FCS Playoffs: Georgia Southern Set For Semifinal Rematch With North Dakota State


WHO: No. 5 Georgia Southern (10-3, 6-2 SoCon) at No. 1 North Dakota State (12-1, 7-1 MVFC)

WHAT: 2012 FCS SEMIFINALS

WHEN:Dec. 14, 2012, 8 p.m.

WHERE: FARGO, NORTH DAKOTA, FARGODOME (18,700)

INTRODUCTION: For the third-straight season, Georgia Southern finds itself in the FCS semifinals and for the second-straight campaign, the Eagles will have get past North Dakota State to reach the national title game.

When head coach Jeff Monken arrived in Statesboro in 2010, he took the Eagles to an improbable FCS Semifinal run only to see the Eagles’ postseason run end in Newark, Delaware, with a 27-10 loss to the Blue Hens. Last season, the Eagles were back in the semifinal round of the playoffs, and once again on the road, dropping a 35-7 decision to eventual national champion North Dakota State.

The Eagles, who have won an FCS standard six national titles, come into Friday night’s contest trying to end a string of four-straight semifinal setbacks, having also suffered losses to Western Kentucky (31-28) in 2002 and Furman (24-17) in 2001, with both of those results coming on the friendly home turf at Allen E. Paulson Stadium.

Georgia Southern was able to get a 49-35 shootout win over No. 3 Old Dominion in Norfolk last week, while North Dakota State disposed of the Southern Conference’s other member school alive, in Wofford, taking down the gritty Mike Ayers-coached club with a 14-7 win on Saturday at the FargoDome.

For the 12th time in the past 15 seasons, the Southern Conference has at least one league member alive in the FCS Final Four. The Missouri Valley Conference is already 2-0 in the FCS postseason against the SoCon, with the Bison win last week over Wofford and Illinois State’s 38-37 win at Appalachian State in the Second Round.  Georgia Southern has now won 10 or more games in a third-straight campaign.

QUICK REVIEW OF 2011 MEETING–NORTH DAKOTA STATE 35, GEORGIA SOUTHERN 7

FARGO, N.D.–It was a dominating performance on both sides of the football, as North Dakota State racked up 451 yards of total offense, while limiting a powerful Georgia Southern offense to just 333 yards, including just 186 yards on the ground, en route to a 35-7 FCS Semifinal victory.

The game would see the Eagles hang tough through three quarters, trailing by just 13 points (20-7) entering the final quarter of play.

But costly turnovers, and a North Dakota State offense that turned the tables on the Eagles, playing keep-away with its ground attack, which featured quarterback Brock Jensen (6 rush att, 94 yds, 1 TD) and running backs D.J. McNorton (13 carries, 94 yards) and Sam Ojuri (16 carries, 100 yds, 1 TD), ended the day with better than 300 yards on the ground (314 rush yds).

After Georgia Southern’s Dominique Swope scored on a 23-yard run with just under four minutes to play in the opening half (3:58), it appeared the Eagles would at least go to the locker room tied with the Bison.

However, the Bison would respond and got into the end zone just 2:20 later, when Warren Holloway hauled in a 17-yard pass from Jensen, giving all the momentum to the homestanding Bison heading into the locker room, but more importantly, a 14-7 lead. It would be the start of 28 unanswered points for the Bison to close out the game, with 21 of those points coming in the second half. It marked the first time the Eagles had been shutout in a half all season.

Georgia Southern ended the day led by the freshman Swope, who did most of the work on the ground for GSU, rushing for 96 yards and a TD on 23 carries, while senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw finished out his career connecting on 11-of-18 passes for 134 yards.

Saturday’s matchup against North Dakota State will mark the third all-time meeting between the two programs, with North Dakota State leading the all-time series, 2-0.

PREVIEWING GEORGIA SOUTHERN’S OFFENSE:

The Georgia Southern offense has come to life over the second half of the season, and with quarterback Jerick McKinnon (18-of-44 passing, 506 yds, 6 TDs, 3 INTs/238 rush att, 1,649 yds, 19 TDs, 6.9 YPC) now fully comfortable in his leadership role in the offense, the Eagles are clicking on all cylinders offensive at just the right time.

