GREENVILLE, S.C.—For the second season in a row, Georgia Southern finds itself as a part of the final four in the FCS postseason.
The SoCon has had a team reach the semifinals of the FCS playoffs in 12 of the past 14 seasons. Georgia Southern reached the semifinals as a result of its 35-23 win over CAA member Maine on Saturday.
The win over Maine marks the second CAA opponent Georgia Southern has taken out in the playoffs—the first being Old Dominion. The Eagles advanced to the semifinals with a thrilling 55-48 win over the Monarchs.
The last time a SoCon team knocked off two or more teams from the CAA in the postseason was 2007, when Appalachian State took care of three CAA foes en route to a third straight national title. In that particular season, the Mountaineers took care of James Madison (28-27), Richmond (55-35) and Delaware (49-21).
A Look at the Georgia Southern-North Dakota State Matchup
Georgia Southern will now have to go on the road for the first time in the postseason, making the 1,500-mile trek to face North Dakota State at the Fargo Dome. The Eagles and Bison have met once on the gridiron, and that was back in 2006; the Bison trounced the Eagles in Statesboro, coming away with a 34-14 win at Allen E. Paulson Stadium.
North Dakota State advanced to play Georgia Southern by virtue of a second-round victory over James Madison (26-14) and last Saturday's 24-0 quarterfinal win against Lehigh.
The Bison entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed, having posted a regular season record of 10-1. The Bison posted a 37-24 win over FBS foe and Big Ten member Minnesota earlier this season and gained a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title, along with Northern Iowa, as a result of a 7-1 league mark.
North Dakota State's only loss during the regular season came against league rival Youngstown State on Nov. 12, as the Penguins posted a 27-24 win over the Bison at the Fargo Dome.
North Dakota State is no stranger to the postseason, making its 25th overall appearance in the postseason in school history. The Bison were a long-time Division II power, making 17 appearances in the Division II playoffs, posting a 31-12 record and winning eight national titles (1965, 1968, 1969, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1990).
Overall, the Bison have compiled a combined postseason mark of 39-14. Georgia Southern is the only Southern Conference opponent the Bison have ever faced. Saturday's game against Georgia Southern will mark North Dakota State's first semifinal appearance at the Division I level; the Bison logged 11 semifinal appearances at the Division II level.
Like North Dakota State, Georgia Southern brings its own tradition into Saturday's showdown at the Fargo Dome, having compiled a playoff record of 43-11. The Eagles have won six national titles at the I-AA/FCS level (1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1999 and 2000).
It's Georgia Southern's second straight trip to the FCS semifinals. In the 2010 semifinals, the Eagles dropped a 27-10 decision on the road at Delaware.
Overall, the Eagles have lost in their last three trips to the FCS semifinals, falling to eventual national champion Western Kentucky, 31-28, at home in 2002, and dropping a 24-17 contest to Furman in 2001 at Paulson Stadium.
A win Saturday for the Eagles would not only snap a two-game FCS semifinal losing streak, but would also snap a two-game skid for the SoCon in the FCS semifinals—Georgia Southern fell last season to Delaware, while Appalachian State was a 24-17 loser at Montana in 2009.
Appalachian State was the last team from the SoCon to make an appearance in the FCS semifinals, as the Mountaineers made the title game in 2007, posting a 49-21 win over Delaware.
A Look at the NDSU Defense
Coming into Saturday's matchup, North Dakota State will bring in one of the best defenses the potent Georgia Southern offense has faced in the 2011 season. The Bison come into the semifinal showdown with the Eagles ranking 25th nationally in total defense (322.7 YPG), first in scoring defense (13.6 PPG), 16th in rushing defense (115.3 YPG), 59th in passing defense (207.3 YPG), 20th in sacks (35 sacks, 2.69 SPG) and 10th in turnover margin (plus-1.15).
The Bison have an extremely physical defense, especially along the defensive front. Anchoring the NDSU line this season has been bookend Coulter Boyer (42 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, 8.0 sacks, 2 FRs, 1 FF), who garnered All-Missouri Valley Conference honors this past season.
Boyer is simply a game-changer along the defensive front for the Green and Gold. He enjoyed his best game of the 2011 season in the win over Minnesota, recording 2.5 sacks in the 13-point triumph. He has been a sack king his entire career for the Bison, with 26.5 career sacks coming into Saturday's semifinal contest against the Eagles.
At linebacker, the Bison are led by another All-Missouri Valley Conference performer in senior weak-side linebacker Chad Wilson (81 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FF, 1 FR). Wilson's 81 stops this season lead the Bison. He enjoyed his top game of the season against Youngstown State in NDSU's only loss, recording 12 tackles in the 27-24 setback.
