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Eagles, McKinnon, prove elite status the hard way
GSU FOOTBALL 120812 2100A
Jerick McKinnon flies through the air against Old Dominion Saturday in the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. Georgia Southern won, 49-35. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

#5 GSU (10-3) at #1 N. Dakota St. (12-1)
Friday, 8 p.m.
Fargo, N.D.
TV: ESPN2
Radio: 103.7 FM

Who is North Dakota State?
    No. 1 North Dakota State (12-1, 7-1 Missouri Valley Conference) is scheduled to host No. 5 seed Georgia Southern (10-3, 6-2 Southern Conference) in an NCAA FCS playoff semifinal game at 7:05 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14, at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome (AstroTurf®’s GameDay Grass™ / 18,700) ... Top-seeded North Dakota State defeated Wofford College 14-7 on Dec. 8, while the Eagles defeated Old Dominion 49-35 ... The NDSU-Georgia Southern winner plays the Sam Houston State (10-3)-Eastern Washington (11-2) winner in the FCS championship game on Jan. 5, 2013, in Frisco, Texas.

SERIES RECORD
This is the third meeting between North Dakota State and Georgia Southern ... NDSU leads the series 2-0 including a 35-7 win in the FCS semifinals last season. ... The Bison are 3-0 against members of the Southern Conference. ... Members of the MVFC are 5-13 against the SoCon in the playoffs.

AT HOME
North Dakota State has compiled a 245-37-3 record at home since 1964. ... The Bison are 100-23-0 in Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome since moving from Dacotah Field in 1993. ... NDSU is 21-3 over the last three seasons at home and is 51-12 since head coach Craig Bohl took over in 2003.

SELL OUT
North Dakota State has recorded its 13th sellout over the past seven seasons including a record crowd of 19,065 vs. No. 3 Youngstown State at Gate City Bank Field on Oct. 6. ... NDSU has attracted over 18,000 fans in 15 of its last 16 home games including four sellouts.

POSTSEASON HISTORY
North Dakota State is making its third straight NCAA Division I FCS playoff appearance and the program’s 26th postseason overall including 17 in the Division II playoffs. ... The Bison won the 2011 NCAA FCS national championship with a 17-6 win over Sam Houston State on Jan. 7, 2012, in Frisco, Texas. ... North Dakota State, the No. 2 seed, posted home wins over James Madison (26-14), Lehigh (24-0) and Georgia Southern (35-7) to advance. ... NDSU advanced to the 2010 NCAA FCS quarterfinals before falling 38-31 in overtime at eventual national champion Eastern Washington. ... North Dakota State defeated Robert Morris 43-17 in the opening round, the program’s first-ever NCAA playoff game in the Fargodome. ... NDSU defeated Montana State 42-17 in the second round at Bozeman. ... The Bison are 43-14 overall in the postseason including an 8-1 record in the NCAA FCS playoffs and 31-12 record in NCAA Division II. ... North Dakota State has won nine national championships (1965, 1968, 1969, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1990 and 2011) and were national runner-up three times (1967, 1981 and 1984).

    Six weeks ago, despite a stretch where they won six-straight games and earned a No. 1 ranking, there was a lingering question as to whether the Georgia Southern Eagles were actually good enough to win the national championship.
    They didn’t help matters by losing two of their final three regular-season games, albeit one of those losses was at Georgia.
    However, with two solid playoff wins, including a come-from-behind 49-35 win last Saturday at Old Dominion in which they ran up 602 yards rushing, coach Jeff Monken’s team stands one win away from earning an opportunity to play for the seventh FCS national championship in program history.
    And, in doing so Georgia Southern has established its bonafides as a team good enough indeed to win a national title.
    It won’t be an easy task as Georgia Southern (10-3) takes on defending champion and No. 1 North Dakota State (12-1) in an FCS semifinal game at 8 p.m. on Friday in Fargo, N.D. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
    It’s the same trail the Eagles followed last year, one which ended in a 35-7 loss at the hands of the Bison in the loud and boisterous Fargodome.
    However, thanks to the emergence of Jerick McKinnon this is a different look Georgia Southern team than the one which the Bison blanked in the second half last year. It was a 14-7 game at the half.
    With McKinnon at the throttle the Eagles have run for 1,006 yards in its two playoff games with the junior quarterback personally accounting for 487 yards including 316 against Central Arkansas.
    Last year the Bison focused on taking away the dive and the pitch, but unfortunately quarterback Jaybo Shaw did not have the speed to hit the holes quickly enough to make them pay.
    As a result the Eagles were held to a season low 189 yards rushing, only 68 in the second half.
    McKinnon has 1,649 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns this season, 1056 yards and 14 touchdowns coming in his last six games.
    Since being inserted as the starting quarterback against Western Carolina in the fifth game of the season he has rushed for 1,294 yards and 15 touchdowns.
    Improvement has come in leaps and bounds, and quarterback Coach Mitch Ware attributes it to the fact McKinnon can now focus on one position.
    “I think he’s improved every game,” Ware said. “He’s settled into a position. He knows he’s the quarterback, and that’s helped.
    “The game experience, getting 70 snaps a game and seeing things has made him more comfortable,” Ware said. “I think he’s become more of a quarterback. He’s a junior, but until now Jerick has done what we wanted him to do, and we’ve asked a lot of him.  He’s played slot, fullback, wide receiver and corner. That’s all probably helped him, though, from having learned every position and the assignments.”
    McKinnon was on the defensive side of the field last year against the Bison as he played defensive back in the Eagles’ four playoff games despite not having played on defense all season.
    Playing quarterback on a regular basis has helped tremendously, McKinnon said.
    “The more reps you get in practice and in the game makes a big difference,” McKinnon said. “Now you starting seeing the things on Saturday you expect to see. Right now we’re comfortable with the way we’re executing the offense. We’ve got more guys who can carry the ball and give the defense fits.”
    But, there are no illusions about what the Eagles are going up against in the NDSU defense which is allowing only 78 rushing yards per game.
    “This time we know more about what to expect (playing in the Fargodome),” McKinnon said. “It’s a hostile environment, and I can’t say enough about how good they are. We expect it to be a hard game.”
    Despite his play of late Ware believes there are bigger days in store for McKinnon.
    “I’m still not sure he’s played the best game he can play,” Ware said. “In the years I’ve been here I’ve seen teams and quarterbacks get better, and he’s no exception. He’s what you want in leading a team and moving the ball. He can check you in and out of a play. That means a lot when live bullets are coming at you. Jerick has learned a lot this year. He’s football smart and he’s smart, too.”