Usually heated rivalries on fall Saturdays have little in common with a holiday associated with hauntings and the annual trick or treaters that dress up in either scary costumes or hero's armour on a night of friendly fright.
However, when Furman takes the gridiron against Appalachian State on Saturday, there’s no such thing as "friendly" and the frights and haunts have been very real.
Time machines haven’t been invented yet, however, fortunately we’ve had scribes, and now journalists chronicle historical events from the Holy Bible to a modern-day tabloid, capturing mysterious hauntings and demons that were cast out of human beings by God himself.
One very real haunting occurred on Oct. 12, 2002, when the Paladins traveled to Boone, N.C., trying to keep pace with Georgia Southern in the league’s championship race and defending a co-league crown with the Eagles a year prior. In fact, the 2001 season saw the Paladins finish as national runners-up (13-6 loss to Montana in the 2001 National Title).
For Furman, it was trying to do two things that some would term mutually-exclusive—keep things the same while undergoing a season that saw some massive overhauls from that team that ended Georgia Southern’s 39-game playoff winning streak at Paulson Stadium and ended the Eagles’ "Golden Age" during the Paul Johnson era.
There was a new regime to try and keep a tradition of decades of SoCon dominance, while offering optimism and change in the wake of a major overhaul within the coaching staff, led by one of the school’s best quarterbacks and longtime offensive coordinator, Bobby Lamb. Lamb was replacing what is considered one of Furman’s "Mount Rushmore" of coaches, compiling 60 wins in his eight seasons at the helm.
Lamb took the reins and all was well, seemingly when the Paladins visited Boone on that sunny, cool Saturday afternoon with Lamb’s only hiccup as head coach coming against his former mentor and boss—a 49-18 loss to Vanderbilt in Lamb’s debut as head coach.
At 4-1 overall and 2-1 in league play, things seemed far from following a storyline of a Stephen King novel. With Bob Rathbun on-hand providing the regional broadcast for Fox Sports South and a crowd of over 15,000 on-hand at Kidd Brewer Stadium, three quarters of a lackluster defensive slugfest gave way to a fourth quarter of fireworks and miracles for Appalachian and a haunting that Lamb and the Furman program endure to this day.
So, how quick does it take a person to go from hero to goat? No one can be exactly sure, but on that afternoon, it took no time at all for Furman, on a play that was appropriately and officially referred to as a "dead" play. Lamb went from brilliant offensive schemer to "bone-headed coach," as some pundits found humor in calling him. Lamb, despite that play, outlasted the ESPN college football analyst that was, apparently, another legend in his own mind.
Furman senior quarterback and current Clemson offensive coordinator Billy Napier hit Bear Rinehart on a 12-yard slant route with 7.4 seconds remaining to take a 16-15 lead and apparently seal a thrilling win for a team that was ironically referred to as the "Death Dealers" in the mid-1980s to early 1990s.
However, instead of lining up for an extra point, they decided to lineup for a two-point conversion that would’ve made the score 18-15. The mysterious events that followed, from who called the play to whether the play was changed remains just that—a mystery.
On what was originally a quarterback keeper for Napier, instructed to try and score but go out of bounds at all costs, somehow turned into a slip screen play intended for Isaac West. This new play turned into an interception by defensive end Josh Jeffries at the four-yard line, who lateraled the ball to the much fleeter cornerback, Derrick Black, who went the final 74 yards for the two points and a 16-15 lead.
Furman had to attempt an on-side kick; since the score came after the run back, it was a point-after Furman touchdown, or dead play. The Apps rushed the field, tore down the goal posts, and dog-piled Black in the end zone to complete the "Miracle On The Mountain," as it's called by Appalachian State fans.
Meanwhile, the Paladins made their way through the melee, having to have been assuredly shocked by the harrowing events.
The nightmare was real and Bobby was the "sacrificial" Lamb . But the mettle of a man is often revealed in times of triumph and, more often, times of dejection. However, this was a different kind of defeat—one that would cause unfair judgements for a first-year coach and unwarranted comments from what was suddenly a passionate Furman fanbase.
To Lamb’s credit and an example of the type of integrity instilled by predecessors such as Johnson, Jimmy Satterfield, and Dick Sheridan, Lamb stood outside Furman’s locker room, alongside his senior signal-caller, Billy Napier, and fielded questions for 45 minutes.
It is not a common thing, especially for a first-year head coach, to encounter such an uncanny, detrimental event and then respectfully not only field questions about the nightmare, but take full responsibility, despite the original play call, which called for a run.
Since then, despite 60 wins as a head coach (tied with Bobby Johnson for all-time wins in as many seasons), Lamb’s career has been most-remembered for the play by Furman’s most fervent followers. Exorcising the demon has plagued him for his entire career, especially when facing Moore in the Mountaineers.
Since that forgettable inaugural meeting with Moore and the Mountaineers, the uniqueness and peculiarity of that ending have given Lamb added pressure each October when the Paladins and the Mountaineers meet in their annual battle. The Paladins have lost six of seven meetings to the Apps.
To make matters worse, it almost appears as if the terrible turn of events that cool October afternoon harvested a curse as Lamb’s series continued against the Mountaineers. The losses Lamb and his Paladins had to endure were the kind of mental torture akin to the physical torture those endured in the Dark Ages.
For Furman, that dark day is appropriately dubbed "Black Saturday," and now every year the Paladins play in Boone is known by that name. The real weird thing about Black Saturday is the fact that it was the revival of a tradition started in the late 1980s during the Sparky Woods era, but ended at the beginning of the Jerry Moore regime.
