By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
STATESBORO, GA. — Five years ago, when Georgia Southern and North Dakota State met for the first time, then-GSU coach Brian VanGorder looked at NDSU after suffering a 34-14 loss at Paulson Stadium with admiration.
“I look at North Dakota State and that’s where we’re headed, big, strong, 300-pound offensive linemen, big defensive tackles,” Van Gorder drooled. “We had a hard time with these guys.”
In reality, Georgia Southern had to go back to the future, Christopher Lloyd-style, to regain its place as one of the elite teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, relying on quick, nimble offensive linemen as it has reintroduced the triple option to its tradition-rich program.
VanGorder’s comments were not the only ones that missed the mark during the middle of the last decade.
Georgia Southern athletic director Sam Baker stated that a team couldn’t win championships in the modern era with the option as he jettisoned Mike Sewak as coach and hired Van Gorder, a defensive expert with an NFL background.
A misguided advertising campaign had VanGorder stating that there was “no option” for Georgia Southern in 2006, one of many traditions that this misplaced coach destroyed in his short time in Statesboro.
VanGorder and his pro-style attack lasted one year and led the Eagles to their worst season (3-8) since the school reinstated football in 1982.
A year later, Chris Hatcher came from Valdosta State with a Division II championship resume and replaced VanGorder’s system with a spread passing attack.
Hatcher also recruited many of the players who are now upperclassmen, but three more years of no playoff berths and some public sparring matches over academic standards with then-GSU president Dr. Bruce Grube doomed Hatcher’s program after he compiled an 18-15 mark.
After seeing that life at Georgia Southern without the option wasn’t very rosy, Baker was pressured to resurrect the Eagles’ most hallowed of traditions under one-time Paul Johnson assistant Jeff Monken.
The result has been two straight appearances in the FCS semifinals and a return to the top of the Southern Conference standings this season for the first time since 2004 for the third-seeded Eagles.
Georgia Southern (11-2) and North Dakota State (12-1) will be able to see how far their programs have advanced Saturday when the two meet again at 2:30 p.m. the Fargodome in Fargo, N.D. in the semifinals of the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
A trip to the national title game in Frisco, TX. on Jan. 7 against the winner of the Montana-Sam Houston State semifinal in Huntsville, TX. awaits the survivor of the GSU-NDSU duel.
“Our expectation are not any different than they were last year,” said Monken. “We want to win a national championship.”
The game will be televised nationally on television on ESPNU and will also be available streaming over the internet at ESPN3.com.
“I’m just glad we’re playing indoors,” said Monken, who enjoyed a beautiful, Georgia indian summer day with 70-degree temperatures on Tuesday. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to play in (North Dakota winter) conditions like that out in the elements.”
Outside, it is expected to reach a low of 18 degree — relatively balmy for North Dakota this time of year — on Saturday, but the Fargodome will be a nice, warm 72 degrees.
It will mark the second-seeded Bison’s first trip to the semifinals since they began making the transition to FCS in 2004.
After eight national championships at the Division II level, North Dakota State squeezed into the FCS playoffs for the first time last season (in its second year of eligibility) as the last team chosen for the first 20-team playoff field.
Once in the field, the Bison dispatched Robert Morris, 43-17, in the first round and then upset No. 4-seeded Montana State, 42-17, in round two.
North Dakota State’s playoff run ended in controversial fashion as the Bison blew a late lead against eventual national champion Eastern Washington in the final minute of regulation and then fell 38-31 in overtime when quarterback Brook Jensen fumbled in the end zone.
The Bison argued that Jensen had scored a potential game-tying touchdown before the fumble, but after a video review proved inconclusive, the officials awarded the ball and the game to EWU.
“We know that your season can end quickly in the playoffs,” said NDSU coach Craig Bohl, who led his team to a 9-5 record last year.
And losses like the one the Bison suffered to end their year last season can also fuel playoff runs in following years.
North Dakota State, which served notice of its FCS potential even before its transition period started with a 25-24 comeback win over Montana at Washington-Grizzly Stadium in 2003, went 10-1 in back-to-back seasons in 2006-07 before falling back to 6-5 and 3-8 marks in 2008-09.
Bohl’s job was on the line after that slide and it took last season’s strong finish to change the direction of the program.
“The leadership of last year’s senior class left some fingerprints and some direction,” Bohl said. “This year’s senior class has picked up where last year’s left off.”
Some of the key members of that senior class is running back D.J. McNorton, who has 887 yards rushing and 12 touchdowns, and defensive end Coulter Boyer, a preseason All-American who has eight sacks and 11 tackles for loss.
The Bison have also been energized by the 2010 freshmen class, now paying even bigger dividends as sophomores, players like quarterback Brook Jensen (2,339 total yards, 19 combined TDs) and cornerback Marcus Williams (fourth nationally with seven interceptions, four total TDs).
NDSU raced through the regular season, winning its first nine games, including its fifth FBS win in eight tries (37-24 over Minnesota) as an FCS school.
The Bison’s only loss was a 27-24 setback at home to Youngstown State, a defeat that meant NDSU had to share the Missouri Valley Football Conference title with Northern Iowa.
North Dakota State has picked up where it left off in last year’s playoffs, holding off James Madison 26-14 and blanking a high-powered Lehigh passing attack, 24-0.
