Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning provides periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller.
It was November 12, 1994.
Long before his association with West Virginia University or the Odd Stack defense, Tony Gibson was a small college football player, a tougher-than-nails overachiever who battled his way into the lineup at Glenville State College for four straight years.
All told, Gibson played in 44 games at GSC. In 43 of those, he was a defensive back.
Not many folks know about the one game he wasn’t.
At 8-1, Glenville was the No. 2 ranked NAIA team in the country, but the Pioneers were nevertheless “playing up” -- taking a 10-hour bus trip into the coastal pines of the Deep South to tangle with one of the most menacing teams that the NCAA Division 1-AA of yesteryear had to offer - a program that had won, at that point, four national championships in nine seasons and owned a 71-7 record at home in its new facility.
This was a school feared by many but one that was also willing to cut Glenville State a fat enough check to make it worth their troubles. Or maybe not.
In the final regular season contest of his career – one week before GSC would travel to Montana for the opening round of the national playoffs – Gibson changed positions. The switch was a temporary one, intended for just one game to help the Pioneers get more speed on the field against an unconventional but potent offense that was known to stretch you from sideline to sideline.
Instead of occupying the cornerback spot that he held down for years, Gibson was inserted into the starting lineup as a weak side linebacker – the “Will.” His job, in part, was to cover ground and chase things down.
Did it work?
Georgia Southern ran for a school record 665 yards and beat Glenville 66-13.
“It was awful,” Gibson recalled. “A beating like that sticks with you for a long time.”
Awful indeed. Three different Georgia Southern runners eclipsed 100 yards on the ground that day and the Eagles scored on 10 of their 12 possessions.
“Part of the reason these guys concern me so much might be because of what happened in that game over 20 years ago,” Gibson continued with a labored chuckle that might suggest he was only half-joking. “I’ve seen up close what Georgia Southern is capable of – and it’s no fun to be on the business end of that.”
Gibson is justifiably scarred. And why not? It was a grueling and relentless three hours. Trust me, I was there.
That long, painful afternoon in Statesboro, Georgia, 21 years ago represents the full scope of Tony Gibson’s experience against the Eagles. But Saturday night at Milan Puskar Stadium that all changes.
Georgia Southern Since FBS Transition
Georgia Southern made the transition to the FBS in 2013 and since then has played three games against Power 5 conference teams. The Eagles defeated Florida in 2013, before narrowly falling at NC State and Georgia Tech in 2014.
||at NC State
||at Georgia Tech
Like Gibson, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen recognizes the unique challenges Georgia Southern presents. Holgorsen heads into his fifth season opener at West Virginia hoping that the battle-tested nature of the Mountaineer defense will give his squad an edge.
“I think having that experience at linebacker and safety is going to be key. We are talking about five seniors that are second level players,” said Holgorsen, “If our front line guys can be tough and hold the gaps and allow those five guys to run, see it and understand it, then I have confidence in our defense to be able to slow them down.”
True enough. The Mountaineers will start senior KJ Dillon
at Spur and redshirt seniors Nick Kwiatkoski
, Jared Barber
and Shaq Petteway
at linebacker while senior Bandit safety Karl Joseph
will roam the backend in search of bodies to rock. If redshirt senior nose tackle Kyle Rose
and the d-line can occupy enough space to let those guys read and react you have to like West Virginia’s chances no matter how intense or complex things get Saturday evening. That’s the kind of veteran leadership you want at your disposal not only when trying to solve the Georgia Southern option attack but also in helping this defense stay grounded after an offseason full of hype.
Either way, you can disregard what the oddsmakers might tell you about this one. Forget that GSU is a 20-point underdog and that they will be going with their No. 2 quarterback. Forget that the Eagles lost four starters from an offensive line that was the anchor of last year’s team. Georgia Southern is a bona fide threat to knock the wheels off anyone’s wagon on any given night.
“They’ve got great speed. They’re going to be a tricky outfit,” said Holgorsen. “We’ve prepared hard for these guys. We know who our opponent is and we’re going to make sure that we respect them. There’s no doubt.”
