Six weeks ago, despite a stretch where they won six-straight games and earned a No. 1 ranking, there was a lingering question as to whether the Georgia Southern Eagles were actually good enough to win the national championship.
They didn’t help matters by losing two of their final three regular-season games, albeit one of those losses was at Georgia.
However, with two solid playoff wins, including a come-from-behind 49-35 win last Saturday at Old Dominion in which they ran up 602 yards rushing, coach Jeff Monken’s team stands one win away from earning an opportunity to play for the seventh FCS national championship in program history.
And, in doing so Georgia Southern has established its bonafides as a team good enough indeed to win a national title.
It won’t be an easy task as Georgia Southern (10-3) takes on defending champion and No. 1 North Dakota State (12-1) in an FCS semifinal game at 8 p.m. on Friday in Fargo, N.D. The game will be televised on ESPN2.
It’s the same trail the Eagles followed last year, one which ended in a 35-7 loss at the hands of the Bison in the loud and boisterous Fargodome.
However, thanks to the emergence of Jerick McKinnon this is a different-looking Georgia Southern team than the one the Bison blanked in the second half last year. It was a 14-7 game at the half.
With McKinnon at the throttle the Eagles have run for 1,006 yards in its two playoff games with the junior quarterback personally accounting for 487 yards including 316 against Central Arkansas.
Last year the Bison focused on taking away the dive and the pitch, but unfortunately quarterback Jaybo Shaw did not have the speed to hit the holes quickly enough to make them pay.
As a result the Eagles were held to a season low 189 yards rushing, only 68 in the second half.
McKinnon has 1,649 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns this season, 1056 yards and 14 touchdowns coming in his last six games.
Since being inserted as the starting quarterback against Western Carolina in the fifth game of the season he has rushed for 1,294 yards and 15 touchdowns.
Improvement has come in leaps and bounds, and quarterback Coach Mitch Ware attributes it to the fact McKinnon can now focus on one position.
“I think he’s improved every game,” Ware said. “He’s settled into a position. He knows he’s the quarterback, and that’s helped.
“The game experience, getting 70 snaps a game and seeing things has made him more comfortable,” Ware said. “I think he’s become more of a quarterback. He’s a junior, but until now Jerick has done what we wanted him to do, and we’ve asked a lot of him. He’s played slot, fullback, wide receiver and corner. That’s all probably helped him, though, from having learned every position and the assignments.”
McKinnon was on the defensive side of the field last year against the Bison as he played defensive back in the Eagles’ four playoff games despite not having played on defense all season.
Playing quarterback on a regular basis has helped tremendously, McKinnon said.
“The more reps you get in practice and in the game makes a big difference,” McKinnon said. “Now you starting seeing the things on Saturday you expect to see. Right now we’re comfortable with the way we’re executing the offense. We’ve got more guys who can carry the ball and give the defense fits.”
But, there are no illusions about what the Eagles are going up against in the NDSU defense which is allowing only 78 rushing yards per game.
“This time we know more about what to expect (playing in the Fargodome),” McKinnon said. “It’s a hostile environment, and I can’t say enough about how good they are. We expect it to be a hard game.”
Despite his play of late Ware believes there are bigger days in store for McKinnon.
“I’m still not sure he’s played the best game he can play,” Ware said. “In the years I’ve been here I’ve seen teams and quarterbacks get better, and he’s no exception. He’s what you want in leading a team and moving the ball. He can check you in and out of a play. That means a lot when live bullets are coming at you. Jerick has learned a lot this year. He’s football smart and he’s smart, too.”