By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
STATESBORO, GA — It was only a matter of minutes after his team had finished up its press conference following a 34-12 road victory over Appalachian State in an NCAA Division I Football Championship second-round game and Maine coach Jack Cosgrove was already thinking about how to stop Georgia Southern’s triple-option.
You couldn’t help but wonder if Cosgrove was feeling a sense of Deja Vu.
Nine years earlier, the Black Bears’ reward for beating Appalachian State 14-13 in the first round was a trip to Paulson Stadium to face the high-flying Eagles and now in 2011, Maine faces that challenge again.
Third-seeded Georgia Southern (10-2) hosts Maine (9-3) Saturday at 2 p.m. in a quarterfinal-round game that can be seen on ESPN3.
The winner of this game will face either No. 2 North Dakota State (11-1), or Lehigh (11-1) in the semifinals next weekend.
The quarterfinals in 2002 didn’t turn out so good for the Black Bears, who lost 31-7 to Georgia Southern.
Maine also dropped a 31-28 first-round encounter to Georgia Southern, the two-time defending national champion, in 1987.
“It’s really hard to prepare for an offense like that in one week,” said Cosgrove. “It is difficult to get your scout team up to speed to run the option.”
Cosgrove was quick to point out the contrast of styles between the two leagues that are represented, the Southern Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association — generally considered the top two leagues in the Football Championship Subdivision and the winners of 10 of the past 13 national titles, with five crowns each.
“The Southern Conference is an option league, the CAA is more of a smash-it-right-at-you kind of league,” said Cosgrove. “We never see the option up in the northeast.”
Last year, CAA co-champion William & Mary was hammered at home in the second round by Georgia Southern, though Delaware — the other co-champion — finally stopped the Eagles in the semifinals.
Old Dominion scored 48 points last week and still lost, 56-48. The Monarchs responded by firing their defensive coordinator this week after being scorched for 607 yards of total offense (477 yards on the ground) by the Eagles.
It was the fourth time this season that Georgia Southern had gone over the 500-yard mark for total offense.
For all of the stress that the double-wing option puts on defense, it was stunning in 2005 that Georgia Southern athletic director Sam Baker fired then-coach Mike Sewak — the headman who directed GSU to its 2002 playoff win over Maine — after a rare first-round playoff loss to Texas State.
Baker declared that a team couldn’t win a championship anymore with the triple option and hired back-to-back coaches (Brian VanGorder and Chris Hatcher) who ran the pro set and a spread passing attack.
After six national championships?
Legendary Georgia Southern coach Erk Russell had to be spinning in his grave at the sacrilege.
Ironically, the Eagles didn’t even make the playoffs in those four years, only returning to the postseason after hiring Jeff Monken — a Paul Johnson protege — to reinstate the triple option last year.
Monken has put some nice wrinkles in the double wing attack this fall, including some sets from the pistol, but the bread and butter of the offense designed by Johnson — now finding success at Georgia Tech — remains.
The Eagles have a cagey, if not-the-most-athletic quarterback in senior Jaybo Shaw, who transferred from Georgia Tech after the 2009 season. Shaw is a good decision-maker and can pass just well enough to keep defenses honest.
Shaw also takes more than his share of punishment on fakes and keepers alike.
Sophomore Robert Brown did most of the work on the dive from his fullback position last year and for half of the current campaign, but in recent games he has been supplanted by Dominique Swoope, who had 255 yards rushing and two TDs last week, including one 76-yard scoring scamper to open the game.
Swoope was named co-freshman of the year by the Southern Conference coaches.
From the wing positions, speedster Jerrick McKinnon has been dangerous. McKinnon also lines up at times at the Wildcat position to take direct snaps — another twist that defenses must be alert for.
The Eagle offense has been so dominant that it gained more yardage (302) against Alabama (nearly twice the Crimson Tide’s seasonal average) and scored more points (21) than any FBS team did against the Associate Press’s No. 2-ranked team.
Besides the 45-21 loss to Alabama, Georgia Southern also dropped a 24-17 decision to Appalachian State — the only common opponent between Maine and the Eagles this season.
On defense, Georgia Southern has a strong defensive line, led by defensive tackle Brent Russell and defensive end John Douglas.
But despite the presence of All-American senior cornerback Laron Scott in the secondary, the Eagles have been vulnerable against the pass.
Which brings us to the Maine offense.
In a tremendous turnaround, the Black Bears surged from 4-7 last season to finish tied for second in the CAA this season and a major reason was the improvement in the passing game behind senior quarterback Warren Smith.
Smith tossed nine TD passes with 10 interceptions as a junior last season, but has 20 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions this year to with 2,893 yards passing.
Of late, Damarr Aultman has been a favorite target. Aultman had TD catches of 44 and 35 yards last week against ASU. Tight end Justin Perillo is also a threat, along with converted running back Derrick Sessions and Arthur Williams.
On the ground, Pushaun Brown seemed to be revitalized after some late-season injuries and rumbled for 111 yards on 24 carries. Brown, who was slowed by shoulder woes earlier in the year, has 1,055 yards rushing on the season and 11 touchdowns.
The Black Bears should be able to put up points against the Eagles, but stopping the option will be the key to winning.
Last week, Maine was at its aggressive best on defense, holding Appalachian State’s high-powered offense to 275 yards and just three yards on the ground.
The Black Bear secondary was brilliant, led by safeties Travis Costen and Jerron McMillian, while defensive end Michael Cole and linebacker Troy Russell also played a big role in the effort.
Maine had eight tackles for loss, including three sacks.
But that was against a spread team.
The Black Bears will have to show they can defend the option, or at least slow it down enough for the Maine offense to keep things close.
But Georgia Southern is wary of Maine.
“We have our hands full with Maine,” said Monken “They had a great victory over Appalachian State. Having been to Appalachian State, as an assistant with coach [Paul] Johnson and this year with our team, I know how difficult it is to go into there and win.”