STATESBORO - Despite the loss of highly regarded Louis Ivory, Furman's ground game continues to be the focal point of Georgia Southern's defensive strategy this week.
Ivory, the 2000 Walter Payton award winner, sprained a medial collateral ligament in his left knee two weeks ago.
So second-seeded Georgia Southern gets a third-seeded Paladin squad that will be playing short-handed in Saturday's Division I-AA football semifinal matchup at Paulson Stadium, right?
Not really. Three sophomore tailbacks kept Furman's ground game running smoothly.
Toreico O'Neal, Hindley Brigham and Lamar Rembert combined for 299 of the team's 332 rushing yards against Lehigh last Saturday in the quarterfinals.
"We're not sure who's going to play, but you prepare to play Ivory, and if he doesn't play, you've still prepared yourself to stop the best," said Georgia Southern linebacker Michael Youngblood.
Furman coach Bobby Johnson said Tuesday that Ivory is doubtful for the game. Ivory has been running straight lines in practice but has stayed away from cutting on the bad knee. A brace to protect the knee arrived this week, but Johnson may choose to use the healthy trio instead of a half-speed Ivory.
O'Neal, who had rushed for 146 yards during the season entering the game, had 128 against Lehigh and scored touchdowns on runs of 35 and 7 yards.
Don't tell that to the previously undefeated Mountain Hawks who got run over by the Paladins, 34-17.
"I felt confident that they could come in (against Lehigh) and give us at least close to the same production," Johnson said.
Georgia Southern defensive coordinator Rusty Russell was impressed with the Paladin sophomores after watching the game tape. Of course, it might have been hard to tell them apart. Rembert is 5-foot-8, 188 pounds; O'Neal 5-8, 184 and Hindley 5-9, 198.
"They're all great backs who run hard and take advantage of what they have up front (on the offensive line)," Russell said.
But Russell and the Eagles' defensive unit did a good job containing the Paladins' running game in a 20-10 victory Nov. 3. Furman had only 132 rushing yards, nearly 100 yards under its season's average.
More importantly for the Eagles, the Paladins' 10 points represented a season-low for a team that has averaged 34.4 points.
It was Furman's only loss of the year to a I-AA team. The Paladins (11-2) also lost to I-A Wyoming in the season opener.
"I think the way we played them the last time is how we have to play them this time," said Georgia Southern junior linebacker Joe Scott. "You have to play your assignments. We knew it was going to be a tough game, just like this one will."
The first game between Georgia Southern and Furman had Southern Conference implications. The Eagles' victory allowed them to earn a share of their record fifth-straight conference championship.
Now a victory could propel Southern to a fourth-consecutive I-AA championship game and a chance at a record third-straight title.
"No one is looking that far ahead," Scott said.