There’s a simple lesson to be learned in watching the Eagles’ blueprint play out over the last 31-plus years. That lesson? Beware the fury of an impatient football program. They tend to take what they want. And make no mistake, that’s exactly what Georgia Southern is – a team that has quickly forged a culture of success by refusing to wait on that success to arrive.
After a four-decade absence from the gridiron, GSU revived its program in 1981. Just four years later it won its first of an unprecedented six FCS national titles. In 1992, GSU joined the Southern Conference. The very next year, it was flying a league championship banner over Paulson Stadium. Last season, in their first campaign as a member of the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, the Eagles jumped into the Sun Belt Conference and took no prisoners. Georgia Southern became only the third team in history to win a conference title in its first season at the FBS level and the first team ever to do so without a single loss in league play.
But the Eagles want more, and they want it now.
This is a school that craves a seat at college football’s elite table and they have a firm strategy in place to provide the opportunity to earn one. In addition to Saturday night’s visit to Morgantown, Georgia Southern travels between the hedges on November 21 to face Georgia, and they’ve already added the likes of Ole Miss (2016), Auburn (2017), Clemson (2018) and LSU (2019) to future schedules. This operation, which not long ago in 1981 was playing the Fort Benning Doughboys, is now daring the biggest brands in the game to step into the alley.
Why not? This is after all a Georgia Southern team that -- as a four-touchdown underdog two years ago -- marched into The Swamp and toppled the Florida Gators without completing a single pass -- a team that stuffed the ball down Florida’s throat to the tune of 429 yards rushing, the most allowed by a Gator defense since Tommie Frazier and Nebraska shredded them for 524 in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl. And, as if bent on proving to the world that 2013 upset in Gainesville was legitimate, the Eagles followed it up a season ago with down-to-the-wire battles against a pair of bowl winners in NC State and Georgia Tech – both games GSU led in the final two minutes.
Make no mistake about it, with the heap of buzz surrounding the Eagles’ recent track record as Power 5 Conference kryptonite they aren’t sneaking up on anyone any longer. The days of being considered a wolf in sheep’s clothing are over. Georgia Southern is now a wolf in full battle armor – and they have West Virginia’s undivided attention.
* * * *
After only one carry in 2013, Georgia Southern running back Matt Breida led the nation with 8.68 yards per carry and had more rushing touchdowns of 50 yards or more (7) in 2014.
||at NC State
||at Georgia Tech
||at South Alabama
||at New Mexico State
||at Georgia State
||at Texas State
The undisputed catalyst of the Eagles offense is junior running back Matt Breida. After racking up 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns last fall, the Doak Walker Award semifinalist could become an even bigger part of GSU’s plans in 2015.
At 5-10 and 185 pounds, Breida shows explosiveness and tremendous instincts – which helped him average a gaudy 8.68 yards per carry, the best in college football.
The threat Breida poses is not lost on Holgorsen.
“He has top-end speed and can get out in the open. People can’t catch him,” said Holgorsen. “That’s why they led the nation in rushing last year.”
If you want to appreciate how dynamic Breida can be, watch him against some of the best competition Georgia Southern faced last year.
His first-quarter scoring jaunt against Georgia Tech was a simple gem. It showcased not only Breida’s raw speed but it also revealed Georgia Southern’s unyielding commitment to running the football in all situations.
Trailing 14-0 and facing third and a long seven, the Eagles broke the huddle and went shotgun, spreading the field with twin receivers to each side. The Yellow Jackets answered with Cover Zero – man coverage across the board with no deep help – and packed the box with seven defenders. On the snap GSU attacked the left perimeter with an option play – right into the teeth of a blitz package. The Eagles’ read key was the defensive end to that side, ESPN True Freshman All-American KaShun Freeman. When Freeman, with a fellow defender blitzing off of his inside shoulder, stepped upfield and surrendered containment, the option pitch went quickly to Breida who had them both outflanked. With the secondary scattered like buckshot in man coverage Breida did the rest, turning on the jets and separating from Georgia Tech defenders for a 69-yard score.
