Eagles Want Win, to Play “One More Time”
By BJ Bennett
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For Jeff Monken, the semifinals have been a great barometer for what he has done. The final four has also proven to be the end of the road. He's ready for more.
Since coming to Statesboro from Georgia Tech, Georgia Southern's Jeff Monken has done more than just bring familiarity back to this once-dominant football program, he's quickly returned the expectations to where they used to be. The Eagles won five games prior to his arrival, and that of the famed triple-option offense, and won 22 total contests the next two years. This season Georgia Southern is 10-3 and will soon play in their third consecutive FCS semifinal pairing.
A rematch with North Dakota State, the defending national champion, is next on the docket for a school looking for its first title since 2000. The Eagles have a chance to avenge a 35-7 final four loss to the Bison a year ago, an opportunity that seemed unlikely early in the final period of their quarterfinal meeting with Old Dominion. Down two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to the nation's top offensive team, Georgia Southern rallied to a four-score finish, a 49-35 track meet toppling of the homestanding Monarchs.
"They kept fighting, I don't think our kids let up the whole day," Monken acknowledged. "They played with tremendous effort and determination. We had some breaks go our way, you have to have that happen in games like that, and we took advantage. I was so proud of our team."
Almost one year ago to the day, Georgia Southern made their first trip to Roughrider State. The end result of the 1,560 mile one-way trip was a sloppy overall performance, three critical turnovers and, most succinctly, a lopsided semifinal loss.
"The one thing that is beneficial about going up there for a second time is that we are going up there for a second time. That environment up there, that atmosphere, is as good as any place in the country. It's loud and their fans are into it. When we are on offense, there are times where it is really difficult to hear," Monken recalled. "I thought 'gosh, how can it be louder than Bryant-Denny Stadium?'. We had just played at Alabama last year and that's a pretty loud place. We at least had that experience and our guys know what to expect."
Georgia Southern's dominant rushing attack, which had recently compiled 302 yards rushing against the eventual national champion Crimson Tide, was held to just 186 against North Dakota State. The Eagles had scored 12 total offensive touchdowns in postseason victories over Old Dominion and Maine. Against the Bison, however, they mustered only one. This year's NDSU defense is similarly imposing.
"They do a great job stopping the run. It starts with the fact that they are well coached. They are a big, physical, talented group of kids. They play blocks very well, they play fast. I know coaches a lot of times will say 'well that team plays really hard'. This team plays hard," Monken stated. "This team plays like there is a championship on the line, and there is. They played us last year up there and they were flying around, playing physical. They hold their opponents to 10.8 points per game, less than 80 yards a game rushing, 207 yards total offense. I don't know if you are going to find a better defense anywhere than that."
The Georgia Southern triple-option enters Friday night with considerable momentum. The Eagles ran for 602 yards against the Monarchs and 404 yards against Central Arkansas. Quarterback Jerick McKinnon has compiled 487 yards and six rushing touchdowns in that span. In the playoff opener against the Bears alone, McKinnon scrambled for 316 yards on the ground. Perhaps most impressively, he's kept his team poised through two trying postseason games.
"Just a lot more confident," Monken detailed of McKinnon's progression. "The more you play a position, the better you are going to get at it. And as you start to have success as he has, confidence comes with it. His leadership has really developed and we have needed that from him. He has just done a terrific job. I hope he will continue to improve and continue to be the guy we can rely on and lean on to keep our team going."
McKinnon's Eagles will face at atmosphere and a defense like they haven't yet encountered this season and will do so on a nationally-televised stage. Kickoff between Georgia Southern and North Dakota State is set for 8pm ET on ESPN2. The 12-1 Bison are fresh off a 14-7 edging of Southern Conference member Wofford. There, North Dakota State did not allow a single offensive point. Dating back to last season, the Bison have won 17-of-their-last-18 football games.
"One thing that is for sure, we know to expect a great football team. They are physical, tough, big and just play so hard. What a great football team they have," Monken continued. "They are going to have a great plan for us. Hopefully we will have a plan for them that we will be able to execute and find a way to win the football game. That's the bottom line. We're going up there to try and play our very best football game. We know we are going to need that to be able to beat them."
For Monken, the FCS semifinals have been a great measuring stick for the work he and his team has done in just three short years. The final four has also, twice now, proven to be the end of the road. Success aside, Monken's ready for more.
"At this point, we're just focusing on this game and trying to find a way to win. Our seniors are obviously here for the third straight year. Our junior class, we've got some kids like Jerick McKinnon, Izzy Youyoute, guys like that, they don't know any different. They have been here three years and they have been to the semifinals all three years. Quite frankly, it gets a little bit old going to the semifinals and losing," the national coach of the year candidate concluded. "We'd like to find a way to win and have a chance to play one more time for the national championship. That's really our focus right now. The sense of accomplishment, we will worry about that when the season is all done."
"One more time" has long been the spirit of Georgia Southern football. A tattered t-shirt bearing the phrase covers Erk Russell's bronzed chest on a statue welcoming fans to Paulson Stadium. For Monken and these Eagles, the hope is that the phrase doesn't just represent all that they have done -- rather what they will do instead.