McKinnon leads a Georgia Southern offense that enters Friday night’s showdown with North Dakota State that ranking eighth nationally in total offense (469.6 YPG), ninth in scoring offense (35.6 PPG), first in rushing offense (490.2 YPG) and 120th in passing offense (60.4 YPG).

The Eagles are now playing with type of big-play ability that many predicted they would have coming into the season, and an element that was sometimes lacking in Monken’s first two seasons as head coach with Jaybo Shaw leading the offense under center. With McKinnon under center, the Eagles have a potency that is downright dangerous. When McKinnon is hitting on all cylinders, he can be a supreme running threat–just ask Central Arkansas’s defense, who was on the other end of McKinnon’s 316-yard rushing performance in the Eagles’ 24-16 win a couple of weeks ago.

For much of the first half of the season, the Eagle offense failed to realize its full potential, and turnovers were a major concern. McKinnon has even shown the threat as a passer in the first postseason game against Central Arkansas a couple of weeks ago. In the win over the Bears, McKinnon connected on 2-of-7 passes for 79 yards, with a TD and an INT.

In the 49-35 win at Old Dominion last Saturday, McKinnon presided over an offense that amassed 632 yards of total offense, including 602 yards on the ground. McKinnon’s speed and vision make him a threat to take it the distance every time he has a crease. McKinnon isn’t the threat that Shaw was throwing the football against the Bison defense last season, but as evidenced by the Central Arkansas win, he does have the potential to make the big play in the passing game.

His 316-yard rushing performance against the Bears highlights what a threat McKinnon and his speed can be. His 316-yard rushing effort is the most by a quarterback in the history of FCS football, previously eclipsing the previous mark of 313 yards set by Appalachian State’s Armanti Edwards in the 2007 FCS Semifinals against Richmond. In the win over Old Dominion last Saturday, McKinnon rushed for 171 yards and four TDs on 29 rush attempts.

Another huge threat in that vaunted offensive backfield the Eagles bring into the FargoDome to take on North Dakota State on Friday night will be fullback Dominique Swope (190 rush att, 1,169 yds, 16 TDs, 6.2 YPC).

Swope is a big, physical running back that proved to be the Eagles’ most effective ground option in last year’s semifinal game against the Bison, finishing that contest with 96 yards rushing and the lone GSU TD.

Towards the end of the season, Swope missed some action as a result of an injury, but appears to be back to 100% in the postseason. Swope missed games against Appalachian State and Chattanooga during the regular-season.

Swope enters Saturday afternoon’s contest having rushed for 1,000 yards in his first two seasons as the starting fullback for the Eagles, and for the third-straight season, the Eagles have had a running back rush for 1,000 or more yards in a campaign as a result of his 1,169 yards on the ground this season.

In two seasons for the Eagles, the All-SoCon running back has rushed for 2,199 yards and 23-career TDs. Swope has certainly enjoyed some big performances in his sophomore campaign with the GSU offense, including enjoying his top performance of the 2012 season in last week’s 49-35 win over the Monarchs, as he rushed for 186 yards and a couple of TDs on 22 rush attempts. He has five 100-yard rushing performances this season for GSU.

Swope also has a very capable backup in the backfield, in Will Banks (71 rush att, 439 yds, 4 TDs, 6.2 YPC), who has logged a couple of starts this season in relief on the injured Swope and he performed superbly in those starts. Banks enjoyed his best game of the season in one of those starts, which came in the 31-28 loss to Appalachian State, as he rushed for 129 yards and three scores on 19 rush attempts in that contest.

The two slotbacks set to start for the Eagles on Friday night are Darreion Robinson (82 rush att, 483 yds, 4 TDs, 5.9 YPC/4 rec, 99 yds, 1 TD, 2.8 YPC) and Jonathan Bryant (53 rush att, 500 yds, 2 TDs, 9.4 YPC/6 catches, 155 yds, 25.8 YPR).

