Everything University of Maine football fans need to know about Georgia Southern can be explained in one fact.
On Nov. 19, the Eagles rushed for more than 300 yards against second-ranked Alabama, which boasts the best defense at college football’s highest level, the Bowl Championship Subdivision.
The Black Bears’ ability to contain the Eagles’ triple-option attack will be the crux of the matter at 2 p.m. Saturday when the two teams meet in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals.
The setting is Paulson Stadium in Statesboro, Ga., where ninth-ranked UMaine (9-3) and No. 3 Georgia Southern (10-2) will square off for the right to reach the FCS final four.
The Black Bears are making the program’s third trip to the quarterfinals against a team that is a fixture in the FCS ranks. Georgia Southern ranks first all-time with 42 playoff wins and six national championships.
UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove said facing any option team is a challenge. UMaine does not face any in the Colonial Athletic Association and Georgia Southern runs it superbly.
“[They’re] running the option style of offense and featuring a great ground attack that we don’t get to see up here,” Cosgrove said.
The Eagles amassed 607 yards of offense in last Saturday’s 55-48 win over CAA member Old Dominion, including a whopping 477 rushing yards.
“We don’t have that [an option offense] existing in our league right now, so it makes it even more difficult to have a preliminary amount of time of seeing that style of offense being run,” Cosgrove said.
The Eagles rank No. 2 in FCS rushing, putting up 331.9 yards per game. Georgia Southern also is ninth in total offense (440.1 ypg) and third in scoring, averaging 37.5 points per contest.
The unit is directed by quarterback Jaybo Shaw, who decides which teammate gets the ball on every snap. He is averaging only 29 rushing yards per game, but has tallied 12 touchdowns and hands off to a formidable stable of backs.
That group is led by fullbacks Dominique Swope (76.9 ypg, 6.9 yards per carry, 6 TDs) and Robert Brown (77.2 ypg, 7.0 ypc, 5 TDs) and Darreion Robinson (22 ypg, 6.2 ypg, 1 TD).
“I think the key is going to be to prepare for the triple option and be sound defensively,” said senior safety Trevor Coston. “We’ve got to be real disciplined. You have to be where you’re supposed to be at all times.”
Georgia Southern also mixes in some well-placed pass plays, as Shaw has completed 57 of 108 throws for 1,226 yards with nine touchdowns.
UMaine must remain disciplined on defense with each player accounting for his assignment. The Bears look to senior safeties Jerron McMillian (87 tackles, 10.5 for a loss) and Coston (77 tackles, 6 interceptions), senior linebacker Vinson Givans (87 tackles) and sophomore end Mike Cole (48 tackles, 11 sacks) to spearhead the effort.
The Bears need to be able to shut down the dive between the tackles and string out the pitch plays to the outside. Tackling well is a priority.
“What’s in front of us here, it’s a different style of offense and probably the highest caliber of athlete that we’ve seen all year long in terms of speed, athleticism and decision-making skills, which are real important in that offense that they’re running,” Cosgrove said. “It’s really going to be a challenge.”
UMaine played one of its best games of the season a week ago, going on the road to beat No. 8 Appalachian State 34-12 in Boone, N.C.
The Black Bears’ offense also will be charged with executing efficiently if they are to compete with the high-scoring Eagles.
UMaine again will attempt to establish itself on the ground to set up the play-action pass. The Bears again are looking to put together some time-consuming scoring drives in order to minimize Georgia Southern’s offensive opportunities.
The Bears look to establish a physical presence with their offensive line, which will try to open holes for senior tailback Pushaun Brown (217 carries, 1,055 yds, 11 TDs, 4.9 ypc). He was a force at Appalachian State with an 111-yard performance.
Redshirt freshman David Hood (69-326-5) complements Brown with his explosiveness and speed.
UMaine is averaging 29.8 points and 379.8 yards per outing behind the play of senior quarterback Warren Smith (255-for-396, 2,893 yds., 20 TDs, 11 interceptions). He was sharp last week, both with his throws and running the ball.
Smith continues to develop a rapport with a versatile receiver corps that is paced by sophomore tight end Justin Perillo (49 receptions, 494 yds., 3 TDs) and wideouts Derek Session (36-386-2), Damarr Aultman (33-467-5) and Art Williams (32-428-2).
Georgia Southern’s defense has been solid but unspectacular, yielding 22.7 points and 354 yards per game. Teams have rushed for 143 yards and passed for an average of 211 yards against it.
The Eagles are led by Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year Brent Russell, a 6-foot-2, 291-pound nose tackle with 55 tackles, 13½ for a loss.
Georgia Southern also looks to safety Deion Stanley (74 tackles, 7 pass breakups), linebackers Josh Rowe (66 tackles) and Darius Eubanks (60 tackles), and cornerback Laron Scott (44 tackles, 3 INTs, 15 breakups) to spearhead a fast, well-rounded defense.
BEAR TRACKS: UMaine is making its third playoff trip to Statesboro, where the Eagles won 31-28 in overtime in 1987 and 31-7 in 2002 … Smith needs 107 passing yards Saturday to become the first UMaine quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in a season … GSU’s Swope rushed for 255 yards and two TDs a week ago … The winner of Saturday’s game takes on the winner of the North Dakota State-Lehigh game in the national semifinals.