Georgia Southern Regains Playoff Tradition
Georgia Southern downs South Carolina State 41-16 in the first round of the FCS playoffs to give the Eagles their first playoff victory since 2002
By David Coulson
Executive Editor/Managing Partner
College Sporting News
STATESBORO, Ga. There were plenty of reasons why Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken was gleaming after his team's 41-16 victory over South Carolina State Saturday at Paulson Stadium in the first round of the NCAA Division I Football playoffs.
But the main reason Monken resembled a thirsty man who had discovered a burgeoning oasis was that he had led the once-proud Eagles to their first playoff victory since 2002.
For five years, Georgia Southern was like a team of gypsies, trying to find its way through the dessert of the Football Championship Subdivision without a road map.
The Eagles made the stunning decision following the 2005 to not only fire Mike Sewak, a head coach with an 84% winning percentage and three playoff appearances in four years, but to also dismantle the double-wing, triple-option offense that had helped Georgia Southern win six national championships in 20 years.
A year later, new coach Brian VanGorder led the Eagles to the worst record in school history (3-8) with his pro-styled strategies and a big-time surliness that rivaled the best of Bill Belichick.
VanGorder parachuted out of Statesboro quicker than a sand gnat biting a Georgia tourist.
Coach Chris Hatcher and his Hal Mumme-developed Air Raid attack came close to the playoffs when Payton Award winner Jayson Foster was at the controls, but still came up short in three different seasons.
It looked like the Eagles were falling further backwards rather than reestablishing their equilibrium when Hatcher was fired last year in a dispute with Georgia Southern president Bruce Grube that prove to be more over academics issues than the team's 5-6 record.
With the program in shambles, Georgia Southern finally decided it was time to go back to the future.
It was time to bring back the double-wing option and Monken a former Georgia Southern assistant who was working for the offense's inventor Paul Johnson at Georgia Tech was anointed to bring back the Eagle tradition.
With a month left in the 2010 regular season, it looked like GSU was heading towards another mediocre campaign with a 4-4 record, but the Eagles caught fire to win their final three games, including a 21-14 overtime win against No. 1-ranked Appalachian State.
Last week, Georgia Southern (8-4) needed to overcome an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit against bitter rival Furman just to be considered for the postseason.
"We were a different football team four weeks ago than we are now," said Monken, who left the GSU program for Navy with Johnson after the 2001 season. "I dont know if I have ever been a part of a football team that has worked and prepared so hard."
That hard work has paid off with unexpected dividends down the home stretch of the season for this tight-knit squad.
"I think we have a great group of guys who genuinely love and care about each other," Monken added. "They are a very unselfish group."
That character proved important on Saturday when one of the team's biggest leaders, transfer quarterback Jaybo Shaw, was knocked out of the game with what was believed to be a concussion by a hit under the chin strap by strong safety Chris "The Terminator" Thompson at the six-minute mark of the first quarter.
Ahead 9-0 at that point, the Eagles got the momentum burst it needed about four minutes later when sophomore defensive tackle Brent Russell stripped South Carolina State quarterback Malcolm Long (11-of-24, 161 yards, three interceptions, one TD) of the ball on a read option play gone bad at the Bulldog 34.
"He held it out there for awhile," said Russell I didn't know whether to take it from him or knock it loose."
Russell decided to knock it loose and freshman defensive end Josh Gebhardt scooped it up and ran to the end zone to give the Eagles a 16-0 lead. Gebhardt also had a second-half interception to set up a touchdown.
That enabled backup freshman quarterback Jerrick McKinnon and Georgia Southern to relax on offense and build 323-66 advantage in rushing and nearly a 42-18 edge in time of possession.
South Carolina State (9-3) used a 90-yard Lennel Elmore kickoff return and Blake Erickson's 21-yard field goal to cut the lead to 19-10 at the half, but the Bulldog defense was worn down by offensive and special teams mistakes and the GSU attack after the intermission.
Elmore added a 58-yard touchdown reception from Long in the second half, but SCSU did almost nothing else offensively in the second half.
"I am actually embarrassed by the way we handled the football," said South Carolina State coach Buddy Pough, after watching his team commit four turnovers and give up two safeties on botched kickoff returns. "After weathering our first-quarter experience, I thought we would come out better in the second half."
It was the 14th straight first-round playoff loss for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
While that is a tradition that the MEAC would like to change, Georgia Southern is glad to get back to some of its history.
"I'm proud of our football team," said Monken. "We felt privileged and honored to be a part of the 20 teams chosen to the playoffs. We were honored to be able to continue the legacy and tradition of those other Georgia Southern teams that have been chosen to the playoffs."