As has been the case in past seasons with the Georgia Southern slotbacks, both Robinson and Bryant are speed merchants at their respective positions.

Bryant is averaging nearly a first-down every time he touches the football this season, and both of his scores this season have come in excess of 40 yards, as he had a 42-yard scamper in a 38-17 win over Furman and a 78-yard jaunt in a 26-23 win over Elon.

Robinson is also a threat with his speed, and can make a defense pay for concentrating too much on either Swope or McKinnon. Robinson will also handle the punt return duties for the Eagles on Saturday, and he has averaged 6.5 yards-per-return on 20 attempts this season.

Not only are Robinson and Bryant threats on the edge, they can also burn teams on the deep ball out of the backfield, as both come in averaging 25 yards per catch.

It will be imperative the Bison not loose sight of either Bryant or Robinson on Saturday, as either could prove to be the “X” factor in the big play Eagle offense. Robinson also completed a 15-yard pass against Old Dominion last week.

The main starting wideout for the Eagles on Saturday will be “Z” receiver Zach Walker (8 rec, 303 yds, 37.9 YPR), who comes into Saturday’s contest as the Eagles’ leading wideout and has made some acrobatic catches this season, including a couple of one-handed grabs against Appalachian State and Chattanooga earlier this season. Walker has excellent speed, as evidenced by the fact that all of his three scoring catches this season have been 25 or more yards, including a 75-yard scoring catch in a win at Furman.  He is averaging a whopping 37.9 yards-per-reception this season.

Also contributing in the passing game for Georgia Southern this season as receiving options have been Kentrellis Showers (8 rec, 102 yds, 2 TDs, 12.8 YPR/2 rush att, 49 yds), who will  play the “X” receiver position, while Tyler Sumner (3 rec, 57 yds, 1 TD) will play the tight end position when the Eagles decide to go in their power formation.

If North Dakota State faced the top offensive line in the Southern Conference and one of the best in the FCS last week in Wofford, then the Eagles’ offensive front is probably 1B.

The Georgia Southern offensive front had had a couple of offensive linemen garner All-America honors recently, selected by The Sports Network and College Sports Madness.

Earning All-America citation by the organization were offensive tackles Garrett Frye and Dorian Byrd.

Frye, a sophomore right tackle garnered Third-Team All-America honors, according to The Sports Network, while Byrd was a Third Team All-America selection for College Sports Madness.

Frye and Byrd will be joined up front by center Manrey Saint-Amour, and guards Logan Daves (RG) and Trevor McBurnett (LG). Daves was a Second-Team All-SoCon selection at his left guard post this season. The five starters along the offensive front for the Eagles this season have molded themselves to one of the top units in school history, as the duo has helped the Eagles post two 1,000-yard ground gainers for the first time since 2005, and the 409.2 yards the Eagles average on the ground per game ranks first nationally. That yardage average also currently ranks as the second best rushing average per game in school history. Only the 1999 team, which averaged 419.0 YPG ranks higher in rushing yards per contest.

PREVIEWING NORTH DAKOTA STATE’S DEFENSE:

While Georgia Southern brings one of its best ground attacks into the FargoDome on Friday night, the North Dakota State Bison counter with one of the best defenses in the history of FCS (formerly Division I-AA) football, at least in a statistical sense.

North Dakota State comes into Saturday afternoon’s contest continuing to rank No. 1 in every major defensive statistical category. The Bison yield an average of 207.3 YPG in total defense, while allowing just 10.7 PPG, 128.8 pass yards per game and just 78.5 rush yards per contest.

The Bison had a physical game against the Terriers last week, and come into Saturday’s contest with some bumps and bruises on the defensive side of the football, but should be in pretty good shape on the defensive side of the football for Friday night’s FCS Semifinal matchup.

The Bison utilize a basic 4-3 base formation, and have one of the more solid front seven units in FCS football, and is one of the main reasons the Bison find themselves as a major national title contender for a second-straight season.

