For the third-straight season, Georgia Southern lost in the semifinals.
The first two times, 2010 at Delaware and 2011 at North Dakota State, the Eagles lost by a combined 62-14.
Saturday in Fargo, N.D., they lost by three points. It was all about the little things.
"All those little things in a game, you look back at, and those are the things that are agonizing. It’s tough," GSU coach Jeff Monken said. "It’s tough to lose when you invest so much. I love these kids, and I hate to see them not advance, as much as they’ve invested."
The Eagles committed the only turnover of the game. It was a fumble on the first drive of the second half when they were nursing a 13-9 lead. Two plays later, the Bison scored to take the lead on a 53-yard run.
Then there were the penalties. The Eagles committed 13 for 103 yards. The false starts could be explained by the high noise level of the Fargodome, but the two late hits that netted 28 yards for the Bison on the game-winning drive, were back breakers.
One was a late hit on the NDSU punt returner, the other was on quarterback Brock Jensen.
"Their emotions are running high. They’ve got to keep their cool and they’ve got to be smart enough not to hit a guy after a play," Monken said. "We did that on the punt. It’s just stupid to do that. Then we hit the guy late. The pass rusher doesn’t get there, the ball gets away and he’s frustrated he doesn’t get the sack and he hits the guy late. You can’t do it, and it cost us. The fumble cost us. We turned the ball over, they scored on the drive. It doesn’t mean they had to score, but they certainly wouldn’t have scored if they didn’t have the ball. We gave it to them."
The Eagles’ offense was explosive against an NDSU defense averaging only 78 rushing yards and 11 points allowed per game, putting together 271 yards on the ground and 159 through the air.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough.
"Disappointing would be the understatement of the century," Monken said. "I talked to our guys about a lot of things. All of them have to do with fundamentals. That’s a fundamental thing. If you’re going to win football games, you’ve got to be good at fundamentals. You’ve got to be good in the kicking game, you’ve got to win the turnover battle, you’ve got to make stops on third down, you’ve got to convert third downs, you’ve got to execute on the goal line, you can’t have foolish penalties and you can’t miss assignments."
One more game
J.J. Wilcox has played wide receiver, running back and safety for the Eagles.
Playing in the defensive secondary for the first time in 2012, Wilcox was second on the team with 88 tackles.
He did, however, get into the end zone one last time on Saturday with a 4-yard touchdown on 4th-and-1. It was his only offensive play of the season.
"I picked at (offensive coordinator Brent) Davis all year long about getting me back over there for a couple of plays," Wilcox said. "The opportunity came and the guys did a great job blocking to get me into the end zone."
Wilcox will play one more college game.
He was the first safety named to the roster of the 2013 Senior Bowl, a pre-NFL Draft showcase to be held on Jan. 26, 2013, in Mobile Ala. The game will be televised on the NFL Network.
Wilcox will be among the key losses to the Eagles looking ahead to 2013.
Other key contributors leaving are Brent Russell (DL), Dion DuBose (DL), Blake DeBartola (OL), John Stevenson (LB) and Darreion Robinson (SB).
Russell isn’t worried about his returning teammates.
"They’re going to do big things next year," he said.
Robinson and DeBartola are the only starters departing from the offense.
"Georgia Southern is the only team to make it to the semifinals each of the last three years. That tells you how tough it is. We’re going to get back to work," Monken said. "All these guys that are returning, hopefully we’ll have a good enough team to get back here."
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 4899-9408.