#6 (FCS) GSU (8-2) at #5 (FBS) Georgia (9-1)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Radio: 103.7 FM
Jerick McKinnon was breathing and perspiring heavily as he trotted off the practice field Monday evening.
“Man, I’m tired,” McKinnon said. “It’s been a long day … those punishment runs are hard.”
Earlier in the day McKinnon had been named the Southern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in Georgia Southern’s 69-26 win over Howard last Saturday.
But, when it came to the grueling running drill after practice for players who had made mistakes — whether it was missed assignments, tackles or penalties — no one was immune.
Not even the star of the game.
“Yeah,” McKinnon said. “I made a lot of mistakes. Didn’t execute all of my assignments. I have to pay for it just like everyone else. I can’t, and shouldn’t, get any special treatment. It’s part of the game, the way things are here.”
McKinnon had a career high 198 yards rushing against the Bison, scoring three touchdowns and passing for two more in a win that for all practical purposes locked up a bid to the FCS playoffs for the Eagles.
Georgia Southern (8-2, 6-2) clinched a share of the Southern Conference championship as it finished in a three-way tie with Appalachian State and Wofford.
The Eagles conclude regular season play at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday in Athens when they meet Georgia at Sanford Stadium.
Georgia Southern is the only team to reach the FCS semi-finals the last two years, and with its eight wins is all but assured of receiving an at-large bid when the NCAA announces the 20-team playoff field on Sunday.
Actually, the Eagles may not have to worry about an at-large bid.
SoCon officials confirmed this week that should The Citadel beat Furman the conference’s automatic bid goes to Georgia Southern. Should the Paladins prevail the Mountaineers hold the tiebreaker.
First and foremost, however, on the No. 6 Eagles’ minds are the No. 5 Bulldogs who are 4-0 all-time against Georgia Southern. The teams last met in 2008.
“We all know what kind of game it’s going to be,” McKinnon said. “Georgia is obviously really good, and they have a lot of playmakers. It’s a big stage.”
It won’t be McKinnon’s first time on the big stage.
First of all there’s the two trips to the FCS semifinals, and last year Georgia Southern played at Alabama, losing 45-21 to a Tide team that went on to win the national championship.
Plus, as a youngster he saw his older brother, Lester Norwood, play free safety at Florida from 1998-2002. Norwood is the only true freshman to have started a season opener under Steve Spurrier when he coached the Gators.
“He was a good player,” McKinnon said. “He’s why I’m a Florida fan.”
If the Eagles are to enjoy any success against the Bulldogs it will depend on the feet of McKinnon who with the recent injury problems of fullback Dominique Swope has emerged as Georgia Southern’s top offensive threat.
McKinnon’s outburst against Howard gives him 1,053 yards rushing and he has scored 11 touchdowns. In six games as the starting quarterback he has completed 14-of-26 passes for 396 yards and five touchdowns.
The Marietta junior now has 2,085 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns for his career, one receiving. McKinnon has started at four different positions for the Eagles — quarterback, wide receiver, slotback and defensive back. He has two interceptions as a defensive back.
Ezayi Youyoute started the first four games at quarterback before McKinnon was given the starting nod at Western Carolina.
“He’s steadily improved,” coach Jeff Monken said. “And, hopefully he’ll continue. He’s got a sense of urgency about him, an inner feeling he’s got to lead, and he makes plays which is important at that position.”
“The difference between the other positions and playing the quarterback position here is accountability,” McKinnon said. “There’s more responsibility and sense of pressure every time you step out there.”
There’s no question, Monken said, that McKinnon’s a talented athlete, and is especially dangerous with the football in his hands.
“He’s a powerful runner, fast, and has the ability to make plays in space,” Monken said. “Those attributes are hard to find in a player. And, he wants to win. He’s a tremendous competitor.”
While it would only be natural for there to be a degree of animosity between McKinnon and Youyoute that’s not the case, Monken said.
“They’ve both handled it well,” Monken said. “They’re close friends, and they’re both fierce competitors. Izzy wants to start, but they’re both all in for what needs to be done. They both want to win.”
Youyoute is currently hobbled with a sprained ankle, and did not play against Howard.
He has 467 yards rushing and is 14-for-29 passing for 229 yards.