By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
PHILADELPHIA, PA. — For an entire season, the kicking game had loomed as Georgia Southern's Achilles' heel.
And on Friday night in Fargo, N.D., the ability to make a place kick stood between the No. 5-seeded Eagles extending their NCAA Division I Football Championship semifinal matchup with top-ranked North Dakota State to overtime, or possibly the end of an era in the Football Championship Subdivision.
But Drew Ruggles had a 50-yard field goal attempt with 31 seconds left blocked by Carlton Littlejohn as NDSU held on for a 23-20 victory at the sold-out Fargo Dome to advance to the national championship game on Jan. 5 in Frisco, TX.
Ruggles had been recruited off the Georgia Southern men's soccer team this week in an attempt to shore up the Eagles' shaky kicking game, which had already cost GSU two losses this season to The Citadel and Appalachian State.
"I am little bit out of words," said North Dakota State coach Craig Bohl said. "That's probably one of the most draining games I've ever been a part of."
A 40-yard strike from Ezayi Youyoute (3-for-3, 68 yards passing) to Zach Walker, who had beaten All-American cornerback Marcus Williams, on fourth and 11 had pushed the ball into Bison territory to give Ruggles a shot at the tie.
After time outs by both sides, Brock Jensen scored on a five-yard quarterback draw play with 3:05 remaining on a fourth and three situation to give the defending national champions their three-point lead.
"There was a lot of debating going on," Bohl said. "It was a chess match,"
After a rough night throwing the ball, Jensen found a way to win the game with his legs.
"Those are the type of situations you live for as a competitor of the game,"Jensen said. "We called it, there was a hole there for me, and I just tried to hit it as hard as I could."
North Dakota State had pounded out a 35-7 victory over the Eagles in the 2011 semifinals.
Georgia Southern (10-4) dominated North Dakota State (13-1) in this rematch of the 2011 semifinals 430-276 in total offense, but the Eagles made just enough mistakes to keep the Bison afloat.
"It was a great football game; we just didn’t make enough plays down the stretch to win it," said Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken. "We had opportunities. We had the two foolish penalties on one drive and had a chance on fourth down and just couldn’t get the stop we needed."
After GSU took a 13-9 halftime lead, the Eagles lost the game's only turnover on the opening drive of the second half when NDSU's Christian Dudzik stripped quarterback Jerick McKinnon of the ball and Grant Olson recovered it at the Bison 41.
Two plays later, Sam Ojuri (six carries, 71 yards) raced 53 yards for a touchdown to give North Dakota State its first lead of the game at 16-13.
Georgia Southern answered with a nine-play, 85-yard drive that was extended when the Bison were flagged for a roughing the punter penalty in the end zone.
McKinnon (31 carries, 168 yards rushing, 2-of-5 for 91 yards and one TD passing) scampered around the corner for 25 yards and a touchdown to give the Eagles a 20-16 lead with five minutes left in the third period.
But the Eagles couldn't deliver a knockout blow on a pair of subsequent possessions and North Dakota State was able to convert on its final opportunity.
Jensen, who was a horrendous 9-of-19 passing for just 76 yards, got the final Bison drive from its own 17 going when he scooted 53 yards on the first play to the GSU 40.
A late hit penalty on Georgia Southern's All-American defensive tackle Brent Russell gave the Bison a first down at the GSU 12, but three plays netted NDSU only seven yards and set up that fourth-down play at the five.
In the first half, McKinnon gashed the top-ranked Bison defense repeatedly on a pair of scoring marches.
Georgia Southern went 14 plays for 79 yards after forcing an NDSU punt on the game's first possession, with McKinnon rushing for 48 yards on a combination of option keepers and follow plays.
There was also a key 15-yard completion from Youyoute to Kentrellis Showers to earn a key first down.
Those plays set up a four-yard scoring run from J.J. Wilcox — Georgia Southern's All-World safety — to put the Eagles in front 6-0 with 6:23 left in the first quarter.
But foreshadowing the end of the game, NDSU blocked the extra point of Alex Hanks.
North Dakota State answered with a 10-play, 74-yard touchdown drive of its own, with John Crockett's one-yard blast (13 carries, 60 yards) tying the score.
When Adam Keller's PAT was blocked, it left the game in a 6-6 deadlock with 46 seconds left on the first-period clock.
The effectiveness of Georgia Southern's triple option led directly to the Eagles' second touchdown when McKinnon faked the dive to Dominique Swope as the GSU fullback hit a seam in the NDSU secondary.
McKinnon's perfectly thrown ball hit Swope in stride and he broke a couple of tackles to charge into the end zone and make it a 13-6 game with 12:17 left in the half.
It was only the third reception of Swope's college career.
North Dakota State threatened at the end of the half, but the Eagle pass rush came up big and forced the Bison to settle for a 36-yard Keller field goal that made it 13-9 at the break.
Besides the turnover and the two blocked kicks, Georgia Southern was also hurt by penalties, with the Eagles being flagged 13 times for 103 yards.
"We have a great bunch of kids," said Monken. "They fought so hard and worked so hard to get to this point, and we just came up short."
Georgia Southern was making its NCAA-record 13th appearance in an FCS semifinal, including its third in a row.
But the six-time national champion is being rumored to be headed to the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks and the Sun Belt Conference, a move which would mean that Friday night's nationally-televised contest may have been the final FCS game for this storied program.
"Coming into the game we knew it would be a physical game," McKinnon said. "North Dakota State did a great job of capitalizing ... making the big plays when they needed to."
North Dakota State, meanwhile is looking to build on the FCS tradition it started with last season's national title.
The Bison will face either No. 2 seed Eastern Washington, or Sam Houston State in the championship game.
Eastern Washington hosts Sam Houston State Saturday at 4 p.m. on ESPN in a semifinal that features the 2010 national champion against last year's national runner-up.