#5 GSU (9-3) at #4 Old Dominion (11-1)
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Sometimes, the best defense is a good offense.
When Georgia Southern and Old Dominion met during the second round of the 2011 Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, the teams combined for 103 points.
The Eagles will go into Saturday’s quarterfinal matchup with the Monarchs with a familiar philosophy — you can’t score if you don’t have the ball.
In other words, the longer GSU takes to put together a drive with its triple-option offense, the less chance ODU and quarterback Taylor Heinicke have to score.
It’s not just this week’s philosophy for the Eagles (9-3).
“It is every week — try to limit the possessions of the other team,” GSU head coach Jeff Monken said. “It’s one of the philosophies of our team and it’s why we run our offense.”
The Monarchs (11-1) want to score early and often, and have been pretty successful, scoring a nation’s-best 46 points per game.
“There’s several games this year where they’ve run over 100 plays,” GSU defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “That’s a lot of football. It’s hard to stop anybody who gets a chance at taking 100 snaps. There’s more opportunities to score when you have that many chances.”
Curtis stressed that the Eagles need to focus on themselves and playing from their strengths, rather than trying to capitalize on ODU’s weaknesses.
“Weakness? I don’t know if they have one,” Curtus said. “It’s a high-powered offense. They can score from just about anywhere on the field. It’s difficult to prepare for, as difficult as we’ve seen.”
The Eagles have thrived against the run this season, holding opponents to 132 yards per game and 3.7 yards per rush.
While ODU is renowned for its passing game, it’s also rushed for 32 touchdowns and 1,894 yards, led by Heinike’s team-leading 10 touchdowns.
“We don’t want to give them the opportunity to run the football and become more two dimensional,” said GSU linebacker John Stevenson, who leads the Eagles with 98 tackles and is one of two Eagles to have started all 12 games on defense. “I may be on slot receivers and go outside the box a little bit, but we’ve got to keep an eye on the quarterback, because he’s capable of tucking the ball and running.”
The Eagles slashed ODU for 607 yards in 2011, but days later, defensive coordinator Andy Rondeau was fired.
Now, GSU can only guess how the Monarchs will approach Saturday’s game.
“I assume they’ll have something different for us on defense, because they’ve got a new staff,” Monken said. “I don’t know that for a fact. They might line up in the same defense and try to do that better than they did last year. With our defense, we’re going to try and line up and play better than we did last year.”
Heinicke has come a long way from the 2011 season, when he didn’t earn the starting job until midway through the season.
“Playing against him last year, I was amazed at how far along he was as a freshman,” Curtis said. “He hadn’t played a whole lot early in the season, and it was impressive to see him run the offense. He’s a lot more comfortable this season, you can see it on the film.”
Now, Heinicke is 209 passing yards away from setting the single-season FCS passing record of 4,863 yards, set in 1994 by Alcorn State’s Steve McNair.
Stevenson gets a bit of motivation from that.
“If it was up to us,” Stevenson said, “he would get zero yards and zero points on the board. That’s how any defense that’s competitive should think.”
Kickoff at Ballard Stadium in Norfolk, Va., is set for noon on Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN.
The winner will punch a ticket to the semifinals to either host Wofford or travel to defending national champion North Dakota State in Fargo, N.D., the following Saturday.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.