NDSU is 16th narrationally in rushing defense, allowing 115 yards per game, and is No. 1 in points allowed (13.7 per game), but is 59th in pass defense (207 yards) and 25th in total defense (323 yards). The Bison are also 10th in turnover margin (1.15 more per game).
On offense, North Dakota State ranks 40th in rushing (167 yards), 77th in passing (179 yards), 68th in total yardage (346) and 27th in scoring (32.2 per game).
Besides great defense and an offense that has beaten up opponents physically with the run, the Bison have also benefited from having their postseason games at home.
“Our crowd has had an impact, a significant impact,” said Bohl. “I once made a comment that the Fargodome was like going into a conservative Lutheran church. It has changed.”
North Dakota State is now known for having one of the more significant homefield advantages in FCS, due in a large part to the noise.
“The noise factor has certainly been disruptive,” said Bohl.
Georgia Southern hasn’t played in an indoor stadium since East Tennessee State disbanded its program and dropped out of the Southern Conference following the 2003 football season.
Monken’s last trip to ETSU’s Mini Dome as a GSU assistant in the Paul Johnson era was a 19-16 loss, though the Eagles won 34-22 in Johnson City, TN. in 2003 under Mike Sewak.
Some of the Eagles proudest moments have come during the playoffs in domed stadiums during the Erk Russell era, including the 1985 NCAA semifinal (40-33 over UNI) and final (44-42 in Tacoma WA. against Furman), and the 1986 NCAA title game (48-21 over Arkansas State in Tacoma).
“From what I understand from everyone I’ve talked to, who has played there, this place is super loud,” said Monken.
Ironically, GSU was scheduled to play North Dakota State in Fargo during the regular season.
But the Eagles bought out that return trip of a home-and-home contract for a reported $60,000, so Georgia Southern could play six home games and also travel to Alabama for its yearly FBS money game.
“We would have liked to have played them,” said Monken. “They are physical, they are tough and they run the football so well behind that big line.”
Now the Eagles will get that chance.
“As football coaches, we’re soldiers,” said Bohl, trying to downplay the cancellation. “We play who is on our schedule. We were certainly disappointed at that time, but we have an opportunity to play them now.”
Monken and his staff are concerned with the 12 penalties for 93 yards the Eagles had last week against Maine, six of those flags coming on false starts.
“The one thing we can do to keep it quiet is don’t let them make any big plays,” Monken said. “But they are a very good team, so chance are they are going to make some plays and it’s going to get loud.”
Georgia Southern can also take crowds out games with those long, methodical drives from the triple-option attack.
The Eagles have become more efficient on offense since a 24-17 loss to Appalachian State and a close 14-12 call against The Citadel in the middle of the season.
The only other loss for Georgia Southern was a 45-21 defeat at the hands of Alabama — the team that will play LSU for the BCS championship — in the regular-season finale.
The Eagles scorched Alabama’s highly-touted defense for 302 yards rushing, 341 yards of total offense and 531 all-purpose yards. Besides the yardage totals that were all season-highs against the Crimson Tide, the point total was seven more than Alabama had given up to any other team in the FBS.
“I saw the University of Alabama and Nick Saban — supposedly the next guru of college football defense — give up over 300 yards to those guys,” Bohl said. “And Saban looked haggard in the press conference that followed. He said ‘I’m glad it’s over.'”
GSU installed freshman fullback Dominique Swope (927 yards rushing, six TDs) into the starting lineup in place of Robert Brown (946 yards, five TDs) to give the inside game more explosiveness.
Brown has moved to one of the wing, or A-back positions.
Speedy senior J.J. Wilcox (470 yards, seven TDs) returned from injury to the wing and piled up a game-high 99 yards on just eight carries, with two TDs, to put some life back into the option pitch against Maine.
Georgia Southern ranks second nationally in rushing (334 yards), fourth in scoring (37.3 points per game) and eight in total offense (443 yards).
Though the Eagles are 118th in passing (109 yards), they are No. 1 in passing efficiency.
The Eagles toppled the Black Bears 35-23 at home on Saturday in the quarterfinals, after holding off Old Dominion in a 55-48 shootout in the second round.
After a poor defensive performance against ODU, in which the Eagles allowed 560 yards, the unit showed much improvement against Maine, limiting the explosive Black Bears to 295 yards.
“We heated up the quarterback (Maine’s Warren Smith),” said Monken. “That’s something we weren’t able to do (against Old Dominion).”
Brent Russell (6 1/2 sacks, 14 1/2 tackles for loss) is one of the top defensive tackles in FCS and has teamed with John Douglas and Michael Butler to give the Eagles a solid defensive front.
Cornerback Laron Scott can hurt teams in the secondary, or as a returnman, with his running ability.
Scott is a big reason that Georgia Southern is fourth in the country in kickoff returns (25.4 yards per return). He ranks second individually with an average of 32.0 yards per return and has two touchdowns.
The Eagles are 34th overall in rushing defense (137 yards), 40th in total defense (349 yards) and 32nd in scoring defense (22.7 points per game), but they are 73rd in pass defense (212 yards).
But the move of Jerick McKinnon from offense to defense made a big difference in the pass defense last week.
The athletic sophomore had 701 total yards as a rusher, receiver and passer on offense and was responsible for nine touchdowns, but in his second game as a defensive back, McKinnon had two interceptions and two quarterback hurries on back-to-back safety blitzes to kill another Maine drive.
Bohl said Georgia Southern “is a really good football team. We think we’re a really good football team, so it should be a great college football game.”