Georgia Southern, Wofford meet again

By Donald Heath

Savannah Morning News

SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- In this case, familiarity breeds admiration.

Georgia Southern and Wofford, two schools that know a little something about option offense and hard-nosed defense, prepare to meet a second time this season when they collide in the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision (Former Division I-AA) playoffs Saturday at Wofford's Gibbs Stadium.

The winner advances to the semifinals against Friday night’s winner of the New Hampshire-Delaware game.

The final step is the FCS national championship game in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 7.

The Eagles (9-4) lost a hard-fought 33-31 decision to Wofford in Statesboro on Oct. 9.

“I wouldn’t expect to see something a whole lot different than what they’ve done and we’re the same,” GSU coach Jeff Monken said. “We believe in our system and what we do. You can’t re-invent your offense or defense to counter what happened in the last game. You try to do what you do better.”

Southern has been better lately and a large contingent of Eagle fans should be here. GSU sold out its allotment of 2,500 tickets within two days and more Eagle fans have been calling the Wofford ticket office.

GSU’s timely five-game winning streak has been a source of their excitement. The Eagles began the streak with a 21-14 overtime stunner against top-ranked Appalachian State. Last Saturday, Southern shocked second-seeded William & Mary 31-15 in the second round.

Just to get to the playoffs, the Eagles had to rally from an 11-point deficit in the final four minutes to defeat rival Furman 32-28 in the regular-season finale.

“Jeff and his crew have done an awesome job,” Terriers coach Mike Ayers said. “Jeff has those guys down there believing. I know they’re a lot better right now than when we played them. Hopefully, we’re better right now too.”

Some of GSU’s improvement can be traced to the emergence of fullback Robert Brown, a true freshman who did not play in the initial Wofford game because of a back injury.

The team’s leading rusher with 900 yards, Brown had 560 of those yards during the last five games, including a career-high 178 against William & Mary. GSU and its triple-option offense piled up 423 rushing yards against the Tribe.

But the Eagles’ scheme may not work as well against the Terriers. Ayers, in his 23rd year at Wofford, knows all about option offenses. His wingbone attack led the FCS in rushing with 307.3 yards a game.

After winning just three games last season, the Terriers posted a 10-2 mark this year and finished the regular season ranked sixth in the nation.

After a first-round bye, Wofford defeated Jacksonville State 17-14 in the second round last week.

“They have some difference makers and playmakers and that can make all the difference in the world between a win here and a loss there,” Monken said.

On offense, fullback Eric Breitenstein, who missed all but two games last season because of injuries, ran for 1,537 yards and 22 touchdowns while earning first-team All-Southern Conference honors this season. Defensive lineman Ameet Pall was the conference’s defensive player of the year.

GSU has impact players as well. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw, the Georgia Tech transfer from Flowery Branch, has nine touchdowns in four of the five games during the winning streak. Shaw was knocked out of the South Carolina State game in the first quarter.

The Eagles ranked sixth in the nation in total defense, relying on sophomore nose guard Brent Russell. The first-team all-conference performer is among a group in consideration for the Buchannan Award, symbolic of the top defensive player in the FCS.

Georgia Southern won only five games a year ago and was picked to finish seventh in the nine-team Southern Conference by both the league media and coaches in the preseason.

But the Eagles have remained humble despite a late-season run that has taken them the deepest into the postseason since reaching the semis in 2002.

“We’re trying to slug around and do the best we can right now,” Monken said.