Leading the Bison up front this season has been All-Missouri Valley Football Conference First-Teamer Cole Jirik (47 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 7.5 sacks, 2 FF, 1 FR, 9 QBHs). Jirik comes into Friday night’s showdown with the Eagles continuing to be tied for lead the Bison in tackles-for-loss, while leading the team in sacks this season.

Jirik enjoyed his most impressive campaign, and his season was highlighted by a couple of superlative performances. In the final regular-season game of the season in a 38-20 win over No. 17 Illinois State, Jirik registered eight tackles and three sacks, garnering Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Week honors for his efforts in the win over the nationally-ranked Redbirds. Jirik recorded three stops in the win over Wofford last week.

The trio rounding out the starters along the defensive front for the Green and Gold heading into Friday night’s contest will be Kyle Emanuel (45 tackles, 11.0 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 FR, 5 QBHs), Danny Luecke (16 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 0.5 sack) and Ryan Drevlow (25 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 blkd kick). Emanuel will start at one of the defensive end positions opposite Jirik, while Luecke and Drevlow will start inside at the two defensive tackle positions, with Drevlow starting at the nose guard position. All three are sound defensively, having put up solid numbers this season.

 

The Bison have one of the top middle linebackers in the nation anchoring the linebacking unit coming into Friday night’s semifinal contest, as Grant Olson (137 tackles, 11.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR) enters the contest coming off one of the performances of his career, having posted an astounding 29 tackles in the win.

Simply put, Olson is one of the best defensive players in FCS football and he plays the entire field. Olson comes into Friday’s game against the Eagles leading the club in tackles this season, and has posted four double-digit tackle performances this season.  Olson was named Missouri Valley Football Conference Player of the Week after his performance in week eight in a win over South Dakota State, collecting eight tackles and 1.5 sacks.

Teaming with Olson at linebacker for the Bison on Friday night will be Travis Beck (78 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 4 FFs) and Carlton Littlejohn (68 tackles, 7.0 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 INT, 3 FFs, 3 FRs), who will start at the weakside and strong side linebacker positions, respectively.

Beck and Littlejohn have been in some big football games over the past couple of seasons, and both are fundamentally sound players. Beck was outstanding against the Terriers last week, completing the contest with 11 tackles, a tackle-for-loss and forced a fumble.

North Dakota State has maybe the top secondary in FCS football, and the reason for that success is Buck Buchanan Award candidate Marcus Williams (27 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 5 INTs, 4 PBUs). Williams has been called by some as the best player in FCS football and the player with the most potential at the next level. His speed and ability to break on the football have left many opposing quarterbacks forfeiting one side of the field to him this season, and have stayed away from throwing the football in his general vicinity.

Williams was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Defensive Player of the Year and is the first Bison player to be named a finalist for the award since current Denver Broncos linebacker Joe Mays in 2007.

Williams has seven career TDs, with four INT returns for scores, a pair of kick returns and a lateral return for a score. In a win over Youngstown State in mid-October, Harris returned an INT 98 yards for a score. He recorded his 16th-career INT last week in the win over South Dakota State, tying the school record in that category.

Joining Williams in the secondary for Friday night’s contest will be fellow cornerback Andre Martin, Jr. (40 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 5 PBUs, 1 FR, 1 FF), while the two safeties will be Bobby Ollman (38 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 PBU, 1 FR) and Christian Dudzik (43 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 FRs, 3 PBUs, 1.0 TFL). Dudzik was the North Dakota State’s third-leading tackler on Saturday, completing the contest with eight tackles and a tackle-for-loss. Williams is responsible for picking off five of the teams nine passes this season.

Bryan Shepherd, the starting free safety who has been injured over the latter half of the season, is slated to return to the lineup on Saturday,

PREVIEWING GEORGIA SOUTHERN’S DEFENSE

Georgia Southern comes into Saturday afternoon’s contest ranking 41st nationally in total defense (349.3 YPG), 35th in scoring defense (21.9 PPG), 31st in rushing defense (130.08 YPG) and 68th in pass defense (219.2 YPG). For the second-straight week, the Eagles will offer the Bison offense a very physical defensive unit, as both Wofford and Georgia Southern are two of the most physical defenses in the Southern Conference and likely FCS football, too.

