STATESBORO, Ga. - Trips to Chattanooga, Tenn., were canceled. Plans for Friday night ruined. A week of disappointment at Georgia Southern dipped to another level Saturday.
The Eagles won't be headed to the Division I-AA national championship game this season. For the first time in four years, they'll watch the title game on ESPN.
Georgia Southern's empire of winning playoff football crumbled Saturday afternoon in the one place it had always been perfect. The two-time defending champion Eagles suffered a 24-17 loss to Furman before a stunned announced crowd of 11,827 fans at Paulson Stadium.
The Paladins (12-2) advanced to their first national championship game in 13 years against top-ranked Montana, a 38-0 winner over Northern Iowa. The game will be played at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Chattanooga.
"We don't know how to react," said Georgia Southern defensive lineman Corey Middlebrooks. "We feel like we've disappointed a lot of people today. It hasn't even hit me yet that we lost. Maybe it will hit me when I'm sitting there in front of the TV looking at someone else."
It was an ending with a new, horrible twist for the 12-2 Eagles, whose record-setting 39-game home winning streak, 27-0 home playoff run and 8-0 semifinal playoff record all were ended.
Saturday also was the curtain call for coach Paul Johnson, who announced last week that he would assume the helm at Navy next season. The eligibility of All-America fullback Adrian Peterson and All-Conference quarterback J.R. Revere came to an end as well.
"They'll be fine at Georgia Southern," said Johnson, who paused to relieve some of the emotion from farewell statements. "They've got good players. They'll have a good coach, and they'll be fine."
Revere said the Eagles wanted to send Johnson out with a third national championship. But two second-half fumbles reversed Georgia Southern's early momentum, and the Paladins' hard-working offensive line dominated down the stretch.
With 8:24 left, Furman's fullback Eric Emerson dove in from the 1-yard line to snap a 17-17 deadlock.
"We made mistakes in the second half, and when you do that against a good team, you're going to lose," Johnson said. "We made the mistakes, and they were able to capitalize."
The Southern Conference rivals played six weeks ago, and turnovers were key. But it was Furman that committed them as the Eagles won 20-10.
This time, Georgia Southern took a 17-7 advantage with two touchdowns in the final 3:22 of the first half. The Eagles gave back most of that lead in the opening 4:08 of the second half.
Backup lineman Justin Wright fumbled a short kickoff to set up a Furman field goal. On the next Georgia Southern play from scrimmage, slotback Zzream Walden fumbled, and Paladin linebacker Eddie Overdyke recovered at the 21.
Furman needed just one play to tie the game. Quarterback Billy Napier and wide receiver Bear Rinehart hooked up on a 21-yard touchdown pass just 27 seconds after the field goal.
"(The turnovers) were big," said Furman coach Bobby Johnson, who then spread his hands. "Real big."
The Paladins' defense held All-America fullback Adrian Peterson to 68 yards - the lowest total in his career. It was the first time in his career Peterson was held to less than 100 yards in a playoff game.
"It feels incredible because they're a great team," said Furman linebacker Will Bouton. "It would feel good to beat them on Mars or here."
Bouton led the defense with 10 tackles, including three for a loss and one sack. The Paladins held the Eagles without a point and to just 55 yards in the second half. Georgia Southern entered the game averaging 48.7 points in its past three games.
Furman has beaten Georgia Southern in two of the teams' past three meetings. This one was accomplished without tailback Louis Ivory, the 2000 Walter Payton Award winner, who sprained his left knee two weeks ago. Sophomores Hindley Brigham, Lamar Rembert and Toreico O'Neal finished with a combined 130 yards - 8 more than Ivory had in the first meeting against the Eagles.
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