Jon Marks, NCAA.com
NEWARK, Del. — For both Delaware and Georgia Southern, this is hardly their first time at “The Dance.” They have, count ‘em, 12 national championships between them — six each. And that doesn’t count six runners-up spots, four by Delaware. Look at the history books and you’ll find two legendary coaches — Delaware’s Harold “Tubby’’ Raymond and GSU’s Erk Russell, the longtime Georgia defensive coordinator — both of whom won three championships.
And then consider how much their respective communities live and die, depending on how their beloved birds — Newark’s Blue Hens and Statesboro’s Eagles — fare on the field.
Still, it’s been a while since both have been at this level — an FCS semifinal game. All of that makes Saturday’s high-noon showdown — with a trip to the FCS Championship Game at stake versus the winner of Villanova-Eastern Washington — so intriguing.
“When I came here I knew exactly what I was getting involved in because I played here,’’ said Delaware head coach K.C. Keeler, who won it all in 2003, and finished second to Appalachian State in 2007. “I’m the guy who stood up at my first press conference and said ‘I’m here to win [conference] championships and national championships.’
“I remember my president putting his hands in his head, because he just had asked me not to do that. But you come here with a mentality of striving for excellence. Our kids understand that; and I’d be disappointed if our fans didn’t expect that, because that’s what I expect.’’
In contrast, Georgia Southern (10-4) went through some lean times after last winning the crown in 2000 under Paul Johnson. The Eagles did reach the semifinals the following two seasons under Mike Sewak, but have had a dry spell since. In fact, the Eagles, who had to start from scratch after suspending football from 1942-82, even had a couple of losing seasons this decade. While GSU’s media guide may proclaim “Tradition Lives Here,” Georgia Southern’s last postseason appearance was in 2005.
Monken, who is in his first season as head coach at Georgia Southern, had no illusions of instant success. For one thing, he was installing a new offense — the triple option — which brought mixed results early, before things began to kick in. “We were 4-4 at one point this year,” said Monken, whose team has won its last six. “And we’re still learning and getting better.”
Along the way, Georgia Southern upended then-top-ranked Appalachian State and No. 2 William & Mary. Last week, the Eagles avenged an earlier loss to Wofford to advance to the semifinals.
“There have been so many great teams and great players at Georgia Southern,” Monken said. “I think our guys just desperately wanted to experience that kind of success. … But certainly don’t put us in that ballpark with those teams.’’
Keeler’s not buying it, especially seeing how far the Eagles have come this year. “They’ve done a great job,” Keeler said. “How much they’ve improved from the beginning of the year to now is just remarkable. … When you watched them early in the season, they were just an average football team. And now you watch ‘em, they’re playing great football.’’
Monken is equally impressed with Delaware (11-2). “Coach Keeler does a great job there,” Monken said. “They have a history and tradition there and their kids believe they are going to win.”
But which will emerge the better team depends on how things play out Saturday. Delaware linebacker Matt Marcorelle should be back in the lineup after missing last week’s 16-3 victory against New Hampshire with a strained calf.
Delaware’s defense will need to be at full strength to contend with Georgia Southern quarterback Jaybo Shaw (1,180 yards passing, five touchdowns; 504 yards rushing, 16 touchdowns) and running back Robert Brown (955 yards rushing).
On the flip side, Delaware’s offense is fueled by Pat Devlin (2,675 yards, 20 touchdowns), who has a 68 percent completion rate. As if that isn’t enough, the Blue Hens can move the ball on the ground. Primary running back Andrew Pierce has amassed 1,327 yards aid 13 touchdowns.
But that offense will be going against the nation’s stingiest defense — Georgia Southern allows an average of only 11.6 points per game.
“They have a great quarterback [Devlin] who sees the whole field and is amazingly accurate,” Monken said. “And their defense is big and physical. It’s gonna be a challenge for us.”
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