FARGO, N.D. — Georgia Southern traveled halfway across the country to play top-seeded North Dakota State on Friday night in the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The fifth-seeded Eagles went even farther to reverse the nightmare they experienced at the Fargodome a year ago.
Georgia Southern jumped out to a quick start, battled through a Bison third-quarter run, took a lead only to falter again.
Brock Jensen’s 5-yard touchdown run in the final 3:05 gave North Dakota State a wild 23-20 victory.
The Eagles ended their season 10-4 and lost in the semifinals for the third year in a row.
North Dakota State (13-1) will meet today’s winner between Sam Houston State and Eastern Washington on Jan. 5 in its bid to win a second consecutive title.
Georgia Southern lost to the Bison in the semifinals 35-7 a year ago. With basically a rebuilt offense and defense, the Eagles led most of the way Friday.
Junior quarterback Jerick McKinnon ran for 168 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore Dominique Swope ran for 77 yards and caught a touchdown pass.
Georgia Southern outgained North Dakota State 430-276 in total yardage.
But the Eagles couldn’t hold back the Bison’s final stampede. Two penalties on Georgia Southern aided the 53-yard march.
The Eagles had one last chance after Ezayi Youyoute completed a 40-yard bomb to Zach Walker, but with less than 30 seconds left, Drew Ruggles, a soccer player who tried out and made the team this week to bolster the kicking game, had a 50-yard field-goal try blocked.
The pregame was filled with pageantry. Lights were turned off in the Fargodome for several minutes while loud music blared and the decibel levels of cheering fans rose to a fevered pitch.
At the end of the national anthem, instead of the verse “home of the brave,” NDSU fans roared, “home of the Bison.”
About 200 Georgia Southern faithful braved the sea of gold by wearing unmistakable grey.
The Eagles fans had the first chance to cheer. Georgia Southern marched 79 yards on 14 plays. The Eagles picked up a key first down on when reserve quarterback Ezayi Youyoute entered and completed a 15-yard pass to Kentrellis Showers to the NDSU 46.
It was Youyoute’s first action since suffering a knee injury Nov. 3 against Appalachian State.
Nine plays later, Georgia Southern unraveled another new wrinkle. On fourth and 1 from the Bison 4, J.J. Wilcox, used as a safety all season, took a pitch as a slotback and scooted into the end zone. Alex Hanks’ extra point was blocked by Christian Dudzik to keep it 6-0.
The Bison answered on the next possession. A 26-yard run by Jensen on a naked bootleg positioned NDSU at the Georgia Southern 4.
Two plays later, John Crockett bolted in from the 1 to tie the game. Russell blocked the extra point to keep in tied at 6.
Southern regained the lead with another unusual play – the pass. McKinnon found Swope open over the middle and the fullback bounced off potential tacklers for a 49-yard touchdown to make it 13-6.
Just before the half, North Dakota State cut the Eagles lead to four on Adam Keller’s field goal.
The Bison began the second half by regaining the momentum. NDSU’s defense got a stop and the offense needed just two plays to take the lead. Running back Sam Ojuri took advantage of a big hole on the right side and went 53 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, 16-13.
Southern was resilient and McKinnon put the Eagles back in front with a 25-yard touchdown run.
It was McKinnon’s 15th touchdown in his last seven games.