The Eagles have faced some of the nation’s premier offensive units over the past few weeks of the season, having faced Georgia, Appalachian State and Old Dominion over the latter portion of the season, as the Eagles have gone from ranking in the Top three nationally in defense to a Top 50 national defense.

The Eagles utilize a 4-2-5 defensive base, which is designed to slow down the spread offense, but will face a unique pro style type offense employed by the North Dakota State Bison.

Georgia Southern has a solid defensive front led by All-America defensive tackle Brent Russell (39 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 1 blkd kick). Russell is an All-America defensive tackle, and during the latter portion of the season, Russell made the move from nose guard. Russell’s 24-career sacks tie him for the school’s all-time career mark, along with Edward Thomas (1993-96).

Russell is the kind of player that occupies the attention of the opposing offensive staff because he has such an effect on blocking schemes with his sheer strength and power along the defensive front for the Eagles. He has seen mostly double teams in his senior season, and was effective in GSU’s 35-7 loss to the Bison last season, posting six tackles and 1.5 TFL.

Joining Russell along the defensive front as starters along the defensive front on Friday night will be Blake Riley (42 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 1 PBU), while Dion DuBose (47 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 2 FFs, 2 FRs) and Josh Gebhardt (21 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 2 QBHs) are slated to start at the respective defensive end positions. Riley is solid on the interior and has started 25 of the 27 games for the Eagles over the past couple of seasons.

The real area where the Eagles have excelled this season has been at the two defensive end positions, where DuBose, Gebhardt and Javon Mention have become three of the most-feared pass-rushers in the Southern Conference this season. They helped put Old Dominion’s Taylor Heinicke under constant pressure last week in the 14-point road win for the Eagles. 

Both Dubose and Mention were All-SoCon selections this season, with DuBose garnering First-Team All-SoCon honors according to the league’s head coaches, while he was a Second Team All-SoCon selection pick by the league’s media. Mention garnered Second-Team recognition according to the league’s media. Mention and DuBose combined for 12 of the Eagles’ 30 sacks this season.

Set to start at the two linebacker positions on Friday night against the Bison will be John Stevenson (99 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 FFs, 2 FRs, 5 PBUs) and Kyle Oehlbeck (51 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 1.0 sack).

Stevenson leads the team in tackles and he is coming off a strong performance last Saturday in the win over Old Dominion, and though he didn’t record big tackle numbers, he was getting hits on Heinicke or pressure on him nearly every time he dropped back to pass last week. Stevenson is the fastest player on defensive side of the ball for the Eagles, running a sub-4.4 in the 40-yard dash. His five pass break-ups shows that he has been effective in pass coverage this season.

With the graduation of LaRon Scott, many wondered how the Eagles’ secondary would adjust this season, and the unit has performed better and better as it has matured. The Eagles have given up an inordinate amount of pass interference penalties in the first couple of playoff games this season.

The Eagles have been especially young at the two cornerback positions, with Valdon Cooper (31 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 6 PBUs, 2 INTs) and Nic Wright (29 tackles, 3 PBUs) sharing duties on one side, while Lavelle Westbrooks (38 tackles, 2 INTs, 5 PBUs) who started in the secondary for the Eagles last season, holds down the other cornerback position heading into Friday night’s showdown.

Cooper and Westbrooks both have INT returns for scores this season, with Cooper taking one back 60 yards in the season-opening win over Jacksonville, while Westbrooks returned an INT 72 yards in a Southern Conference win over Samford.

The experience in the secondary for the Eagles comes from its three safeties, in Darius Eubanks (68 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBUs, 1 FR), J.J. Wilcox (84 tackles, 2 INTs, 3 PBUs) and Deion Stanley (39 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 0.5 sack, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR). Wilcox and Eubanks have been vital components of the GSU secondary this season, and both have the intangibles and athleticism to make plays in the run game and the passing game.

