Tears, much like North Dakota State’s final game-winning drive, couldn’t be held back.
The Eagles lost in the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals for the third straight year, falling to top-seeded NDSU 23-20.
But this defeat was one that touched the heart. Southern trailed for only nine of the 60 minutes in one of the most intimidating environments in the FCS.
The Eagles (10-4) outgained the Bison 430-276, shredding an NDSU run defense that allowed about 78 yards a game for 271.
But one costly turnover and 103 yards of penalties added up to GSU’s third loss of the season by three points or less.
It didn’t help having an ineffective kicking game, making the Eagles pin their fate on a 50-yard field-goal try by soccer player who was added to the team only two days earlier.
So this one hurt.
“To see them and the hurt they go through when they lose a game like that, it hurts as a coach,” said Monken, who left the press room for about five minutes before speaking to regain his composure.
“It hurts to see those kids who you love suffer like that because I know how much they put into it -- from way back in March, all through the summer. It’s the investment to be here and to win and we didn’t get it done. It doesn’t mean I’m not proud of them, I certainly am.”
The bright spot was Southern went toe-to-toe with arguably the best team in the FCS and held a slight advantage until Bison quarterback Brock Jensen ran five yards for a touchdown on a quarterback draw with 3:05 left.
Before the game-winning score, the Eagles, who lost here 35-7 last season, proved to be formidable opponents – almost making NDSU coach Craig Bohl look like Nostradamus when earlier in the week in a press conference he said, “where last year it was more about defending the scheme, now it’s defending the personnel.”
GSU’s quarterback Jerick McKinnon carried 31 times for 168 yards. McKinnon and Ezayi Youyoute combined for 159 passing yards.
McKinnon finished the season with 1,224 yards and 15 touchdowns in his last seven games.
The junior had 1,817 rushing yards during the entire season and placed third behind Adrian Peterson (1,932 yards) and Jayson Foster (1,844) for single-season rushing at GSU.
“We had some plays we felt comfortable and good about (against NDSU),” McKinnon said. “It worked out pretty good but a good defense will switch it up and make some adjustments and that’s what they did. Credit goes to them.”
Southern scored on its first two possessions, but managed only one score after that when McKinnon ran 25 yards for a third-quarter touchdown.
Three other Eagle drives had scoring potential. But one ended when McKinnon fumbled at the NDSU 41. Another reached the 35, but Monken opted to punt instead of try a 52-yard field goal attempt.
GSU’s last possession got to the Bison 29, but after three plays the Eagles had gone backward to the 33 and a 50-yard field-goal try by Drew Ruggles, attempting his first kick for the Eagles with 20 seconds left, was easily blocked by the NDSU line.
During the game, Eagles defensive lineman Brent Russell became the school’s all-time sack leader after registering the 25th sack of his career.
“It’s something about 20 years from now I’ll look at, but trust me I’ll always remember the guys and coach Monken and the staff,” Russell said. “They’re a great bunch of people. We just came up short again.”
Starting defenders Russell, defensive end Dion DuBose, safeties J.J. Wilcox and Darius Eubanks and linebacker John Stevenson finished their eligibility.
The Eagles offense loses tackle Blake DeBartola, tight end Tyler Sumner, wide receivers Mitch Williford and Patrick Barker and slotback Darreion Robinson and Johnathan Bryant.
But a strong nucleus will be back, including McKinnon and fullback Dominique Swope.
“You can’t take for granted you’re going to be in the semifinals every year,” Monken said. “It takes a tremendous effort to get to this game and I’m proud of our guys for that.
“We’re going to get back to work and (with) all the guys who are returning, hopefully, we’ll have a good enough football team to find our way back here.”