Plays like this keep defensive coordinators up at night. The temptation against the Eagles is to send pressure in an effort to disrupt the well-oiled mechanics of their option game, but Gibson says the risk might not be worth the reward. As evidenced by the quick touchdown run detailed above, doing so might in fact be playing right into Georgia Southern’s hands.
“We can’t attack it. That’s the problem I have with it. When you do that you leave too many vertical run seams, and they can bust a big play on you,” Gibson says. “We have to be very patient. We can’t get bored with what we’re doing, and we have to play every snap very sound with what we’re doing.”
Against an attack as slick as the Eagles – so efficient at doing so many things that you so rarely see – there are a lot of moving parts and it all happens fast.
But this ain’t your granddaddy’s Georgia Southern offense.
“Nobody does what they’re doing,” said Gibson.
Even in the exclusive world of option teams, the Eagles are a breed apart.
Sure they still test the perimeter with speed and misdirection – that hasn’t changed in a generation. But the ‘Flexbone’ offense that carried Georgia Southern to great heights in the 1980s with coach Erk Russell and quarterback Tracy Ham and then in the ‘90s with coaches Tim Stowers and Paul Johnson was based on a veer blocking scheme. Second year GSU coach Willie Fritz brought with him from Sam Houston State last season a more contemporary but no less run-oriented spread offense built heavily on zone blocking concepts. It fit the Eagles’ roster, which included four senior starters on the offensive line, like a glove.
“They’re in the shotgun. They’re going to run split-zone, lead option, load option. They throw the ball, too,” said Gibson. “They do a little bit of everything.”
The numbers the Eagles piled up last fall scream at you. GSU was the only team in the country to average more than five yards per carry in every game it played and led the nation in rushing offense (381 yards/game) and rushing touchdowns with 55 – the most by any team since Vince Young and the Texas Longhorns ran for 55 in 2005.
The results last year in Statesboro, though, were nothing new for Fritz.
“In over 22 years as a head coach, we've won over 91% of our games when we had one more yard rushing (than our opponent),” he told USA Today Sports last October.
Fritz’s theory of rushing relativity was on point again last year as Georgia Southern’s option attack warped the fabric of opposing defenses. All told, GSU posted a 9-1 mark when outrushing the opposition but was 0-2 when it did not.
One major difference in the offensive system orchestrated under Fritz? Formations. Georgia Southern uses a ton of them. Unlike more traditional triple option attacks that might strike at you from a limited number of sets, the Eagles throw so many formations and motions your way you might think they defected from the Canadian League.
The GSU offense is the consummate moving target – motioning and going unbalanced and keeping you guessing for a full 60 minutes. As with many triple option teams, several of the Eagles’ core plays involve three elements – a dive man, a pitch man and a lead blocker. What Georgia Southern has turned into an art form, however, is its ability to jumble its formations before the snap and conceal what player is tasked with which of those three roles on a given play.
Another difference with this team is its ability to strike quickly. Forget the horse-and-buggy reputation attached to many option offenses that are so often regarded as plodding creatures of the clock that can’t play from behind. The Eagles are a scoring machine. Yes, Georgia Southern can control possession of the football but it can also put points up by the bundle – and in short order.
In last year’s narrow loss to a talented Georgia Tech squad that went on to blister Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl, the Eagles trailed 35-10 at halftime. Nineteen minutes later they were in the lead 38-35. They overcame this deficit by decisively outgaining the Ramblin’ Wreck 398-to-151 in the second half. That Georgia Southern advantage was powered by a cluster of big plays that included runs of 32 and 38 yards and pass completions of 43 and 68 yards. When pressed, GSU can score a lot more quickly than some might think.
Another contrast created by Georgia Southern’s zone scheme is the point at which the Eagles cut-block you. Conventional option teams will -- snap after snap -- chop you down like prime timber at the point of attack along the defensive line (see: Georgia Tech, Air Force, Navy, etc.). As a zone team GSU takes an alternative approach, leaning heavily on precise footwork to engage the defensive line with area blocks then climbing to the next level to cut-block linebackers and defensive backs.
