Former Sprayberry High School standout Jerick McKinnon ran for 171 yards and four touchdowns and Dominique Swope ran for 186 yards and two more scores, including the go-ahead touchdown that was set up by a turnover, as the Eagles outlasted Old Dominion 49-35 on Saturday.
Georgia Southern (10-3) ran for 602 yards in all. Old Dominion (11-2) gained 421 of its 534 through the air.
And the biggest play of the game? Defensive end Dion DuBose’s strip of Old Dominion quarterback Taylor Heinicke with the Payton Award finalist at the Eagles’ 13, trying to put the Monarchs two scores ahead. The ball was recovered by Patrick Flowe, and 12 plays and 79 yards later, McKinnon’s 12-yard run pulled the Eagles even at 35.
“I give a lot of credit to my (defensive backs),” DuBose said. “If not for my DBs, I would have never gotten there.”
On the ensuing series for Old Dominion, Heinicke threw incomplete on fourth-and-6 from his own 39, and it took the six-time national champions just three plays to cover those 39 yards. Swope’s 12-yard run gave them a 42-35 advantage.
And finally, needing a touchdown drive to knot it again and with 2:36 to work with, Heinicke threw over the middle looking for Nick Mayers, and instead J.J. Wilcox intercepted it, setting up the final touchdown and sending Georgia Southern into the semifinals in search of their first national championship since 2000, and ending ODU’s last chance to claim an FCS title.
The Monarchs are moving up to the FBS level next season as members of Conference USA.
Georgia Southern will be back in the semifinals for the third time of Jeff Monken’s three-year coaching tenure. It will play at North Dakota State, which beat the Eagles’ Southern Conference rival, Wofford, Saturday.
“It was a battle. It was a fight, and our kids just kept slugging it out,” Monken said.
Of the interception, Wilcox said film work paid off.
“It happened just like practice, and I was just at the right spot at the right time,” he said.
The Eagles, who completed just two passes all day, trailed 35-21 entering the final quarter.
Heinicke, who broke Steve McNair’s single-season FCS passing yardage record during the game, finishing with 5,076 for the year, and set another record with 398 completions, said his first turnover started a downward spiral for the Monarchs.
“Since that fumble I had in the red zone, it just went downhill from there,” he said. “Momentum just shifted to their side and we never got it back. ... That was definitely what they needed on defense. They stole points from us.”
Monarchs coach Bobby Wilder tried to console Heinicke, who finished the afternoon 31-of-44 for 421 yards with three passing touchdowns, including a 74-yarder to Antonio Vaughan, and 48 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
“He was crushed,” Wilder said. “It’s an almost laughable thing for me to say this, but he felt like he didn’t do enough.”
It was the second consecutive season the Eagles have dispatched the Monarchs from the playoffs in a thriller. Last season, the Eagles won 55-48 in Statesboro.
This time, the Monarchs seemed in control when they stopped the Eagles on four consecutive drives spanning the halves and opened a 35-21 lead on Heinicke’s third touchdown pass, 8 yards to Mayers, with 2:53 remaining in the third quarter. Earlier, he had hit Vaughan with the long one and Mayers from 5 yards.
The Eagles capped an 86-yard drive with McKinnon’s 4-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter, pulling within 35-28, then got the ball back on DuBose’s strip of Heinicke on a third-and-7 play.