Bundle up, Eagles fans. Georgia Southern is heading to Fargo, N.D., for the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
Third-ranked and third-seeded GSU beat No. 13 Maine, 35-23, in an FCS quarterfinal Saturday at Paulson Stadium to advance to the semifinals for a second consecutive season.
The Eagles (11-2) will play No. 4 and second-seeded North Dakota State (12-1), which beat No. 6 Lehigh, 24-0, on Saturday to advance to the semifinals for the first time in the school’s history.
GSU and North Dakota State will play inside the Fargodome Dec. 16 or Dec. 17 at a time to be determined. Last year, the Eagles traveled to Delaware and lost, 27-10, in the semifinals.
"It’s a good feeling," GSU senior center William Maxwell said. "It was our goal at the beginning of the season to get back in this position. We’re working hard each and every week, and we’re fortunate to be back in this position.
"We’re going to practice this week real hard and do the best we can to get to the national championship game, which is our goal."
A crowd of 12,886 watched as Maine (9-4) failed to stop GSU’s triple-option, which amassed 360 yards on 67 carries. The Black Bears, who limited Appalachian State to 3 yards rushing en route to a victory last Saturday, struggled against GSU’s running game.
"We thought we had a great effort last week. We felt like we had to have an even better one today," Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said. "We had difficulty, as you saw, stopping the triple (option). We don’t see it a lot. I thought we got better as the game went on but time ran out on us.
"They’re a great program, great team. Great execution, I thought, of the option. We were hoping they would put it on the ground a little more than they did. They didn’t do that. And we’re going home. It’s not something we want to do."
GSU scored on its first possession when quarterback Jaybo Shaw ran for a 2-yard touchdown. The highlight of the seven-play, 60-yard drive, was Shaw’s 32-yard pass to J.J. Wilcox. Adrian Mora kicked the first of his five extra points for a 7-0 lead.
Maine’s first drive lasted only two plays because GSU’s Jerick McKinnon, starting at defensive back for the second time in his career, intercepted quarterback Warren Smith’s pass. It was McKinnon’s first interception as an Eagle.
GSU capitalized, driving 79 yards in 13 plays and chewing 8:16 off the game clock, and took a 14-0 lead on Wilcox’s 2-yard touchdown run.
Maine’s Roosevelt Boone bobbled the ball on the ensuing kickoff but ran for a 91-yard touchdown to cut the score to 14-7 with 2:34 left in the first quarter.
GSU had the ball for 13:57 in the first quarter compared to Maine’s 1:03. In the first half, the Eagles maintained possession for 24:54 compared to the Black Bears’ 5:15.
"We did a better job this week of controlling the football, being able to run the football like we did, and keep the clock rolling," GSU head coach Jeff Monken said. "Certainly, that was an advantage for us."
GSU gained 286 yards total on 43 plays in the first half compared to Maine’s 61 yards on nine plays.
"I think they ran nine offensive plays in the first half," Monken said. "When I saw that stat I couldn’t believe that. They also had 10 points. To score 10 points with only nine plays is pretty impressive."
Maine cut the score to 14-10 in the second quarter on Brian Harvey’s 21-yard field goal. The Black Bears’ Smith connected with Damarr Aultman for a 47-yard gain to GSU’s 9-yard line. But Maine settled for a field goal when GSU nose tackle Brent Russell tackled Pushaun Brown for a 3-yard loss on third-and-goal.
GSU took a 21-10 lead into halftime after Wilcox ran for a 7-yard touchdown with 35 seconds left.
Maine cut the score to 21-17 in the third quarter when Smith connected with tight end Justin Perillo for a 12-yard touchdown.
GSU made it 28-17 when Shaw ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 8:42 left in the third quarter.
On the third play of Maine’s ensuing drive, GSU linebacker Darius Eubanks intercepted Smith. Two plays later, GSU’s Shaw threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Kentrellis Showers for a 35-17 lead.
"Our defense made some big plays today," Monken said. "You know, they struggled and they took a lot of criticism from a lot of places, including me, this past week. We challenged them and I thought they played a whole lot better."
Maine cut the score to 35-23 on Smith’s 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Ebeling. The Black Bears faked the point-after attempt but Chris Treister’s two-point conversion run failed with 5:17 left in the third quarter.
GSU’s Shaw fumbled on a pitch and Maine linebacker Sam Shipley recovered at the Black Bears’ 24-yard line with 3:42 left in the third quarter. Maine went for it on fourth-and-4 but GSU cornerback Hudson Presume tackled Aultman after he gained two yards on a pass from Smith.
With 5:03 left, Maine went for it on fourth-and-11 but GSU cornerback Laron Scott broke up a pass in the end zone intended for Aultman.
Maine’s final drive ended with 2:29 to play when Smith was intercepted by GSU’s McKinnon for a second time. Seconds later, Paulson Stadium erupted with the chant "Go home Yankees!"
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.