STATESBORO—The Georgia Southern Eagles are following their leader to the cold environs of the Dakotas.
With senior quarterback Jaybo Shaw directing the Eagles’ triple-option offense, the Eagles will meet North Dakota State this coming Saturday, after beating Maine 35-23 Saturday at Paulson Stadium. The winner of the Eagles-Bison game has a spot in the Football Championship Subdivision title game.
From 2003-09, the Eagles didn’t reach so much as the second round of the FCS playoffs. Now, in their second season under Jeff Monken, the Eagles are making their second consecutive appearance in the national semifinals.
"We wouldn’t be in this position if we didn’t have Jaybo Shaw," Monken said of his senior quarterback. "We wouldn’t have had the opportunities we had last year to get as far in the playoffs without Jaybo. I’m really glad we’ve got him."
In 27 starts as the Eagles quarterback, Shaw has compiled a 21-6 record. After Monken, who had been slotbacks coach at Georgia Southern for the 1997-2001 seasons, left a similar position at Georgia Tech to come back to GSU, Shaw too left Georgia Tech for Georgia Southern.
It didn’t take long for the son of a high school coach to make a connection — and leave an impact — on his new teammates.
"He’s a great leader, and I look up to him," said junior slotback J.J. Wilcox.
The Eagles fell in the semis last year to Delaware after winning road games at Wofford and William and Mary. The trip to the FargoDome will be the first playoff road game this year for GSU.
"It’s great," Shaw said of the return to the semifinals. "One of our goals from last year was getting to the playoffs and giving ourselves a chance. We’re just trying to make the most out of the opportunity and trying not to make this Saturday the last time we play with each other."
Even in Georgia Southern’s run-heavy offense, Shaw’s rushing numbers Saturday were pedestrian — he had 19 yards on 14 carries. But his ability to make the right read on the option and deliver the ball at the right time to a trailing slotback, or keep the ball and plunge forward, led the Eagles to the bulk of their 360 rushing yards against Maine.
Shaw had two rushing touchdowns against the Black Bears and picked up four first downs rushing in the win.
Shaw also showed off his deft passing touch, completing 7-of-8 passes for 116 yards and one touchdown. For Saturday’s win over the Black Bears, Shaw had a passer efficiency rating of a whopping 250.55.
Of his seven completions, five went for first downs, including a 25-yard strike to a wide open Kentrellis Showers for the Eagles’ final score.
"Jaybo is throwing the ball great," Monken said. "He’s throwing it as good as he ever has. I’ve been fortunate to be around him for four years."
With Maine gearing its defense to stop freshman fullback Dominique Swope, that left the perimeters ripe for picking for the option. Swope ran for 255 yards the previous week against Old Dominion, and the Black Bears held him to 81 yards on 23 carries.
Relying mostly on speed option and the triple option, the Eagles got 263 yards on 28 rushing attempts from their slotbacks.
"That’s my job — my job is to get the ball to our playmakers," Shaw said. "I was able to compete some passes, but the guys catching the passes were the ones who made the plays."
The Black Bears were trying to slow play the option, Monken explained, stretching the play out and making Shaw decide to keep or pitch the football at the last second. Shaw, now in his fourth year of running the triple option in college, crossed up the defense on a couple of occasions, faking the pitch and keeping it himself.
"I don’t think there’s any question that with having a veteran quarterback, there’s a confidence the team has, that the coaching staff has, when he’s in the game," Monken said. "Jaybo’s a special kid. I’ve known him since he was a senior in high school. He’s always been mature beyond his years. He just has a presence with our guys. I think they recognize what a great leader he is and that he is going to make decisions with the football that is going to keep our offense going."
In a two-game lull against The Citadel and Appalachian State, the Eagles offense totaled 521 yards. Over the last four games, it has averaged 456 yards per game.
With the semifinals against North Dakota State ahead, Monken and the Eagles know that any malfeasance in the offense’s execution can’t be tolerated in the trip to Fargo.
"You get to this point in the season, every team is really good," Monken said. "You have to play better on each particular Saturday. I think we’re improving as a team and playing better each week, and we’re going to need to."