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Just like old times: No. 2 Montana, No. 7 Furman ready for high-stakes clash in FCS quarterfinals

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Posted at 8:08 PM, Dec 07, 2023

MISSOULA — There are only eight teams left in this year's FCS playoff field. And two of them will clash at Washington-Grizzly Stadium on Friday night as the No. 2 Montana Grizzlies (11-1) get set to welcome the No. 7 Furman Paladins (10-2) to Missoula.

It's a rematch of that 2001 national championship between these two programs with a trip to the semifinal round on the line. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Friday's quarterfinal matchup will be hosted in Missoula for the first time since 2011. That 2011 game was later vacated by the NCAA, making 2009 the last time for a non-vacated hosted quarterfinal.

Home-field advantage cannot be overstated in the FCS playoffs, and after a 30-point win over Delaware last weekend, Montana is hoping to use the crowd to its advantage as it welcomes Furman to town, a team with similar features to Montana.

"Yeah, you know, when the energy is high in the stadium, it can get chaotic," senior running back Nick Ostmo said. "And I know that helps the defense a lot. And it's pretty exciting to have that crowd roar."

"It's awesome. Going out there every Saturday to Wa-Griz is really special," junior defensive end Hayden Harris added. "And going forward in the playoffs and this game on (Friday), the crowd is going to have a really big deal as they recon the sideline a lot. So we're gonna be relying on them to make some noise and we're gonna really feed off that energy."

The teams rank nearly identical in total defense — Montana is No. 18 and Furman is No. 19 — but the Paladins own the best turnover margin in the nation at +17 with with 17 interceptions and nine fumble recoveries on the year, as they sport a number of all-conference performers on that side of the ball.

"I think it probably stems from how veteran they are in there," UM head coach Bobby Hauck said. "They're certainly well coached, everybody fits together. They've all played a lot of football. They all understand how they fit the formations and the schemes, whether it's their coverages matching up with with your formations and route concepts, they match them up both in zone and man. The run fits, they match up really well. But it seems to me that their players have a great understanding what they're trying to do on defense."

Offensively, Furman recently got quarterback Tyler Huff and running back Dominic Roberto back from injury to help lead the Paladins to their second-round win over Chattanooga.

Huff was named the Southern Conference offensive player of the year. Behind an offensive line with three all-league honorees, the offense runs through Huff as the Paladins have won 10 games this season.

"I can tell he's a competitive guy," said Hauck, who raved about Huff in his press conference on Monday. "Talking to people who have played against him, they say exactly that. He's really a well-rounded player. He's a tough runner. He's an accurate thrower. And he'll fight for yards and first downs and appears to me on film he'll do anything you can do to win."

Montana put up a season-high 49 points last week against Delaware to advance.

The defense locked down the Blue Hens in the snow, and UM's offense has fully found a rhythm. Despite an early interception, that unit still started fast and will look to keep that momentum going as it takes on Furman's strength.

"Just trusting each other, just doing your 1/11th," Ostmo said. "And for us, it's just like putting the ball in the right spot and trusting that the O-linemen are going to open up holes and just getting out and doing your job, breaking tackles when you can, and everybody just doing their job and making the plays that they need to."

The Grizzlies haven't been to the semifinal round since that 2011 campaign. UM hasn't hosted a semifinal since 2009.

All of that is on the line now, and for a guy like Harris who started at the FBS level, it's his first time playing in a playoff format at the college level. He, along with his teammates, is ready to line it up Friday night with a chance to get one more home game for the Grizzlies next week.

"It's really cool," Harris said. "My time at UCLA, we only got to two bowl games. So coming to go, you know, play for the national championship is really special. And I think it's a really good format, you know, for college football, and I'm really excited for the game on (Friday)."