STATESBORO, Ga. — With Georgia Southern’s offense rambling all over Paulson Stadium, it was hard for the University of Maine to generate much momentum.
Ultimately, the Black Bears were not able to stop the Eagles and could not muster enough offense to make up the difference.
Georgia Southern’s vaunted triple-option offense churned out 476 yards Saturday afternoon, paving the way for a 35-23 NCAA Football Championship Subdivision national quarterfinal victory.
Third-ranked Georgia Southern (11-2) faces No. 2 North Dakota State (12-1) in the semifinals.
Coach Jack Cosgrove’s No. 9 Black Bears close out the season at 9-4, but gave Georgia Southern a run for its money.
“This team has got a lot of grit to it, plays hard,” Cosgrove said.
“When you’re a coach and you’re around young people like these guys and [see] how important this is to them — they want to win — it’s an opportunity for a program like ours that has a multitude of challenges. It was real exciting for us,” he added.
UMaine spent the first half adjusting to the Eagles’ option and eventually slowed it, but never really stopped the hosts.
The Eagles rushed for 360 yards and passed for 116 more, giving UMaine headaches with their versatility and speed. GSU controlled the ball for 45 minutes, 2 seconds and the Bears managed only 14:58 of possession.
GSU ran 75 plays to UMaine’s 45.
J.J. Wilcox paced the Eagles with 99 yards and two touchdowns on eight carries. Dominique Swope (23 carries, 81 yards) and Johnathan Bryant (6, 65) also were key cogs in the option machine.
The Bears, who had little margin for error, made some. Senior quarterback Warren Smith (15-for-29, 229 yards, 2 touchdowns) was intercepted three times, twice by Jerick McKinnon.
With the effort, Smith became the first QB in UMaine history to pass for 3,000 yards in a season. He finished with 3,122.
“They weren’t the best defense we played all year,” Smith said, but “you can’t turn the ball over three times, especially against an offense like that.
“I thought it was just the lack of execution on our part,” he added.
UMaine failed to capitalize on a chance to tie in the first half and settled for a field goal. As a result, the Eagles maintained the momentum.
Trailing 21-10, UMaine went 72 yards on six plays to open the second half, highlighted by a 39-yard pass from Smith to Art Williams (4 catches, 89 yards). Smith hit Perillo with a 12-yard scoring toss to get the Bears within 21-17.
Georgia Southern refused to let the Bears get any closer.
The Eagles answered with a 56-yard drive as Wilcox raced 36 yards on the first play and QB Jaybo Shaw eventually scored on a 1-yard run. The PAT made it 28-17.
Three plays later, Darius Eubanks picked off Smith at the UMaine 27. Shaw found Kentrellis Showers alone in the end zone for a 25-yard scoring hookup that pushed the lead to 35-17.
The Bears answered after the elusive Damarr Aultman (6 catches, 108 yards) turned a short pass into a 48-yard completion to the GSU 3. On the next play, Smith threw to John Ebeling in the end zone.
UMaine faked the PAT, but holder Chris Treister of Cape Elizabeth was stopped short on a run, leaving the Eagles on top 35-23.
GSU then fumbled and Sam Shipley recovered at the UM 24. However, UMaine was stopped short on a fourth-and-four pass at the GSU 42.
The Eagles kept the ball for the next six minutes, but missed a 31-yard field goal with 8:58 remaining.
“We’ve had a lot of those type of games, wins, this year and I don’t think anybody on our sideline felt like we weren’t going to get it done until the very end,” Cosgrove said.
UMaine rallied and drove to the GSU 10, but an errant shotgun snap on a second-down play from the 10 resulted in a 7-yard loss and the Bears couldn’t convert with 5:03 to play.
The Bears got a stop and had one more shot, but Smith was intercepted to end any chance UMaine might have had.
“We knew we were in the game with two minutes left when we were driving,” Smith said. “We didn’t think they were stopping us, we just didn’t execute.”
Georgia Southern converted 8 of 13 third-down plays and went 2-for-3 on fourth down, keeping its dangerous offense on the field all day. The Eagles punted only once.
Sophomore tackle Craig Capella (3½ tackles for a loss) was among four Bears with seven tackles along with senior Raibonne Charles of Windham, senior linebacker Vinson Givans and junior cornerback Darlos James.
Brent Russell made six tackles for GSU, including a big first-half stop inside the 5 that forced UMaine to kick a field goal.
GSU dominated the first half, running 43 plays to only nine for UMaine and scored on its first two possessions.
The Eagles raced 60 yards on seven plays, highlighted by a 32-yard pass completion from Jaybo Shaw to Wilcox that set up Shaw’s 2-yard keeper.
Smith was intercepted on UMaine’s second offensive play and the hosts embarked on a 13-play, 79-yard scoring march that culminated in Wilcox’s 2-yard scoring run. The PAT made it 14-0 with 2:47 left in the quarter.
UMaine got a spark when senior Roosevelt Boone bobbled the opening kickoff at the 9, then picked it up and avoided two tackles on his way to a 91-yard touchdown sprint.
Harvey’s PAT made it 14-7.
The Bears’ then made a stop and the offense responded. The key play was a 47-yard bomb from Smith to Aultman to the Eagles’ 9.
UMaine got to the 1, but a third-and-goal run by Pushaun Brown (9 carries, 38 yds.) was snuffed out for a 4-yard loss. The Bears settled for Harvey’s 21-yard field goal at the 6:10 mark.
GSU re-established the momentum with a 10-play, 67-yard drive. Wilcox’s 9-yard option run with 35 seconds to play gave the Eagles a 21-10 halftime cushion.