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Georgia Southern looking for a seventh national title
Did the stars align just right last football season or did these Georgia Southern Eagles really begin a run at a seventh heaven?
The Eagles have six national championships, and this season, like the previous 25 seasons, they and their enthusiastic fans are craving a title the way an ice cream lover salivates entering Baskin-Robbins.
GSU doesn’t have a national championship since 2000 — its longest drought ever — and a title didn’t really appear in sight until coach Jeff Monken returned the triple option to campus.
In Monken’s first year, the Eagles turned a 5-6 mess into an encouraging 10-5 campaign. Southern posted a six-game winning streak, beating the No. 1 and No. 4 teams in the Football Championship Subdivision, before falling in the playoff semifinals to Delaware — only after committing four turnovers against the Blue Hens, who lost 20-19 to Eastern Washington in the finals.
That’s how close GSU was last season.
And with 20 starters back, that’s why the Eagles should have their sights on the highest goal.
“The thing you worry about as a coach is: Will the guys be satisfied,” Monken said. “Are they going to be satisfied with what they did a year ago? Will they be hungry to improve and play better?”
FCS coaches don’t think GSU is satisfied. They ranked the Eagles third in their top 25 preseason poll. Selected media and sports information directors across the country tabbed the Eagles fourth in The Sports Network’s preseason top 25 poll.
League writers picked GSU to win the ultra-competitive Southern Conference ahead of Appalachian State.
What a difference a year makes. In 2009, the Mountaineers rolled up 712 yards in defeating the Eagles 52-16 in a game that wasn’t as close as the final score might lead you to believe.
After GSU defeated Furman with a thrilling fourth-quarter rally, Paladin coach Bobby Lamb predicted the Eagles would only get better.
And coach Jerry Moore of Appalachian State had to admit, “Georgia Southern is back” after the Eagles’ 21-14 overtime win over the Mountaineers in Statesboro last season.
Defense leads way
There was a direct correlation between the improved defense and GSU wins last season. The Eagles were ninth nationally in total defense, allowing 286.9 yards a game; 11th in pass defense, allowing 159.9 passing yards a game; and 11th in scoring defense, allowing 18.5 points a game.
Success led to opportunity for defensive coordinator Brent Pry, who accepted a job as co-defensive coordinator at Vanderbilt.
So Monken kept the defensive assistants in place and hired Jack Curtis, well versed in 4-3 schemes, to take over as coordinator.
“I actually haven’t noticed any hiccups,” junior nose guard Brent Russell said. “(Curtis) puts (the scheme) in terminology we can understand, and we’re ready to roll with it.”
There’s a lot of star power on the defense. Russell, a preseason All-American, keyed the unit with 18.5 tackles for losses and eight sacks.
Junior Josh Rowe led the team with 104 tackles after being moved from outside linebacker to middle linebacker.
Senior cornerback Laron Scott, a third-team preseason All-American, tied the school record with six interceptions last season.
Russell, Rowe and Scott all claimed Southern Conference preseason defensive honors along with safety Derek Heyden (98 tackles) and defensive tackle Roderick Tinsley (15 ½ tackles for losses).
The Eagles are so deep Tinsley may not start because sophomore Blake Riley is having a strong camp.
A sleeper for conference or national honors is outside linebacker Darius Eubanks, who couples big hits with pass cover skills.
The more reps, the more improvement in the triple option offense, and last season GSU had an extended month of practice for everyone — starters, reserves, scout teamers, even the coaches.
The Eagles averaged 27.5 points a game, an improvement of about nine a game from 2009.
The scheme gets a lot of the credit. Monken spent 13 years as a disciple of option guru Paul Johnson. Southern didn’t always move the ball with yesteryear flash, but encouraging signs were plentiful, particularly after the Eagles piled up 423 rushing yards in a 31-15 blowout of fourth-ranked William & Mary.
“There was a change of culture and philosophy (when Monken took over),” GSU right tackle Brett Moore said. “It just took a little time. It’s not like we didn’t want to win or we weren’t trying to work. It just took a little time for everybody to become a cohesive unit.”
Senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw helped shorten the growing pains. Shaw had been in the triple-option offense for two years at Georgia Tech before transferring to GSU and providing the Eagles with skill and leadership.
Shaw threw for 1,233 yards and five touchdowns and added another 514 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
But Shaw’s heady execution of the triple option — much like a point guard on a basketball team — made the offense go.
Robert Brown, a sophomore fullback, gained 1,004 yards and slotbacks J.J. Wilcox and Darreion Robinson had 484 and 460 yards, respectively.
Wilcox led the team with 22 receptions and three touchdowns while averaging 25 yards a catch.
Special teams were particularly special in 2010. Scott set a school record with 1,161 kickoff return yards (26.4-yard per return). Kicker Adrian Mora made 19 of 21 field-goal attempts and 45 of 45 extra-point kicks. And punter Charlie Edwards was a defensive weapon, averaging 41 yards a punt and dropping 19 punts inside the 20. GSU’s net punting average of 39.16 led the FCS.
With an abundance of experience and talent at nearly every corner, there are great expectations at Georgia Southern this season — maybe everywhere you look.
“Expectations can’t be higher from outside than they are from within,” Monken said. “We have higher expectations for our team than anybody.”
2011 GSU Schedule
Sept. 3|at Samford*|7 p.m.
Sept. 10|Tusculum|6 p.m.
Sept. 24|Western Carolina*|6 p.m.
Oct. 1|at Elon*|1:30 p.m.
Oct. 8|Chattanooga*|3 p.m.
Oct. 15|Furman*|3 p.m.
Oct. 22|Presbyterian|2 p.m.
Oct. 29|at Appalachian St.*|3 p.m.
Nov. 5|The Citadel*|2 p.m.
Nov. 12|at Wofford*|1:30 p.m.
Nov. 19|at Alabama|2 p.m.
* denotes Southern Conference game
ON THE WEB
See a video of Eagles coach Jeff Monken as he talks about the high expectations his team faces this season.
By Donald Heath, Savannah Morning News