This is How We Do it
By BJ Bennett
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All week, the subplots have been fighting their way to the surface. Georgia Southern-Old Dominion may prove to be one of the best football games of the season.
This Saturday afternoon in Norfolk, Virginia, a spot in the FCS semifinals will be on the line, history will be on the mind, and a remarkably-intriguing contrast of styles will be on clear display. Georgia Southern will look to secure its third-consecutive final four bid against homestanding Old Dominion, the team it defeated in the second round of the postseason a year ago last Monday. As the playoff bracket narrows, the Eagles and Monarchs know improving from yesterday is critical towards ensuring tomorrow.
Georgia Southern shook off an early season upset loss at the hands of The Citadel to win seven of its last eight FCS games to finish the regular season, its lone loss coming by three in a back-and-forth battle with rival Appalachian State. Last weekend, the Eagles, led by 316 yards on the ground from quarterback Jerick McKinnon, edged Central Arkansas for their ninth victory of the year. Georgia Southern currently leads the nation with 393 yards rushing per game.
Old Dominion, playing just its fourth season of football since 1940, has experienced a meteoric rise not unlike the stunning jump made by Georgia Southern in the 1980s. Head coach Bobby Wilder has won 27 games in his first three years; Erk Russell won 21 times from 1982-1984 before claiming the school's first national championship in 1985 and then another a year later. The 11-1 Monarchs are fresh off a 63-35 dismantling of Coastal Carolina in their 2012 playoff debut. Old Dominion leads the nation in scoring offense (46), total offense (549.4) and passing offense (391.6) and is paced by its record-setting quarterback Taylor Heinicke.
For the Monarchs, their next opponent offers a big picture measuring stick, in that GSU is the winningest team in FCS history with an all-time success rate of 72%. The Eagles also offer an ever-important chance at redemption.
"We are excited, number one, to be in the round of eight. Number two, to be able to play Georgia Southern again, which is great. We are thrilled with that, but even more excited that this game is in our stadium, as last year we had to travel down to Georgia Southern. We feel like it's a big advantage for us to be able to play at home in front of our sellout crowd," Wilder detailed.
Old Dominion scored 48 points in Statesboro last season in a losing effort. This year's Monarch attack, with the Georgia-native Heinicke at the helm, enters with an even more impressive resume.
"We run the spread offense, no huddle. We go as fast as we can go. We are one of the top teams in the nation in plays run per game, around 90," Wilder continued. "Taylor is just having a sensational season. The quarterback makes us go. He is having a record-breaking season. He's thrown for 41 touchdowns, he's run for another 10. If he can throw for 209 yards Saturday, he will break Steve McNair's single-season all-time passing record, which is just remarkable to think about. Taylor has an excellent supporting cast around him and that's what has allowed us to average 46 points per game this year."
From the standpoint of offensive style and tempo, Old Dominion is the polar opposite of Georgia Southern. They don't play basketball on grass, they play it on skis -- on a downhill slope. Earlier this season, Heinicke threw for a Division I record 730 yards in a 64-61 triumph over New Hampshire. A week ago, he scored eight total touchdowns against the Chanticleers. Old Dominion has ten different receivers with at least 18 receptions. Georgia Southern's team leader has eight.
"It certainly is different than what a lot of folks believe in doing but we feel like this is successful for us. Remember now, we are still building our program. This is only our fourth year playing football. This is our first group of guys that are seniors. We are still a very young football team. We felt this was the best way to go to get recruits excited about our program, to try to get the Old Dominion brand out there nationally, was to be a high-scoring, fast-paced exciting team that people wanted to watch and wanted to come see and it's worked for us," Wilder stated.
This pairing is one that has fans, analysts and philosophies paired off across different sides of the proverbial line of scrimmage. The prize, a cherished spot in the FCS semifinals, couldn't be much bigger.
"I was trying to listen to the press conferences this week," acknowledged former Georgia Southern quarterback Jaybo Shaw. "They've got their style to do it and we've got our style how we do it at Georgia Southern. It definitely is interesting to be able to watch teams have success doing something night and day different. You know where my heart is. I love running the triple [option], I love watching it. It's in my blood, I guess. It's fun to watch, especially when old brothers and old teammates of mine are still down there doing it."