The North Dakota State secondary is one of the best units in the FCS. The quartet has helped NDSU rank sixth in all of FCS in interceptions this fall, as the Bison have picked off a total of 19 passes during the 2011 campaign.
The secondary has been led the talented cornerback tandem of Christian Dudzik (64 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 8 PBUs, 1 INT) and All-Missouri Valley Conference performer Marcus Williams (47 tackles, 13 PBUs, 7 INTs).
Dudzik enjoyed one of the premier performances by any Bison defender this season against Illinois State, as he recorded 12 tackles and four PBUs in the Bison win. Williams is in line to challenge for the school's all-time interceptions mark, needing only one pick to tie the school's all-time leader in INTs, Frank Esposito, who picked off eight passes during the 1953 season.
A Look at the Georgia Southern Offense
Georgia Southern's offense will definitely be the stiffest test for the North Dakota State defense this season. Coming into Saturday afternoon's FCS semifinal showdown, Georgia Southern ranks seventh nationally in total offense (442.8 YPG), fourth in scoring offense (37.3 PPG), 118th in passing offense (108.7 YPG), second in rushing offense (334.0 YPG) and third in sacks allowed (.54).
The Eagle offense continues to be led by heady senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw (64-of-116 passing, 1,342 yds., 10 TDs, 3 INTs/153 rush att., 379 yds., 14 TDs, 2.5 YPC). Shaw hasn't had to do quite as much on the ground this season for the potent Eagle offense, which seems to get better as the season progresses.
Shaw has enjoyed several strong performances this season, with his best performance as a passer coming in GSU's 62-21 win over Tusculum. In that particular contest, Shaw made good on 6-of-9 passes for 181 yards and a TD. He also had an impressive performance throwing the football in a 50-20 win over Furman in mid-October, as he connected on 6-of-9 passes for 171 yards.
As a running threat, Shaw was most effective this season against Western Carolina in a 52-20 win, rushing for 72 yards and a TD on 17 attempts.
Shaw has had two pretty solid running backs to hand the ball off to this season in Robert Brown (136 att., 937 yds., 5 TDs, 6.9 YPC) and Dominique Swope (145 att., 927 yds., 6 TDs, 6.4 YPC). The two have combined to gain 1,864 yards and score 11 TDs this season.
Swope is having a season reminiscent of the one that Brown enjoyed last season as a freshman. He has been the primary ground-gainer of late for the potent ground-oriented Eagle attack, recording the best performance of his young career a couple of weeks ago in the 55-48 win over Old Dominion.
All Swope did in that contest was rush for 255 yards and a pair of TDs. With that performance, he became the first GSU player to rush for over 200 yards in a game since Jayson Foster did so in 2007.
Swope's 255 rushing yards accounted for the fourth-most ground yards gained in a game in program history. His 76-yard scoring run in the second-round win over Old Dominion also accounted for the longest playoff run for the Eagles in school history.
In each of its championship seasons, the Eagles have always seemed to have a game-breaker at slotback. In 1999, it was Bennie Cunningham and in 2000, who could forget Mark Myers? No one will soon forget the electric Frank Johnson, either; Johnson is known simply for having made "The Catch" in GSU's first national title win—a 44-42 win over Furman—in 1985.
This season is no different, as the Eagles have a pair of game-breaking slotbacks in Jonathan Bryant (11 rec., 327 yds., 2 TDs, 29.7 YPR/25 rush att., 216 yds., 2 TDs, 8.6 YPC) and Darreion Robinson (3 rec., 111 yds., 1 TD, 37.0 YPR/42 rush att., 258 yds., 1 TD, 6.1 YPC).
Bryant is the Eagles' leading receiver and has the speed to make plays in both the passing game and the ground attack. Robinson is also a multi-threat coming out of the GSU backfield, but his strength is as a runner with his speed and power.
At receiver, the Eagles ask players like Patrick Barker (4 rec., 42 yds., 10.5 YPR) and Mitch Williford (2 rec., 20 yds., 10.0 YPR) to act mostly as perimeter blockers, but the speed of Kentrellis Showers (10 rec., 202 yds., 3 TDs, 20.2 YPR) gives the Eagles the ability to go atop if they so desire.
Finally, the GSU offensive line has been one of the best in the SoCon over the past couple of seasons and is a major reason why the GSU program has seen such a resurgence in utilizing the flexbone offense for just the second season, after a four-year hiatus from the program's bread-and-butter.
