CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - They were supposed to be a year away. Another year was needed for experience. For maturity. For the intangibles that win national championships.
Well, that year came a year early for Georgia Southern.
The Eagles fought adversity and weathered a fourth quarter of strife before defeating top-seeded Montana, 27-25, for their sixth and maybe most unexpected NCAA Division I-AA national championship Saturday at Finley Stadium.
For the third time since restarting the football program in 1982, Georgia Southern completed back-to-back championship seasons. They also did it in 1985 and 1986, and 1989 and 1990.
"There's 100-some teams out there, and I guarantee you they'd kill to be in our shoes," said Eagles quarterback J.R. Revere.
There were times when it wasn't so great to be in their shoes. Certainly, the Eagles' doubters lined up in the preseason. Twelve starters from the 1999 championship team were gone. The offensive line needed rebuilding. Heralded quarterback Greg Hill needed replacing.
Early in the fourth quarter Saturday, the third-seeded Eagles again were needy.
That's when one of the handful of returnees, Adrian Peterson, took over. In one simple handoff, Peterson bulled up the middle, into the secondary and to the end zone, erasing a 23-20 deficit after Georgia Southern had seen a 17-point halftime lead disappear.
"It was do-or-die time," Peterson said of his 57-yard touchdown run that proved to be the game-winner with 11:29 left. "Starting off the season, I was the guy who got all the publicity. I told the guys up front, `Give me a little crease, I'll take it there for you."'
Peterson has carried Georgia Southern many places in his three years of amazing running. For the 43rd straight time, he topped the 100-yard mark, finishing with 148 yards against a Grizzly defense that entered the game ranked second (allowing 76.6 yards a game) in I-AA against the run.
Peterson's run snapped a 20-point run by Montana. The momentum the Eagles methodically built in the first half had swung to the Grizzlies despite losing starting quarterback Drew Miller.
"There were so many times when we could have folded," Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson said. "I couldn't be more proud of this team."
Montana backup quarterback John Edwards threw a touchdown pass to Etu Molden. Then a Grizzlies' fake punt resulted in a 65-yard touchdown run by Vince Huntsberger. After a Revere fumble, Yohance Humphrey scored on a 2-yard touchdown run and added a two-point conversion.
In less than seven minutes, the Eagles went from leading 20-3 to trailing 23-20.
"I could sense (the feeling was) `Oh Lord, what are we to do?"' Revere said.
But that's when you hand Peterson the ball and get out of the way.
And once Georgia Southern regained the lead, the Eagles' defense made it stick. Safety Ryan Hadden intercepted Edwards' pass in the end zone after Montana got to the 16.
The Grizzlies (13-2) had one more charge left, moving to Georgia Southern's 14 on the next possession, but the defense again made the plays.
"When it came down to crunch time, we just didn't get it done," Edwards said.
Georgia Southern (13-2) took little time establishing dominance. Revere's option pitch to Mark Myers opened up like it was drawn on the blackboard. Myers found a seam between the defensive end and an on-rushing linebacker, and he went 73 yards to the Montana 7.
Three plays later, Revere fumbled. But this was Georgia Southern's day. Tackle James McCoy landed on the loose ball, and the Eagles had a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
It was the first time in nine games Montana's opponent scored first.
The Grizzlies rebounded quickly. Miller completed three of his first four passes and had the Big Sky champions at the Eagles 28.
Humphrey ran 22 yards to the 6. But after an incompletion and a holding penalty, Miller threw into a crowd, and linebacker Mike Ward intercepted at the 3.
Montana's first half got worse. Much worse.
Georgia Southern scored on its third possession in typical fashion. A fourth-and-1 situation at the Eagles 49 drew little hesitation for Johnson. Revere followed sophomore center Charles Clarke for two yards and a first down.
On the next play, the Eagles faked the option, and Revere found Chris Johnson wide open for the final 49 yards and a 13-0 advantage.
The Grizzlies felt Georgia Southern's defensive punishment on the next drive. Wide receiver Jimmy Farris went over the middle to haul in a Miller pass, but safety Ryan Hadden delivered a hit that left Farris crumpled on the ground for almost a minute.
Two plays later, outside linebacker Jamar Jones sacked Miller. It wasn't a particularly hard hit, but Miller's cleats stuck in the muddy turf. His right knee twisted, and he was gone for the game.
Ironically, that possession was Montana's most productive of the half. Chris Snyder kicked a 37-yard field goal for the Grizzlies' only score of the half to make it 13-3.
Georgia Southern's running game kept the ball away from Montana in the second quarter. The Eagles had possession for nine of the 15 minutes. Peterson, who was held to six first-quarter yards, had 67 in the second quarter.
The Eagles displayed such devotion to their ground attack that, once faced with a third-and-16, Johnson called an option play. Revere's pitch to Peterson gained exactly 16 for the first down.
Peterson had the only touchdown of the quarter, capping an eight-play, 69-yard drive with a 1-yard plunge to make it 20-3.
The rains came down in the second half, and the Grizzlies' determination picked up. Montana outgained Georgia Southern 296-72 after intermission.
But 57 of those yards came on Peterson's blast, and the Eagles celebrated. This was their year, after all.
|Previous National titles|
Dec. 21, 1985-Georgia Southern 44, Furman 42. Georgia Southern rallies from a 22-point third-quarter deficit to defeat Furman in Tacoma, Wash.
Dec. 20, 1986-Georgia Southern 48, Arkansas State 21. Georgia Southern kicks four first-half field goals to become the first Division I-AA school to win back-to-back titles.
Dec. 16, 1989-Georgia Southern 37, Stephen F. Austin 34. Georgia Southern preserves its perfect season with a 20-yard field goal with 1:41 remaining.
Dec. 15, 1990-Georgia Southern 36, Nevada 13. Georgia Southern's defense kills Nevada's early second-half momentum, and the Eagles run away with the win with 16 fourth-quarter points.
Dec. 19, 1999-Georgia Southern 59, Youngstown State 24. Adrian Peterson rushes for 247 yards and scores three touchdowns as Georgia Southern scores 28 unanswered points in the second quarter.