In a game of offensive juggernauts, somebody’s defense needed one big, fourth-quarter stop.
Georgia Southern got three.
For the second-straight year, the Eagles got into a shootout against Old Dominion in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs, and once again GSU came out on top, advancing to the semifinals for the third-straight season with a 49-35 win Saturday in S.B. Ballard Stadium.
The fifth-seeded Eagles (10-3) got an interception, a fumble recovery and a fourth-down stop on the way to 28 unanswered fourth-quarter points to dig out of a 35-21 hole.
"Our guys kept believing, our coaches kept coaching, and I am so proud to be a part of this organization," GSU coach Jeff Monken said. "I’m so proud to be a Georgia Southern Eagle."
The fourth-seeded Monarchs (11-2) didn’t force a GSU turnover, but they came close in the third quarter when, trailing 28-14, Eagles slotback Devin Scott fumbled going into the end zone. It went in and out of the hands of two Monarchs defenders, but GSU’s Tray Butler dove on it for a touchdown that cut the ODU lead to 28-21.
Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke (31 of 44, 421 yards) answered with his third touchdown of the game to give the Monarchs a 35-21 lead. In the third quarter, Heinicke broke the FCS, all-time record for passing yards in a season, passing Steve McNair’s record set in 1994 at Alcorn State. He finished the season with 5,076 passing yards.
Heinicke also set the season completions record with 398.
"I just feel like this team is way too good to leave this early," said ODU receiver Nick Mayers, who finished with 10 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
GSU quarterback Jerick McKinnon finished with four rushing touchdowns and 171 yards, and scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to cut the ODU lead to 35-28.
The GSU defense took over the fourth quarter from that point on.
Defensive end Dion DuBose forced Heinicke to fumble on 3rd-and-6 from his own 13, and linebacker Patrick Flowe recovered.
Fullback Dominique Swope (22-186, 2 TDs) missed the next GSU drive working out a banged-up leg on the sideline, but backup William Banks helped sustain the drive and McKinnon tied the game with a two-yard scoring run.
The Eagles got a stop on the next ODU drive when the Monarchs went for it on 4th-and-6 from their own 39-yard line, but an incomplete pass gave GSU the ball back again after John Stevenson defended the pass.
"I think that changed the momentum," Monken said. "We weren’t sure if they were going to punt or go for it. Well, they went for it. We made a nice play on defense."
Swope returned to the field and scored three plays later, from 12 yards out, putting GSU ahead, 42-35.
"Dominique doesn’t give himself enough credit," Monken said. "I know he was hurting over there. They were working him out over there on the sideline and he was pedaling on the bike. Dominique’s our guy, and I’m glad he got back in there."
Old Dominion got one last shot to tie, but on the first play from scrimmage, after a Luke Cherry touchback, Heinike tried to hit Mayers over the middle, but GSU safety J.J. Wilcox dove in and intercepted it. It was a play Wilcox had seen before.
"It happened just like in practice. I was in the right place at the right time," Wilcox said.
The Monarchs scored almost at will in the first half.
They saw 4th-and-13 on their first drive and went for it. Heinicke tucked and ran it for 33 yards up the middle after avoiding a sack. Two played later, he kept a read-option and ran it in from two yards out.
The Eagles marched 75 yards on 11 plays on their first drive, and the only completion was a 20-yard toss to a wide open Darrion Robinson on 3rd-and-13 from the 29.
McKinnon punched it in from a yard out.
Old Dominion went for it again on fourth down on the next drive, but Heinicke to fumbled behind the line of scrimmage and the Eagles got it back on downs.
A quick, 7-play drive that featured a 23-yard run by Johnathan Bryant and a 5-yard touchdown scamper by Swope made it 14-7.
After that came ODU’s first and only three-and-out of the game, and the Monarchs punted it away. Each team punted only once.
That was when the wheels started coming of for the Eagles.
It started with a missed, 43-yard field-goal attempt by Alex Hanks.
The next play from scrimmage was good for a 74-yard strike over the middle from Heinicke to Antonio Vaughan.
The Eagles went three-and-out, and ODU answered that with a 75-yard drive that ended when Mayers was wide open in the end zone and caught Heinicke’s second touchdown pass to put the Monarchs up 21-14.
The half came to an end with Cherry, who attempted his first-career try after handling kickoff and punting duties throughout the season who missed from 30.
: Stevenson had one tackle to bring his season total to 99. … The game continued ODU’s streak of 29 sellouts — every game since the Monarchs started football — with an announced attendance of 20,068. … The Eagles improved to 45-12 overall and 12-9 on the road in the playoffs. … Swope went over 1,000 yards on the season in the game. He and McKinnon have both achieved the feat, marking only the fifth time in program history the Eagles have had two 1,000-yard rushers. … McKinnon has now scored multiple touchdowns in four-straight games.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.