediction: Montana: 38 - Furman: 20