Leading that unit this season have been (RT) Brett Moore and (LT) Dorian Byrd, who garnered first- and second-team All-SoCon honors, respectively, this season.
A Look at the North Dakota State Offense
NDSU enters its first FCS semifinal matchup ranking first nationally in turnovers lost, having only turned the ball over 11 times in 13 games so far in 2011. The Bison also rank 68th nationally in total offense (346.3 YPG), 27th in scoring offense (32.1 PPG), 77th in passing offense (179.4 YPG), 40th in rushing offense (166.9 YPG) and 31st in sacks allowed (1.38 SPG).
Leading head coach Craig Bohl's offense this season has been talented and efficient sophomore signal-caller Brock Jensen (199-of-291 passing, 2,267 yds., 12 TDs, 3 INTs, 174.4 passing eff. rating). Jensen has started all 13 games this season and has followed in the footsteps of talented Bison QBs of the recent past, such as Nick Mertens and Steve Walker.
Jensen has enjoyed several big performances in 2011 for the Green and Gold, with his top performance in a win over Missouri State on Oct. 15. In that contest, Jensen completed 19-of-23 passes for a season-high 211 yards and three TDs in the 51-21 home triumph. Jensen completed a season-standard 22 passes in a de facto conference title-deciding matchup with Northern Iowa, as the Bison took a hard-fought 27-19 win at the Fargo Dome.
Like Shaw, Jensen has had plenty of help coming from his skill position players—namely running backs D.J. McNorton (170 rush att., 887 yds., 12 TDs, 5.2 YPC) and Sam Ojuri (161 att., 978 yds., 10 TDs, 6.1 YPC). That duo has nearly matched the combined duo of Swope and Brown this season.
McNorton and Ojuri have combined to amass 1,865 yards and 22 TDs this season.
McNorton is a powerful running presence coming out of the backfield for the Bison once again, after rushing for 1,559 yards and scoring 15 TDs last season. He was a preseason second-team All-American, according to the College Sporting News.
McNorton enjoyed his best performance of the season in an early-season win over Lafayette, as he rushed 13 times for 80 yards and added three rushing scores. The three rushing TDs in the win were the most by a Bison running back in a game this season
In five FCS playoff games, McNorton has rushed 112 times for 647 yards and seven TDs. For his career, McNorton has rushed 540 times for 2,852 yards and 33 TDs in 48 games and is seventh all time at NDSU.
McNorton has also been effective as a receiving option coming out of the backfield, having hauled in 21 passes for 201 yards and 2 TDs (9.6 YPR).
Ojuri, a senior, comes into the semifinal clash with the Eagles needing just 22 yards to mark the ninth straight season in which a Bison running back has rushed for over 1,000 yards. Ojuri owns the top rushing yardage performance of the season by an NDSU running back, as he had 165 yards and a TD on only 12 rushes—including a season-long 95-yard TD run—in a 56-3 win over Saint Francis early in the campaign.
The Bison also have a big playmaker at wide receiver; Warren Holloway (70 rec., 920 yds., 7 TDs, 13.1 YPR) is one of the elite wideouts in the Missouri Valley Football Conference this season. Holloway has big-time speed and great hands, and has come up big on numerous occasions in clutch situations this season.
Holloway, an All-Missouri Valley selection, has had a couple of big performances this season. In the win over Lafayette, Holloway hauled in six passes for 147 yards and a couple of scores, garnering MVFC Player of the Week honors for his efforts. In last week's win over Lehigh, Holloway matched a career high with eight catches for 98 yards.
Holloway is joined at wideout by Ryan Smith (40 rec., 471 yds., 11.8 YPR), who has also had a big season catching the football.
The offensive line is physical and proved to be one of the better offensive fronts in the Missouri Valley Football Conference this season. Right tackle Paul Cornick, an All-Missouri Valley selection, anchors the front. He is one of three senior starters along the offensive line. Coming into the 2011 season, the Bison welcomed the return of four starters along the offensive front.
A Look at the Georgia Southern Defense
Coming into the season, it was certainly the Georgia Southern defense that made a majority of the headlines.
The Eagles were among the most physical defensive units in the Southern Conference last season. Most looked at the Georgia Southern defensive line as one of the top defensive fronts in the Southern Conference, and one of the elite units in all of FCS football entering the campaign.
The unit hasn't disappointed.
Overall, the Eagles enter Saturday afternoon's contest ranking 40th nationally in total defense (349.3 YPG), 32nd in scoring defense (22.7 PPG), 73rd in passing defense (212.2 YPG), 34th in rushing defense (137.1 YPG) and 67th in sacks (1.92 SPG).
