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A long, strange road for Eagles


Less than five months ago, Georgia Southern had nowhere to go but up. Now, the Eagles are one of four teams remaining in the hunt for the Football Championship Subdivision national title.

Back in August, GSU was a football team that lost its leading passer, its leading rusher and its leading receiver — all of whom were underclassmen — to transfer.

The Eagles had a new coaching staff, a new system on both sides of the ball, and were coming off a 5-6 season in 2009.

"We don’t have a bunch of super studs and All-Americans listed up and down the roster," said first-year coach Jeff Monken. "We’ve just got a lot of guys who are really trying hard and playing hard."

They were picked in the preseason to finish seventh in the Southern Conference, and for a team that was committed to running the football, the leading returning rusher was Darrieon Robinson, who ran for 287 yards in 2009.

Apparently, nobody told the Eagles they weren’t supposed to be any good.

"After winter conditioning with coach Monken and the rest of the coaches, we all really had that mindset that this can be done, that we would be in this position," said junior cornerback Laron Scott, who was named third-team All-American by the Associated Press Wednesday. "I’m really not all that surprised to be [in the semifinals], because we all worked so hard to get here."

Offensively, the leading rusher at B-back heading into the season was Zeke Rozier. He ran for 34 yards on 15 carries as an F-back in 2009, and was knocked out for the 2010 season with an injury during fall camp.

In fact, the only person in Georgia Southern’s backfield who had ever carried the football for the Eagles was Robinson.

Three wide receivers — Patrick Barker, Mitch Williford and Tyler Sumner -— were the only people on the offensive side in the same position as they played in 2009, and even they were expected to completely change the way they played the game.

Before the season started, the entire two-deep had accounted for three total GSU touchdowns.

Defensively, the only players on the two-deep playing the same position were safeties Derek Heyden and Evan Mattingly and cornerbacks Scott and Carson Hill.

Things were going about as expected mid-way through the season when the Eagles were 4-4 and coming off an Oct. 30 loss to Samford.

The tide turned after a 21-14, overtime win over then-No. 1 Appalachian State the following week.

"Our guys have just believed and kept fighting," said Monken, and I think you’ve got to credit a bunch of guys that’s willing to do that, to not just fold the tents when you’re 4-4 and just say, ‘Well, it’s just another one of those years.’"

The turning point for the defense came after a 35-27 loss at Chattanooga on Oct. 16.

"Ever since the Chattanooga game, the defense felt like we’re not doing our job good enough," sophomore nose tackle Brent Russell, a first-team AP All American, said in a matter-of-fact way. "The coaches got onto us, we made some adjustments and ever since then, we’ve had a great run."

Perhaps more remarkable than the overtime win over the heavily-favored Mountaineers has been what has transpired since.

The Eagles have played five football games — four on the road –—and four of the last six have been against ranked opponents. The last off week for GSU was Oct. 2, and the Eagles have played 10 games in a row since then.

The Eagles (10-4) are a win away from playing for the program’s seventh national championship, and have the opportunity Saturday at noon in Newark, Del. to win the program’s first semifinal game since 2000 and ninth overall.

They’ve done it with a transfer quarterback, a slew of wide-receivers-turned running backs and a handful of undersized offensive linemen.

Entering the season, there was one rushing touchdown on the team from the 2009 stat sheet, and now, 14 games later, 20 different players have carried the football. Eight different players have scored 39 combined rushing touchdowns, which is more total touchdowns than the 2009 Eagles, who got in the end zone 22 times combined on offense, defense and special teams.

In all, the 2010 Eagles have reached the end zone 49 times.

The defense, which also switched schemes from a three-man front to a 4-3, has allowed 31 total touchdowns in 14 games, down from 39 in 11 games a year ago.

Saturday’s bout against Delaware will be televised on ESPNU. The last time the Eagles faced the Blue Hens was a 22-19 loss in 2002. They defeated the Blue hens in 2001, 38-7, in Paulson Stadium during the regular season, and 27-18 in the 2000 semifinals.

The programs met for the first time on Dec. 6, 1997 in the quarterfinals in Newark. Delaware won 16-7.


Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.