Making matters worse, in those seven meetings, the average victory from 2002-2005 (five meetings, played twice in 2005), was decided by a combined 14 points, an average of a field goal. Furman’s only win in those five meetings was a 34-31 victory in 2004, when Ingle Martin led the Paladins on an impressive game-winning drive, aided by a couple of crucial Mountaineer infractions.
However, the glimmer and shine of that victory would last a little over two months, when the Mountaineers and Paladins squared off again—this time in the FCS semifinals and in a packed house on a chilly December afternoon in Boone. In a game that arguably could have been more painstaking than the 2002 debacle due to the magnitude, the winner had a chance for hardware and the loser called it a season.
Furman took control the rest of the half behind a punishing ground game and Martin’s play-action passing to build a 23-21 halftime lead. Jerome Felton ran for 105 yards and scored two touchdowns. Martin was 17-of-28 passing for 238 yards and rushed eight times for 49 yards, helping the Paladins pile up 507 yards of offense.
The crucial play in the contest came in the third quarter and with Furman having the opportunity to take a two-score advantage, up 23-21, on a third-and-goal play from the five. Furman quarterback Ingle Martin appeared to have a clear route to the end zone on a naked bootleg, however, he slipped on a patch of ice at the three, without a Mountaineer defender within three yards of him.
On the next play, the Paladins decided to go for the TD, instead of calling upon a shaky Scott Beckler to attempt the short field goal, and Jerome Felton was stopped in the backfield for a loss by Pierre Banks and Jason Hunter. That provided the spark the Mountaineers needed, and they ultimately won the school’s first national title in any sport other than cheerleading.
In 2004, Richie Williams had a career day, completing a then NCAA record 28-straight passes, including going an amazing 40-of-45 passing, leading the Mountaineers to an amazing 30-29, come-from-behind win in another classic. Williams’ best effort was saved for the final drive, when he connected on 4-of-4 passes for 61 yards and ran for 17 more, which included a 13-yard score with 35 seconds remaining, leading the Apps to the win and another ominous end for the second-ranked Paladins.
In the meeting between the two foes in 2003, the Mountaineers came to Greenville, having gotten off to a 2-3 start and facing what seemed to be a daunting task, facing a Furman team that was ranked fifth in the nation. But defensive end K.T. Stovall had one of the best days in the history of ASU’s strong tradition of talented bookends. Stovall paced a strong defensive effort with nine tackles, three sacks, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery to lift Appalachian State to a 13-10 win, and garner National Defensive Player of the Week honors by the Sports Network.
Fast-forward to the 2009 season and the Paladin faithful have again become restless, as some of the firestorm and old demons have been conjured once again with Furman’s 4-3 (3-2 in SoCon) start to what seemed to be a promising 2009 season.
However, with Halloween often referred to as the "witches holiday," Furman’s season may have reached the "witching hour" last Saturday in the Port City of Charleston, S.C., as the Paladins’ defense looked bewitched all afternoon against The Citadel’s spread offense, led admirably by redshirt freshman Miguel Starks in his first career start.
With the Bulldogs’ 38-28 win on Parents' Day in Johnson-Hagood Stadium, Furman now must win out against a schedule that not only includes Appalachian State, but one that also includes a Nov. 7 showdown with Auburn and a trip to Georgia Southern on Nov.14.
The Paladins’ defense was gashed for 479 yards (a season-high 296 yards yielded on the ground), including a memorable performance for Starks, who totaled 327 total offensive yards (144 yards rushing, 183 passing, 1 TD) and five TD responsibilities (four rushing, two passing), without throwing an interception. Starks sliced and cut the Furman defense like any great slasher film last Saturday.
After Appalachian State came within one yard of tying a school mark for total offense (712 yards) last Saturday in a 52-16 win over Georgia Southern, many feel the game this weekend could be another gorey scene, if the Furman defense that showed up against the Citadel’s spread arrives against an Appalachian State spread attack buoyed by one of only two QBs in the history of Division I football to pass for 8,000 yards and rush for 4,000 yards.
Appalachian State’s defense can relate to what Lamb and the Furman defense have experienced on six of seven Saturdays this season. After all, earlier this season, McNeese State demonized the Mountaineer defense for 522 yards in a 40-35 win in Boone, sending the Apps to a nightmarish 0-2, putting championship hopes, at least for the time being, temporarily on hold.
But like any great championship program that has a swagger, there is one common thread that is woven within the team through experiences: the ability to exorcise its own demons by faith. On Saturday, when the Devil, in the form of Georgia Southern, went up to Boone, they found out just how powerful that faith and past triumphs could be.
Challenged by its coaches earlier in the week, the Mountaineers made it the blackest of Saturdays for Georgia Southern, holding the Eagles to just 171 yards of total offense in arguably the Black and Gold’s most complete defensive performance of the campaign.
One thing this Halloween should promise: another classic. Whether Lamb will experience the demons he has in all but one of the meetings will be known a little after 6pm on Saturday evening, but if the Furman defense comes dressed as a magician and performs another disappearing act, the Paladins' end could be quick and painlesss in 2009. If the one that held the nation’s top offense, Elon, to 19 points four weeks ago shows up, then Lamb may have a chance to quiet some pretty ignorant critics.
The hour is approaching. Expect a few tricks and one heck of a treat on Saturday in Greenville on Saturday and two quality coaches and programs to provide another thriller worthy of its hallowed past.