Leading that stout defensive front has been nose tackle Brent Russell (61 tackles, 15.0 TFLs, 6.5 sacks, 1 blk. kick). All Russell did this season was garner SoCon Defensive Player of the Year accolades.
The junior nose tackle is simply one of the most dominant players in the FCS and has put himself in the same breath as former Eagle great defensive tackles, Alex Mash (1990-93) and Voncellies Allen (1996-99).
With 20 career sacks, Russell now ranks fifth on the school's all-time ledger, surpassing former standout Freddy Pesquiera (19.5 career sacks, 1999-02) in the Eagles' second-round win over Old Dominion. He enjoyed his top performance of the season against Appalachian State, recording 10 tackles, 2.0 TFLs and a sack in the 24-17 loss.
Joining Russell as reputable players up front for the Eagles have been defensive ends John Douglas (32 tackles, 9.0 TFLs, 5.0 sacks, 1 INT, 1 FR) and Josh Gebhardt (22 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 FR).
In addition, Blake Riley (23 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 1 FR) has played well in his first season as a full-time starter alongside Russell. Roderick Tinsley (27 tackles, 1.5 TFLs, 3 PBUs) and Javon Mention (27 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks, 1 blk. kick) give the GSU defensive front elite depth.
At linebacker, the Eagles were solid throughout the season. While the unit didn't have a standout star, such as Furman's Kadarron Anderson or Chattanooga's Ryan Consiglio, the Eagles fielded maybe the most combined talent at LB in the SoCon in 2011.
Leading the impressive trio this fall has been Josh Rowe (68 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 1 INT, 1 FF), who, despite not earning postseason All-SoCon accolades, proved to be one of the most important components of the GSU defense this season from his "MIKE" linebacker position.
Rowe has had some strong outings this season, turning in his top performance in the 28-27 win over Chattanooga, logging 11 tackles and a TFL.
Rowe will be flanked at LB on Saturday by a pair of talented performers in Darius Eubanks (62 tackles, 3.0 TFLs, 1.0 sack, 2 INTs) and Kyle Oehlbeck (25 tackles, 1.0 TFL), both veterans. Eubanks is an excellent athlete and one of the hardest hitters on the GSU defense.
The most overlooked aspect of the GSU defense is the secondary, which, athletically, is as fast and opportunistic as any unit in the country against the pass. They've also proved to be very effective at stepping up and making plays against the run.
Cornerback LaRon Scott (49 tackles, 3 INTs, 17 PBUs) and safety Deion Stanley (77 tackles, 7 PBUs,1 INT, 1 FF, 1 blkd kick) are certainly the players to keep an eye on.
Stanley leads the defense in overall tackles this season, while Scott is one of the most explosive players on the GSU defense and special teams. As a special teams player, Scott has two kick returns for scores this season, including a 95-yard kickoff return against Alabama.
Georgia Southern certainly has its work cut out for it on Saturday when it travels to North Dakota State for its second straight FCS semifinal game. The loss to Delaware was acceptable last season because no one really believed Georgia Southern would make it that far.
However, after last season's run, the Eagles entered the 2011 season as the No. 3-ranked team in all of FCS football and were the media's preseason pick to win the Southern Conference.
So far, so good for the Eagles, who have continued to get better with each passing Saturday this season, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
A victory on Saturday afternoon would give the Eagles a semifinal win for the first time since the 2000 season, when the Eagles went to Newark, DE and claimed a 27-18 win over the Blue Hens at Tubby Raymond Field.
For North Dakota State, Saturday afternoon represents uncharted territory for a program that has experienced so much success at the Division II level in past seasons. Now, head coach Craig Bohl has taken the Bison to that next step—the FCS semifinals—for the first time in program history.
No doubt the Fargo Dome will be boisterous on Saturday afternoon when the Eagles, playoff veterans, pay a visit to one of the best home-field environments in FCS football.
Of course, the Eagles know about playoff environments, sporting the best home winning percentage in the playoffs of any of the FCS playoff participants. NDSU could go a long way in establishing that type of atmosphere with a win on Saturday to get to the school's first national title game at the Division I level.
Maybe the greatest moment in Georgia Southern's football history—the 1985 come-from-behind national title win, 44-42, win over Furman—came in a domed stadium (the "Tacoma Dome" in Tacoma, Washington).
With that said, I believe Georgia Southern will get a stiffer challenge on Saturday afternoon than it will—should the Eagles win—get in the national title game. Georgia Southern might lose this game if it were outside, but on a fast track, the GSU offense has proven to be nearly unstoppable in the postseason.
The Eagles win a tough one.
Final Score Prediction: 24-21 Georgia Southern