For second and third level defenders this means keeping your head on a swivel, seeing through all the smoke and mirrors and fakes and pivots. The trick is staying conscious of where the football is while also remaining wary of blockers flying in from all directions. Imagine trying to watch a magician’s hands closely enough to spot the trick card up his sleeve. Now imagine trying to do the same thing in the middle of a busy freeway.
This technique helps the Eagles achieve one of the most fundamental goals of a zone blocking scheme – to minimize defensive penetration. Ideally, fewer chop-block attempts along the defensive line translates into fewer missed blocks for the offense. And it works. The Eagles allowed the fewest combined tackles-for-loss (42) and sacks (5, for a total of 47) in college football last year. Throw in the fact that only 14 teams in the nation were flagged fewer times than GSU and you really start to appreciate just how hard it is to get these guys moving in the wrong direction. Collectively, all these little things add up to help Georgia Southern avoid an abundance of third and long situations.
* * * *
A few closing observations and/or thought provoking numbers as Saturday night’s kickoff at Milan Puskar Stadium approaches:
- Every time a microphone was placed in front of Willie Fritz this offseason he preached the importance of Georgia Southern improving its passing game. The Eagles may have something to build on in that area. They return leading receiver B.J. Johnson and, believe it or not, in some pretty desperate passing circumstances they were very effective. In third down and long situations (10-plus yards), Georgia Southern posted the highest passer rating of all 128 FBS teams (an eye-popping 226.3) by connecting on 10 of 12 throws for 165 yards. In fact, the Eagles overall third-down completion percentage of 69.2 (27-for-39) was second-best nationally, trailing only Alabama’s 70.6%.
- Speaking of Alabama, here’s a fun one to chew on. Guess what school has rushed for the most yards in a single game against the Crimson Tide during Nick Saban’s tenure. Was it Ohio State in the College Football Playoffs last season? Nope. Was it Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers? Try again. Was it Darren McFadden and the Arkansas Razorbacks. Nope. It was none other than Georgia Southern. In a 2011 loss in Tuscaloosa the Eagles ran for 302 yards against Alabama, averaging 7.7 yards per carry.
- As you might expect of a team with a great running game, GSU ranked No. 6 in the country in the percentage of its Red Zone Trips that were converted into touchdowns. The Eagles reached the end zone 73% of the time they crossed inside the 20-yard line.
- Georgia Southern finished with a ranking of No. 82 nationally against the pass and allowed the opposition to throw for 250-plus yards seven times last year, including a season-high 408 by Georgia State. Only 17 teams yielded more 250-yard passing games than the Eagles.
- GSU kickers missed eight extra points in 2014. West Virginia kickers have missed a total of eight PATs in the last 10 seasons combined.
- In third down and short situations (1 to 3 yards), the Mountaineer defense held opponents to the second-lowest average (1.32 yards per carry) in all of college football. When the bad guys ran the football under such circumstances, West Virginia stopped them short of the marker 55 percent of the time. The Georgia Southern offense, meanwhile, enjoyed the second highest average in the country on the same third down and short situations -- 8.25 yards per carry. (Courtesy: CFBstats.com)
- The Georgia Southern offense finished dead last nationally in fourth-quarter passing efficiency last year (60.54 rating with 0 TD passes and four interceptions thrown). The West Virginia defense, conversely, was the best in the country against the pass in the fourth quarter, limiting opponents to a 60.92 passer rating and 0 TD passes while picking off six passes. (Courtesy: CFBstats.com)
- Since joining the major college coaching ranks as a member of the Texas Tech staff in 2000, Dana Holgorsen’s teams have posted a 13-2 overall record in season openers, losing only to College Football Playoff participant Alabama last year in Atlanta and to national champion Ohio State in 2002 at The Horseshoe. Holgorsen is 3-1 in openers at West Virginia.
I’ll see you at the 50.