Georgia Southern quarterback Jaybo Shaw left the game midway through the first quarter after taking a nasty hit, but the Eagles got plenty of points from defense, special teams and even the offense as they ran away from South Carolina State 41-16 Saturday at Paulson Stadium in the first round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
It was the program’s first playoff win since a 31-7 home victory over Maine on December 7, 2002, and the first playoff appearance since a first-round, 50-35 loss to Texas State on November 26, 2005.
“I’m thrilled for our team, I’m thrilled for our fans, I’m thrilled for our student body, and I’m most excited for our players,” said first-year GSU coach Jeff Monken. “This is something they really want to be a part of. Every kid does. Every kid that plays college football wants to be a part of the postseason.”
The special teams of the Eagles (8-4) scored more points (18) than SCSU’s entire team, with three Adrian Mora field goals (45, 22, 32), four extra points and two safeties after kickoffs.
“That was unusual,” Monken said. “I’ve seen a safety on a kickoff before, but never twice in one game.”
The special teams also converted two fourth downs. On 4th-and-9 in the second quarter, middle linebacker Josh Rowe turned a fake punt into a 33-yard run, and on 4th-and-8 early in the third quarter, the Eagles faked a field goal and holder/punter Charlie Edwards completed a 14-yard pass to long snapper Carter Jones.
The Eagles’ defense got some scoring done too, when defensive linemen Brent Russell and Josh Gebhardt teamed up for a 34-yard fumble return to put GSU ahead of the Bulldogs (9-3) 16-0 in the first quarter.
Russell, a sophomore, blew through the line un-touched and slapped the ball out of Bulldogs quarterback Malcolm Long’s hands as he was trying to hand it off.
“He held it out there for a little while,” Russell said, “and I didn’t know whether to take the handoff or knock it out, so I just knocked it loose.”
Gebhardt scooped it up and ran it back 34 yards for the score.
“He hit the quarterback and the tailback on the exchange and the ball was just sitting there for me,” said Gebhardt, a true freshman. “When that happens, we want to capitalize.”
Gebhardt also picked off a Long pass in the fourth quarter with 8:28 remaining in the game.
The GSU defense allowed only 157 yards through the first three quarters, and the Bulldogs finished with 223 in large part to a 58-yard touchdown pass by Long (11 for 24, 161 yards, 3 INT) for the final margin in the fourth quarter.
Without Shaw, Georgia Southern’s offense struggled in the first half. Shaw led GSU down the field on its first possession, directing an 11-play, 80-yard drive that gave the Eagles an early 7-0 lead.
Shaw went down on the first play of the next offensive drive, and true freshman backup Jerick McKinnon (23 carries, 42 yards) replaced him. The Eagles managed only 70 more yards until halftime.
“When I first entered the game, it was tough,” McKinnon said. “The coaches and players told me just to clam down, settle down and run the offense and execute. Without them, I couldn‘t have done what I did.”
McKinnon started slow, but got comfortable in the second half. Georgia Southern finished the game with 323 rushing yards.
“The defense helped us out a lot,” said McKinnon, “forcing turnovers and scoring touchdowns as well. It took a little bit of the pressure off the offense and helped us out.”
Also helping McKinnon were the looks from the South Carolina State defense that he saw all week in practice.
“Those were the same fronts that we prepared for,” said Monken, “so he just needed to settle down and get some confidence. I think when you get in there, and you’re kind of thrown into a situation in the middle of a drive … it’s a tough situation when you’re a freshman.”
The details of Shaw’s injury were unknown after the game, but Monken is hopeful he will be ready when the playoffs continue Saturday in Williamsburg, Va.
The Eagles will face No. 2 seed William and Mary at 1:30 p.m. in the second round. The Tribe was awarded a bye in the first round.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.