By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
NORFOLK, VA. — In a game dominated by offense, who would have figured that a handful of defensive plays would earn Georgia Southern a trip to another NCAA Division I Football semifinal with a 49-35 victory over Old Dominion?
Georgia Southern came away with a fumble recovery, an interception and a fourth-down stop at the ODU 39 on three crucial Monarch drives in the fourth quarter as the Eagles turned 35-21 deficit into 28 unanswered points in the final period before a 29th-straight capacity crowd of 20,068 at Ballard Stadium.
The No. 5 Eagles (10-3) earned a rematch against top-seeded and defending national champion North Dakota either next Friday or Saturday in Fargo, N.D. The Bison squeezed out a 14-7 win over Wofford at home Saturday in the quarterfinals.
NDSU beat Georgia Southern 35-7 in last year's semifinals.
Those defensive plays helped Georgia Southern overcome three empty trips into the red zone earlier in the game, including missed field goals of 43 and 30 yards.
"There were times in the red zone where we came out with no points," GSU coach Jeff Monken said. "We very well could have fallen flat, but our guys didn't. We never stopped believing."
On offense, the Eagles piled udep 602 yards rushing and 632 total yards behind the work of fullback Dominique Swope and quarterback Jerick McKinnon.
Swope burned ODU for 186 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries and McKinnon added 171 yards and four more scores on 29 attempts.
But the Eagles needed its defense to come through after fourth-seeded Old Dominion (11-2) scored on four consecutive possessions in the second and third quarters.
Ahead 35-28 and driving for another score that would have made it a two-possession game, ODU sophomore quarterback Taylor Heinicke was sacked for a loss of nine yards by GSU defensive end Dion DuBose on a blindside hit and fumbled.
Linebacker Patrick Flowe recovered the ball at the Eagle 21, giving Georgia Southern a chance to tie the game.
It took 12 plays and over five-and-half minutes, but with McKinnon gashing the Monarchs on option keepers and scoring from two yards out, the Eagles tied the game at 35 with 5:32 remaining.
That set the stage for the most controversial decision of the game.
Facing a fourth and six at his own 39, ODU coach Bobby Wilder contemplated having All-American punter Jonathan Plisko run a fake. But after an injury to GSU free safety Darius Eubanks, Wilder and his staff decided to send Heinicke and the high-powered Monarch offense back on the field.
"I felt our best option was to be aggressive and go for it," said ODU coach Bobby Wilder. "I don't second-guess that call. We needed to be aggressive at that point of the game."
Heinicke was pressured on the play and had to dump the ball short to running back Tyree Lee, who was hit by linebacker John Stevenson and lost control of the ball.
With a short field in front of them, the Georgia Southern offense needed just three plays to take the lead for good.
McKinnon dashed around the corner for 13 yards on first down and then slashed for 14 more on the next play.
Swope, who had been sidelined after taking a hit to the hip on the previous Eagle drive, returned from a stationary bike on the sideline to burst 12 yards off-tackle on a dive play to make it 42-35 with 2:36 left.
Old Dominion had one last chance to get even when it started the next drive at its own 25, but Georgia Southern strong safety J.J. Wilcox saw Heinicke zeroing in on receiver Nick Mayers in the middle of the field, broke on the ball and stripped it from Mayers' hands for an interception at the ODU 35.
"As a team, we lifted each other up through the hard times and the good times," said Wilcox. "I was in the right place, at the right time and I was blessed to make an interception."
Georgia Southern milked the clock down to the final 46 seconds and McKinnon scored from the one to put the game out of reach.
"They handled adversity better than we did today," said Wilder. "As I talked to our team last night and today, I told them I felt the team that handled adversity better would win the football game."
Before Georgia Southern caused Old Dominion's fourth-quarter meltdown, Heinicke set a pair of Football Championship Subdivision records for single-season passing yards (5,076) and completions (398), breaking records previously held by Alcorn State's Steve McNair (4,863) and Villanova's Brett Gordon (385).
He also snapped the total plays mark of Grambling's Bruce Eugene (680) with 705 and tied the record of 13 consecutive 200-yard passing games in a season shared by Jeremy Moses of Stephen F. Austin and Chris Lum of Lehigh.
Heinicke was 31of-41 for 421 yards and three touchdown passing, the final TD on an eight-yard pass to Mayers (10 catches, 150 yards, two TDs) giving the Monarchs their second 14-point lead of the afternoon. Heinicke also rushed eight times for 48 yards and another score to finish with 469 yards of total offense.
But this Walter Payton Award finalist took much of the blame of ODU's loss.
"I am aware that I broke a couple of records today, but none of that matters," Heinicke said. All that matters is the win and we didn't get that today."
Antonio Vaughan caught seven passes from Heinicke for 146 yards, including a 74-yard bomb that tied the game at 14 in the second quarter.
Georgia Southern was helped by the fact it did not commit a turnover, all though the Eagles certainly seemed to try at times.
The Eagles fumbled three times, but managed to get all of them back, including a Devin Scott miscue that bounced into the back of the end zone, where Trey Butler fell on it for a touchdown.
That cut Old Dominion's lead to 28-21 with 5:42 left in the third quarter and started the Eagles towards their comeback.
"Each and every game, the stakes get bigger and bigger," said McKinnon. "It was just a great overall effort by our team."
While Georgia Southern moves on to the FCS semifinals for an NCAA-record 13th time, it was the final FCS and Colonial Athletic Association game for Old Dominion, which moves into Conference USA and the Football Bowl Subdivision.
"Being a senior, we really didn't want it to end like this," said ODU defensive tackle Chris Burnette. "Four years ago, a lot of people probably wouldn't have believed how far we made it. Starting this program, our expectations were never that high, now it's just a big disappointment."
"It goes to show how far we've come in four years."