In last season's clash, Shaw led an Eagle attack that compiled 607 yards of total offense, 447 yards rushing and controlled possession for over 37 minutes of the game. He compiled three total touchdowns, tallying Georgia Southern's final offensive score of the game early in the fourth quarter.
"We tried to just keep it simple and go drive-by-drive, we didn't want to worry about having to keep scoring. We were just trying to focus on getting points on each drive, moving the chains and getting in the redzone and punching it in," Shaw recalled. "I'm definitely going to be watching it and I'm probably expecting the same with the two offenses scoring. Last year we knew our defense was going to make the stop when they needed it and when we needed it."
While the more heralded offensive units will make the headlines, a key defensive stand or two could make the difference. Georgia Southern's defense ranks 29th, allowing 333.9 yards per outing. Old Dominion stands 82nd, giving up 402.3 yards a game.
"It's going to be critical," Wilder said of how his offense handles their opponent. "Russell and Riley, the two guys inside are very good. Dubose and Gebhardt on the edge are really solid. I think they are improved at linebacker over the group we faced and their secondary is solid. This is a really good defense. They have seven starters back, some guys who played against us and played well enough for them to advance to the final four. We are going to have our work cut out for us. We are going to have to do a very good job protecting the football and a really good job with our offensive line protecting our quarterback."
While Old Dominion's Heinicke will have to be on his toes, Georgia Southern's McKinnon enters newfound territory. An accomplished player, he stood tall in the Eagles' playoff victory over Central Arkansas. This Saturday, however, he will have to lead his team into a hostile environment on a nationally-televised stage.
"I'm sure there are going to be some nerves. With any competitive athlete there are going to be nerves," Shaw admitted of McKinnon. "I guarantee they are going to be excited-nerves or ready-to-play-nerves because the coaching staff at Georgia Southern will have our guys ready to play. There is no doubt about that. Jerick will be ready to play and I know he will play up to his best potential."
For Georgia Southern's former starter under center and noted team leader, watching the next-in-line at his position has had special meaning.
" I'm so proud of Jerick. I was his host on one of his first official visits. When he came in, I tried my best to put him under my wing and help him out as much as I could," Shaw remembered. "It's been a pleasure being able to watch him on Saturday and see him develop. He's so explosive, I don't know if there is a more explosive player, all-around better athlete in the country. He can play at the highest level on Saturday in my opinion. It's just been fun being able to watch those guys that I was able to play with fight through some adversity, get back in the playoffs and have a chance to get back to the semifinals. I'm just so proud of them."
The storylines are numerous. All week, the subplots have been fighting their way to the surface. In summary, the stage is officially set for what may prove to be one of the best college football games of the season.
"I can certainly see why ESPN decided to put this on national TV. What an amazing contrast of styles," Wilder nodded. "They rush the ball for an average of 400 a game, we throw it for 400 a game. They have nine different guys who are a threat running the ball, we have nine different guys that are a threat catching the ball. For both teams, the quarterback makes it go. It's really going to come down to which defense can make the other offense break serve and that's really what happened last year. I believe that same formula is going to hold true this year. Whichever defense can stop the other offense a few times in this game is probably the team that is going to win."
For a player like Shaw, who had great postseason experiences with Georgia Southern after transferring from Georgia Tech, games like the one set for this Saturday defined his college career. The FBS level offers the isolated bowl game platform. The FCS system provides a setting that simply can't be faked.
"There is something about playing in the playoffs. I was fortunate enough to play in some bowl games and do that. But there is nothing like being able to have a one game season. If you win you go on, if you lose you go home," he added. "It's something special, especially this time of the year. You are practicing, you practiced over Thanksgiving. Your body is beat up, but you are trying to find a way to fight through it with your guys and your brothers. And when you are the ESPN game, that just makes it bigger. I'm excited for GSU football, I'm excited for my old teammates, for my guys."
Georgia Southern has won six national championships, its last coming in 2000. With that in mind, the Eagles are hoping that history will soon be repeating. Ironically enough, and without a past of its own, Old Dominion is looking for the same. Many have compared these Monarchs to the Eagles of yester-year, a serendipitous aligning in lieu of this quarterfinal pairing.
For these two programs, with a paralleled past and a different-yet-similar present, a grand opportunity awaits. Saturday, they will play for pride. Saturday, they will play for each other. Saturday, they will play for their future.