Wilcox, who played slotback in this game for the Eagles last season, will this season start at the strong safety position on Friday night for the Eagles. He was a recent selection to the Senior Bowl for the Eagles and is one of the best athletes on the defensive side of the football. Wilcox’s interception against Old Dominion last week clinched the win for the Eagles.

PREVIEWING THE NORTH DAKOTA STATE OFFENSE:

North Dakota State has a balanced offensive attack, which most resembles a pr0-style offense. The Eagles have seen a similar offenses this season, in Furman and Elon, but the Bison offense will offer some wrinkles the Eagles have not seen as of yet this season.

Coming into Friday night’s showdown with the Eagles at the FargoDome, the Bison rank 56th nationally in total offense (372.0 YPG), 20th in scoring offense (33.3 PPG), 26th in rushing offense (196.3 YPG) and 85th in passing offense (175.6 YPG).

Leading that offense for a second-straight season has been savvy senior quarterback Brock Jensen (189-of-303 passing, 2,140 passing yds, 17 TDs, 8 INTs/93 rush att, 255 yds, 8 TDs, 2.7 YPC). Jensen is the kind of leader that is disciplined and is a true personification of the term “field general.”

Jensen was a Second-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference performer in 2012, and is an extremely good decision-maker under center for the Bison, having thrown only seven INTs in 12 previous games this season. Jensen ranks second in program history in completions (467) and passing yards (5,614 yds).

In the win over Wofford last week, Jensen was able to connect on 13-of-18 passes for 95 yards, with a TD and an INT. His 16-yard completion to wideout Zach Vraa just before the half would prove to be the game-winning score for the Bison.

In the 35-7 win over Georgia Southern last season, Jensen did some good things for the Bison offense, as he made good on 10-of-15 passes for 137 yards and a TD, while rushing for 97 yards and a score on just six rush attempts.

While D.J. McNorton is no longer in the backfield for the Bison, the other half of that running tandem that helped the Bison account for better than 300 yards rushing against that Georgia Southern defense last season is, in Sam Ojuri (195 att, 884 yds, 9 TDs, 4.5 YPC/9 rec, 95 yds, 1 TD). Ojuri is a veteran, powerful running back that has been instrumental to the success for the North Dakota State offense over the past couple of seasons.

In the semifinal win over the Eagles last season, Ojuri rushed the ball 16 times for 100 yards and a TD, as he led the Green and Gold in rushing on that afternoon.  That semifinal performance against Georgia Southern a year ago was one of seven-career 100-yard rushing efforts for the junior halfback. Two of Ojuri’s 100-yard rushing efforts have come this season.

While the Bison might have lost McNorton to graduation, they have replaced him with one of the league’s best newcomers on the offensive side of the ball, in sophomore John Crockett (170 rush att, 896 yds, 8 TDs, 5.3 YPC/5 rec, 30 yds).

The two-time all-state performer out of Minneapolis, Minn., has been sensational in his first season, giving the Bison a nice one-two punch at the halfback position, having split the carries with Ojuri this season.

Crockett enters the game with the Eagles on Friday night as the team’s leading rusher, and is a back that possesses great vision and speed. Crockett has three 100-yard rushing efforts this season. The Missouri Valley All-Newcomer Team selection enjoyed his best performance to date in the 33-21 win over Northern Iowa, garnering Missouri Valley Newcomer of the Week honors by rushing for 122 yards and a couple of TDs on 19 carries.

Rounding out the ground options for the Bison on Saturday will be Andrew Grothmann and Andrew Bonnett, who comprise the Bison two-deep at the fullback position. Both are excellent lead blockers for Ojuri and Crockett, and Bonnett, a redshirt freshman from Council Bluffs, IA., earned Missouri Valley All-Newcomer honors this season for his production as a part of the North Dakota State offense. He has especially proven to be an effective receiving option coming out of the Bison backfield, with 11 catches for 93 yards and a receiving score this season.

