Something Georgia Southern football head coach Jeff Monken said Wednesday night resonated with me as I watched the Eagles’ 35-7 loss to North Dakota State in a Football Championship Subdivision semifinal Saturday.
Monken was asked after practice at Paulson Stadium what his team learned from its 27-10 loss at Delaware in the semifinals last season.
"We fumbled the ball a lot (four times)," he said. "You can’t make those kinds of mistakes and expect to win a football game, any football game, but certainly not against one of the best teams in the country, which they were.
"And it’s the same with North Dakota State. They’re one of the best teams in the nation. We’re going to have to take care of the ball."
GSU fumbled three times against North Dakota State. Each of the Eagles’ mistakes resulted in a touchdown for the Bison, who will play for the FCS national championship.
North Dakota State (13-1) will play top-ranked Sam Houston State (14-0) at 1 p.m. Jan. 7 at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, Texas. Sam Houston State advanced to the title game by beating Montana, 31-28, in a semifinal Friday night.
A Fargodome crowd of 18,108, and ESPNU viewers throughout the country, watched as North Dakota State limited GSU to 186 yards rushing on 48 carries, an average of 3.9 yards per attempt. The Eagles entered the game averaging 334.1 yards rushing and 37.3 points per game.
Even Alabama, with the nation’s top-ranked defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision, gave up 302 yards rushing in a 45-21 victory over GSU.
Heck, GSU ran for 634 yards in a 52-20 victory over Western Carolina.
North Dakota State entered the game scoring 32.2 points and allowing 13.7 points per game. On GSU’s second drive of the game, quarterback Jaybo Shaw fumbled during a handoff to Dominique Swope and North Dakota State’s Chad Wilson recovered in the red zone.
The Bison capitalized with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Brock Jensen to Warren Holloway. ESPNU replays showed Holloway push off of GSU cornerback Laron Scott in the end zone but not get penalized.
The Eagles used a clever fake punt and 13-yard gain by Johnathan Bryant to extend a drive in the second quarter. GSU tied the game at 7 on Swope’s 23-yard touchdown run.
North Dakota State countered with its own trickery when Holloway ran for a 17-yard touchdown on a reverse to make it 14-7.
With 10 seconds left before halftime, GSU outsmarted itself by attempting a second trick play. Instead of letting Adrian Mora attempt a 41-yard field goal, GSU faked the field goal and had holder Charlie Edwards throw a pass. Edwards’ throw was batted down and the Bison went into halftime with a 14-7 lead and momentum.
During GSU’s first drive of the third quarter, Shaw connected with J.J. Wilcox for a 31-yard gain. Wilcox made a great play, but North Dakota State’s John Pike made a better play and stripped the ball from Wilcox. Travis Beck recovered for the Bison at NDSU’s 4-yard line.
The Bison again capitalized when Jensen ran for a 55-yard touchdown for a 20-7 lead with 5:53 left in the third quarter.
GSU’s third turnover came with 5:39 remaining in the game when North Dakota State’s Coulter Boyer sacked Shaw and Ryan Drevlow recovered the ball for the Bison. A camera showed Monken on the sideline shouting at offensive lineman Trevor McBurnett. GSU’s frustration had boiled over.
North Dakota State countered with D.J. McNorton’s 4-yard touchdown run with 39 seconds to play.
It’s hard to find fault with GSU’s coaches and players. They tried their best. The only thing I question is why GSU faked the field goal. The Eagles should have tried to get three points. Had they done so, they would have trailed 14-10 at halftime. Then again, had they scored a touchdown, they would have looked like geniuses.
Either way, it wouldn’t have mattered. Shaw was forced to throw a season-high 18 times because the triple-option wasn’t working.
GSU simply got beat by a better team. And there’s no shame in that.
Noell Barnidge can be reached at (912) 489-9408.