STATESBORO -- It’s a safe bet Georgia Southern won’t be favored when the No. 22-ranked Eagles take on William & Mary in the second round of the FCS playoffs Saturday.
But don’t be surprised if the Eagles win and don’t be disappointed if Georgia Southern loses.
Because no matter what the outcome of Saturday’s game in Williamsburg, Va., the Eagles have had plenty to celebrate already under first-year coach Jeff Monken.
The option is back. The Eagles beat hated rival Appalachian State and equally hated rival Furman, which doesn’t always happen in the same season.
They gave Navy a game and should have beaten Wofford.
And, above all else, GSU got back into the playoffs for the first time since 2005.
Indeed, the team’s 41-16 win over South Carolina State in the first round showed Georgia Southern belongs in the postseason despite a 7-4 record that in seasons past might not have been good enough to make the cut.
But this is the year the playoff field expanded from 16 to 20 teams, giving Georgia Southern an invitation to the dance.
The Eagles didn’t waste it. They also showed themselves to be a resilient bunch.
Georgia Southern lost starting quarterback and offensive leader Jaybo Shaw late in the first quarter (he’ll reportedly be ready to play on Saturday against the Tribe) with GSU up 19-0. South Carolina State then rallied to cut the score to 19-10.
The Eagles didn’t break. Actually, they didn’t even bend much -- and along the way showed that this option team has more options than its trademark offense.
- GSU got two touchdown runs from A back J.J. Wilcox, who made the move to slotback after playing as a wide receiver last year.
- The Eagles got a 34-yard touchdown run on a fumble recovery from freshman defensive lineman Josh Gebhart, who was nearby when Buck Buchanon candidate Brent Russell disrupted a South Carolina State handoff attempt and swatted the ball to the ground.
Gebhart scooped it up and set sail, setting off an endzone celebration and serving notice that the rambunctious Russell was going to be hard for the Bulldogs to handle. He was.
- Georgia Southern got field goals of 32, 23 and 45 yards from the steady leg of Adrian Mora.
- Twice, GSU’s kicking team recorded safeties. Video reportedly showed one wasn’t actually a safety because the runner was down on the 1, but the correct call might only have delayed the inevitable.
- Even third string quarterback Russell DeMasi, who wasn’t on the depth chart at the beginning of the season, punched in a TD in the late going. And though freshman QB Jerrick McKinnon didn’t score, he showed promise under fire and kept the Eagles from imploding after Shaw went down.
There were other plays as well. But sum it up as a team effort as GSU notched its 39th playoff win -- the most in FCS history. All of which obviously begs the question of how much further the six-time NCAA FCS champion Eagles can go this season, and that will be debated by keyboard coaches on sports message boards ad naseum until Saturday.
In the meantime, GSU fans have another fine reason to break out the Erk Russell videos on You Tube or read up on some of his quotes.
Like this one, from Russell’s retirement speech after his 1989 Eagles went 15-0 behind a skinny quarterback from Bradwell Institute named Raymond Gross to claim the school’s third national title in less than a decade of football:
“ I’m gonna say it one more time. We are Georgia Southern. Our colors are blue and white. We call ourselves the Bald Eagles. We call our offense the Georgia Power Company ... and that’s a terrific name for an offense. Our snap count is ‘rate, hike.’ We practice on the banks of Beautiful Eagle Creek and that’s in Statesboro, Georgia -- the gnat capital of America. Our weekends begin on Thursday. The co-eds outnumber the men 3 to 2. They’re all good looking and they’re all rich. And folks, you just can’t beat that ... and you just can’t beat Georgia Southern. And you ain’t seen nothin yet!”
Jeff Whitten covers sports for the Bryan County News and Coastal Courier. He is a GSU graduate. Check out photos from Saturday's game at http://community.bryancountynews.net/gallery/detail/373/.