The Eagles also won’t have to deal with stopping the explosive Warren Holloway at wideout this season, as he had a pretty effective afternoon against Georgia Southern last season, hauling in five passes for 68 yards and a TD, while also posting 17 yards rushing. What the Eagles will have to deal with are two solid, great route-running wideouts, in Zach Vraa (41 rec, 556 yds, 4 TDs, 13.6 YPR) and Ryan Smith (43 rec, 490 yds, 4 TDs, 1.4 YPR).

Both Vraa and Smith have been excellent receiving options for Jensen this season, with Vraa possessing the speed to stretch an opposing secondary, while Smith brings a little bit of everything to the table and is probably the team’s best all-around receiving option. Vraa was the leading option catching the football in the win over Wofford last week, hauling in five passes for 49 yards, including the game-winning 16-yard scoring catch just before the half.

Smith is reliable, and has deceptive speed. He has come up with plenty of clutch catches in his career, and after only having played in nine games this season, he was able to garner Second Team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors.

Smith had six catches for 88 yards in a win over Southern Illinois, while hauling in seven passes for 82 yards and a TD in a win over Youngstown State. Williams, who is also dangerous as a punt return threat, also had a 76-yard punt return for a score against the Penguins. He had two catches for 31 yards against the Eagles last season.

Tight end Garrett Bruhn (3 rec, 44 yds, 2 TDs) rounds out the receiving options for the Bison on Friday night, and he has started all seven games he’s seen action in this season. Trevor Gebhart (32 rec, 343 yds, 1 TD, 10.7 YPR), who’s the team’s third-leading receiver, is the top reserve pass-catcher for the Bison and he comes into Friday night’s contest ranking third on the team in receiving this season.

Like Georgia Southern, or any team that runs the football team with some success, it usually can be measured by solid performers along the offensive line, and like the Eagles, the Bison have one of the nation’s top units.

Leading that talented offensive front this season has been All-America (The Sports Network) left tackle Billy Turner. Turner was one of two First-Team All-America selections for the Bison this season, with Marcus Williams being the other.

Turner, a 6-6, 300-pound junior from Shoreview, Minn., has started all 13 games for the Bison at left tackle this season, and he is one of the main reasons the Bison have ran the ball with such success once again this season and lead the nation in time-of-possession (35:16) entering Friday night’s semifinal contest.

 Joining Turner in the starting quintet for the Bison along the offensive front on Friday night will be First-Team All-Missouri Valley Conference selections Joe Lund (C), Tyler Gimmestad (RG), All-MVFC newcomer Josh Colville (LG) and Joe Haeg (RT).

The unit allowed 21 sacks this season, and helped the Bison average 5.5 yards-per-play and 4.5 yards-per-rush this season in what was a direct offensive attack for North Dakota State.

Final Prediction: This game has been hard for me to gauge, and given the fact that the Bison completely dominated the second half of last season’s game, folks may wonder I would be hesitant to pick the Bison to repeat the feat this season. If you would have asked me prior to the Bison game with Wofford last Saturday, it would have been a slam dunk for me to pick NDSU over Georgia Southern.

However, I believe that last week’s Wofford team was very similar to the 2011 Georgia Southern team, which featured Jaybo Shaw at quarterback. The reason the Bison were able to have such success in that game was because they figured out that Shaw was not an option to beat them running the football. On Friday night, Jerick McKinnon will be.

The key for North Dakota State will be stopping McKinnon and if his speed gives NDSU trouble early, it will be a long night for NDSU. If the Bison can slow play McKinnon and stop Dominique Swope on the fullback dive and the variety of inside traps GSU utilizes offensively, then it will be a second-straight loss for the Eagles in the FargoDome. However, it’s hard for me believe that North Dakota State will be able to go through the two best teams the SoCon has to offer, and I think the Eagles also benefit from having the Bison play a physical game against Wofford last week.

With that being said, I think Georgia Southern comes out of Fargo with a close win and returns to the national title game for the first time in 12 years, ending a streak of four-straight semifinal losses for the Eagles, dating back to a 24-17 setback to Furman at Paulson Stadium in 2001.

Final Score Predicition: Georgia Southern 20, North Dakota State 17

Topics: FCS Playoffs, Football, Georgia Southern Eagles, North Dakota State Bison

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