By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
STATESBORO, GA. — Until a couple of weeks ago, Jerick McKinnon was a stalwart in the Georgia Southern triple-option attack.
But with the Eagle secondary finding itself more depleted as the season went on, McKinnon was asked to make a difficult personal sacrifice before the playoffs started last week — switch to the defensive side of the ball.
McKinnon didn’t bat an eye when he was asked to move from slotback and backup quarterback to defensive back and the switch provided major dividends in Georgia Southern’s 35-23 victory over Maine Saturday before 12,886 fans at Paulson Stadium in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division I Football Championships.
After a shaky defensive effort last week in a 55-48 victory over Old Dominion, the No. 3-seeded Eagles needed all of the help on defense that they could get and McKinnon proved to be a key element in the GSU win.
“The defense improved tremendously from last week,” McKinnon said in one of the understatements of the Football Championship Subdivision season. “Overall, the whole defense was flying to the ball.”
With Georgia Southern leading 7-0 early, McKinnon intercepted a deep ball from Maine quarterback on the Black Bears’ second play from scrimmage to set up the first of two J.J. Wilcox touchdowns to make it 14-0 with 2:47 left in the first period.
And with the game on the line in the fourth quarter, McKinnon struck again to help the Eagles thwart Maine’s comeback efforts late.
McKinnon hit Smith on back-to-back blitzes to force incompletions after the Black Bears had driven to the GSU 10, threatening to make it a one-possession game.
After Smith dropped a snap for a seven-yard loss on second down, McKinnon shot through the line as Smith tried to get a pass off to Damarr Aultman in the corner of the end zone.
Aultman got his hands on the ball for what looked momentarily like a circus catch before cornerback Laron Scott stripped it away.
That made it fourth and 11 and the Eagles came with the same blitz again, with a similar result. McKinnon crushed Smith on his throw and Scott knocked the ball away from Aultman again on a turn-in route in the end zone with five minutes remaining.
Maine had one last chance after forcing the only punt of the game, but a Smith pass from the 34 was picked off by McKinnon after a collision with a receiver left the Georgia Southern player on the ground.
It was the third interception of the game for Smith (15-of-29, 229 yards, two TDs), a senior who had thrown only 11 interceptions all year.
“You can’t turn the ball over three times against a team like that,” said the disappointed Smith. “We missed a few opportunities when the game could have flipped the other way.”
A sophomore who expects to compete for the starting quarterback job at Georgia Southern when Shaw graduates, McKinnon didn’t care where he played on Saturday as long as the Eagles came away with a win.
“The fact that I can be out there contributing to the team is fun for me,” said McKinnon.
While McKinnon — who is third on the team in rushing and had 664 all-purpose yards coming in — was missing from the offense, the rest of the Eagles didn’t miss a beat.
Maine made a concerted effort to stop the dive after watching film of freshman fullback Dominique Swope rush 31 times for 255 yards and two touchdowns last week.
Swoope earned every one of his yards, needing 23 carries for 81 of them.
But that left the Black Bears choosing their poison on the perimeter.
Wilcox burned Maine for 99 yards on just eight attempts to lead a 380-yard rushing effort.
And then Shaw picked apart the Maine secondary, which had been so stifling in a 34-12 win at Appalachian State last week, completing 7-of-8 passes for 116 yards and two TDs.
“It was difficult stopping the triple (option),” said Maine coach Jack Cosgrove. “We don’t see it that often. We got better as the game went on, but we ran out of time.”
Maine also needed some time to get its attack in gear after running just nine offense plays in the first half for 61 yards and was on the wrong end of a 24-minute, 45-second to 5-minute, 15-second time of possession deficit.
Remarkably, the Black Bears had a chance to tie the game midway through the second quarter, following a 91-yard kickoff return from Roosevelt Boone and a 47-yard pass connection between Smith and Aultman (six catches for 108 yards) put Maine in scoring position again.
But defensive tackle Brent Russell stopped Pushaun Brown (nine carries, 38 yards) for a three-yard loss on third and goal at the one and the Bears had to settle for Brian Harvey’s 21-yard field goal to cut GSU’s lead to 14-10.
That was as close as Maine would get as the Eagles played keep-away the rest of the way.
Georgia Southern made it a 21-10 game before the half with a nine-play, 67-yard drive that ended with Wilcox storming across the goal line from the seven on an option pitch.
The teams traded four touchdowns in the second half, with the Eagles and particularly McKinnon making enough defensive plays to wrap up a comfortable win.
“We gave ourselves some advantages by controlling the football,” said GSU coach Jeff Monken. “We’re excited about being able to be a part of this tournament and excited to be playing again next week.”
The Eagles will be making their second consecutive trip to the semifinals as they search for their seventh national championship.
After traveling and falling short last year on the road at Delaware, Georgia Southern will get a chance to get back to the title game at No. 2 North Dakota State next week.
The date and time for that game will be decided on Sunday by the NCAA Division I football committee.
The committee is likely to schedule the game between No. 4 Montana and No. 1 Sam Houston State for Friday at 8 p.m. in Huntsville, TX. and shown on ESPN, while the Georgia Southern-North Dakota State contest will probably be played on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. and broadcast on ESPN2.