STATESBORO, Ga. — Georgia Southern’s football players are a year older, a year wiser and a year hungrier.
And they hope that will make all the difference this season when they meet second-seeded North Dakota State at 2:30 p.m. today in the Fargodome in the FCS semifinals.
The winner advances to the national championship game in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 7 against the winner of Friday’s late game between Sam Houston State and Montana.
The third-seeded Eagles (11-2) defeated Old Dominion and Maine to earn their second straight trip to the final four.
With two more wins west of the Mississippi River, Georgia Southern will follow a similar course set 25 years ago by the 1986 national champion Eagles.
GSU made it to this point last season before bowing out against Delaware.
“It was so disappointing going to the final four and not being able to finish our climb,” slotback Darrieon Robinson said. “It makes it that much more exciting this year.”
Buoyed by the success of a year ago, GSU entered 2011 as one of the favorites in the division. The Eagles were a top-five team in preseason polls conducted by The Sports Network and the FCS Coaches and haven’t disappointed the voters, spending seven weeks at No. 1 while winning the Southern Conference championship.
Now they’ll try to clear a hurdle that tripped them up last season. But a second year in the triple-option offense could make Southern equipped to leap higher.
The Eagles have averaged 418.5 rushing yards and 45 points during their two playoff wins. Freshman fullback Dominique Swope has sparked the attack lately, accounting for 664 yards on the ground in arguably the four biggest games on the season — Wofford, Alabama, Old Dominion and Maine.
And quarterback Jaybo Shaw has provided an added threat through the air, completing 14 of 19 passes for 246 yards and two touchdowns in the postseason.
“I have no hair, but if I had some, most of it would be gone,” NDSU’s bald coach, Craig Bohl, said about the worries GSU’s offense brings.
North Dakota State (12-1) probably won’t be intimidated. The Bison, who joined the FCS in 2004, shared the Missouri Valley Football Conference title this season with Northern Iowa.
Along the way, NDSU had a win over Big Ten Conference member Minnesota, 37-24.
The Bison defeated James Madison, 26-14, and Lehigh, 24-0, to get to the semis.
NDSU also made a run last season, sneaking into the 20-team playoff field at 7-4 before winning two games to get to the quarterfinals. But the Bison’s stampede ended there, falling in overtime to eventual champion Eastern Washington, 38-31.
“They’re big and physical,” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. “They’re as close to Alabama as anyone we’ve played this season.”
NDSU’s physicality was evident in 2006 when the Bison came to Statesboro and defeated the Eagles, 34-14. It was an impressive showing despite coming against a GSU squad that won a program-low three games.
The Bison remain equally dedicated to the run and pass. Running backs Sam Ojuri and D.J. McNorton have combined for 1,865 yards and 22 touchdowns on the ground. Sophomore quarterback Brock Jensen has thrown for 2,267 yards and 12 touchdowns while completing 68.4 percent.
Defensively, NDSU has allowed just 13.7 points a game. Cornerback Marcus Williams, who was named a first-team All-America by The Associated Press, has seven interceptions, returning three for touchdowns.
And the Bison gets help from its 12th man. Fans in the Fargodome create noise so loud it can’t be dismissed by opposing coaches. Throughout the week, GSU practiced in Paulson Stadium with a recording of deafening crowd noise in the background in preparation for the dome.
It all leads to a compelling matchup.
“When you think of FCS football or the old I-AA, Georgia Southern is a name synonymous with championships,” Bohl said.
Monken hopes his team knows the way — maybe by learning past lessons.
“I don’t know if there’s any magic potion,” he said. “We’re just trying to play the best football we can — play our schemes and execute them.”