The quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision are here, and the University of Maine Black Bears are the only team in the Colonial Athletic Association to make it this far in this year’s playoffs.
UMaine’s foe this weekend will be the 10-2 Georgia Southern University Eagles, hailing from the Southern Conference, the same conference that includes the team the Black Bears took down last week, Appalachian State University.
Georgia Southern’s two losses this year were to ASU and the University of Alabama, the No. 2 team in the highest level of college football in the nation, the Football Bowl Subdivision. UMaine managed to beat ASU, but head coach Jack Cosgrove says that this late in the year, what happened in the regular season matters little.
“You can’t rely on the game [Georgia Southern and ASU] played in the regular season. [ASU] plays in the same conference as [Georgia Southern], so they have seen each other more and are more familiar with each other,” he said. “The stakes are higher now, especially with the field going from 16 to 8 [teams]. We are preparing for a one-shot opportunity. The past doesn’t factor in as much as the defense that doesn’t have much experience against the triple-option will.”
The defense Cosgrove speaks of played very well against ASU last week. The Black Bears allowed only 3 rushing yards the entire game, forced two interceptions, recorded three sacks and never enabled the Mountaineers to get any kind of offensive rhythm going.
Defensive back Troy Russell led the Black Bears with nine tackles, 2.5 for a loss, and a sack. The entire unit will have to play better this weekend against a team that runs an offense UMaine is not accustomed to.
“There is no doubt they played very well last week,” Cosgrove said. “We are going to have to be better this week. We played well as a unit; they did a good job supporting each other as a group. But we have to move on from a team that ran an offense that we have experience against to an offense we don’t have much experience against.”
As far as UMaine’s own offensive attack, they will be focused on playing a fundamentally sound game, eliminating mistakes and executing assignments more than trying to exploit any particular weakness in Georgia Southern’s defense.
“We have to make darn sure to play fundamentally good football,” Cosgrove said. “Ball security is going to be a major coaching point leading up to the game. We have to eliminate turnovers as well. Everybody from the pass protectors to the run blockers has to play a sound, solid, fundamental football game.”
Georgia Southern’s offense is led by senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw and freshman fullback Dominique Swope. The Eagles primarily run a triple-option, meaning the quarterback decides — depending on his judgment of the defense — to hand the ball off to the running back or the fullback, or to keep the ball himself. It is a run-oriented offense, which UMaine lacks experience with.
On the year, Georgia Southern has run for 3,983 yards and passed for 1,298. In their playoff game against Old Dominion University, Shaw only threw the ball 11 times in the entire game. Swope carried the ball 31 times for 255 yards, an average of 8.1 yards per carry. UMaine’s rushing defense will have to be at the top of their game as they were against ASU if they want to stop the Eagles’ running attack.
“To run that kind of offense, you need a dynamic fullback and quarterback at the core,” Cosgrove said. “They have a smart, savvy quarterback and Swope at fullback, who put up 255 [yards] against Old Dominion last week.”
With another trip to the Southeast and another do-or-die playoff game, players will also have to contend with finals week when they get back, but Cosgrove says it’s just another game for the players, and they know how to handle it.
“It is just a part of how we do business here,” he said. “The players understand the business side of our travel. I think this is our seventh flight; the only flight we’ve lost on is [the University of Pittsburgh flight]. We know we have to go south to win, with the CAA based out of the Richmond area. We have found a way to win — we do the right things, stay at good hotels, have good meetings and create a good atmosphere. At home, the homecoming game, there’s apartment and dorm parties; on the road, there’s no distractions like that to contend with.”
The University of Maine will head to Statesboro, Ga., for a 2 p.m. kickoff. The game will be broadcast on ESPN3.com and ESPN Gameplan. It will also be shown at the same time in the Memorial Union.