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How One Game Sent Georgia Southern into a 4-Year Tailspin

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Georgia Southern plays Texas State for only the second time Saturday. When they last met, a Texas State victory sent the Eagles into the darkest era in program history.

Todd Bennett

Calling Saturday's Georgia Southern-Texas State game a rivalry would be a major overstatement. The teams met for the first and only time in 2005. Those players are gone. The coaches are gone. The administrators, for the most part, are gone. But the memory lingers large a decade on.

Yes it's just one game, and how much difference can that make? Plenty. The loss sent Georgia Southern into a full-blown identity crisis. The program questioned its past, its traditions, its basic philosophy. The solution was to bring in a coach so despised to this day, his name remains banned among supporters.

That it hasn't been discussed much this week comes as no surprise. Ever heard of repressed memories?

"And you just can't beat Georgia Southern"

Players headbutt Erk Russell's bust. (Todd Bennett/Getty Images)

I promise not to bore you with a bunch of history here. We'll sprinkle in just enough to establish the themes. Georgia Southern won six FCS national titles from the re-establishment of football in 1981 until 2000. That's one national title every 3.3 years. Lightning-in-a-bottle, lottery winner success.

The Eagles won all six running the triple option offense. They won all six sporting plain blue jerseys with white pants, numbers on the helmets, a single white stripe down the middle and a grey face mask. They won all six riding old yellow school buses to home games.

These came from the brain of legendary coach Erk Russell, and all of them -- the option included -- symbolize the program's humble roots. The jerseys? Courtesy of a local high school. The buses? Used. The white stripe? Tape. The option? Run with players the big programs overlook. Shorter, smaller, faster, from the linemen to the quarterback.

It's still that way today. Matt Breida, one of the nation's most prolific runners, stands 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds. Southern's wildly rich compared to those early days but pales in comparison to the money teams.

Russell won the first three championships. His successor, Tim Stowers, won the fourth in year one of Erk's retirement. Russell protege Paul Johnson brought the program back to prominence with titles five and six in 1999 and 2000. The original Adrian Peterson won the Walter Payton award, FCS' rough equivalent of the Heisman, in '99.

Johnson left for Navy following the 2001 season. Georgia Southern kept the ball rolling with the promotion of his offensive coordinator Mike Sewak to the top job.

Sewak won plenty, going 35-14 during his tenure with two Southern Conference titles, one coach of the year award and three playoff trips in four years.

No titles though. Losses came in the playoffs, and usually early. For a program used to an embarrassment of riches, this was embarrassing.

The Eagles went 8-3 in 2005, capped off by a win over No. 1 Furman. Fans stormed the field. They'd have stormed it again if you stood there and told them it was Sewak's last home game.

You know what happens next.

The game

There's no mistaking it was a heartbreaking loss. Georgia Southern took on Texas State in the first round of the FCS playoffs, in San Marcos, on Nov. 26, 2005. The Eagles looked like world beaters early on as they took a 21-3 lead in front of a national audience on ESPN2. Running back Jermaine Austin rolled into the end zone and quarterback Jayson Foster tossed two touchdowns to Teddy Craft in the first quarter.

Late in the third quarter Southern lead 35-16 and looked to cruise into the second round. We'll always wonder what would've happened.

Texas State, of course, rolled up five straight touchdowns and walked out with a 50-35 victory. The final score read like a blowout.

Three days later, Sewak was gone. First-round playoff losses weren't enough at Georgia Southern.

There's no way to prove it, but everyone knows Sewak survives without that loss. It was Tennessee going 5-7 in 2008. It was Michigan losing to Appalachian State. It meant the era was over, the Old Lady was joining the 21st century.

"There is No Option"

Any Eagles fan who's been around long enough just cringed.

Then-Georgia Southern Athletic Director Sam Baker wanted a change for 2006. He'd have changed things less if he renamed the school.

Baker brought in He Who Shall Not Be Named (literally, I'm not going to say his name this entire article). HWSNBN had been defensive coordinator at Georgia, coached linebackers for a year in the NFL and then took over at Georgia Southern.

HWSNBN was going to modernize Eagle football. The yellow school buses? Bad for recruiting. The option? Also bad for recruiting. Those gave way to charter buses and a "pro style" offense, respectively. Even the jerseys couldn't be left alone. They became a shade darker, with a dark blue face mask.

He'd have drained Eagle Creek if he could.

The Savannah paper ran a story headlined "Bold [HWSNBN] toughens up Georgia Southern program" with quotes like "He was never injured, if he was you never knew it" and "My first impressions were that he looked as if he could play linebacker for us" and "It seems like when he speaks, everything gets real quiet... Even the cars out on the street seem to stop" and "He walks the walk. He lives the principle, and kids know it" and, from the man himself, "You're going to get what you earn."

Southern sure got what it earned. HWSNBN even waxed poetic about why SEC teams should have already hired him as head coach.

Local TV commercials, billboards and T-shirts bore the slogan "There is No Option." I can't find the video online though, or any of the t-shirts or billboards for that matter. Did I mention repressed memories?

Georgia Southern's offense averaged 470 yards and 38 points a game in 2005. It's beyond anyone eight years later why the focus was on scrapping the offense, but that's the way it was. I remember it, and I was on board.

The team went 3-8, the worst season in school history. Foster, who'd later win another Walter Payton award, spent most of the year not touching the ball at wide receiver. The last thing in the world that roster was built for was a pro-style offense, but dammit, that's what we were going to do.

To ensure maximum damage, HWSNBN waited until a couple weeks before signing day to unexpectedly split town, and his name hasn't been uttered in Statesboro since.

"We pitch it forward"

Chris Hatcher, now at Murray State. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Like a scorned lover, Baker and Georgia Southern's leadership sought out the exact opposite of HWSNBN. Chris Hatcher carried a stylized offense and a Statesboro-sized ego into town.

Fans breathed a sigh of relief when he said the yellow buses were coming back during his opening press conference. More important was a Southern accent thicker than waffle syrup (HWSNBN was a Yankee). Hatcher likened his "Hatch Attack" offense to a version of the option, except "we pitch it forward."

The 2007 season went well. Foster, finally recognized for his talent, won the Payton award. The Eagles beat Appalachian State, on the road, the same year as that Michigan game. They'd have earned a playoff berth and conference title if not for a missed field goal to close out the Furman game.

Afterward, the Hatcher era became the law of diminishing returns: 7-4, 6-5, 5-6, fired. Hatcher remains a beloved figure, just one that didn't win enough. In the Tennessee analogy, HWSNBN is Lane Kiffin. Hatcher is Derek Dooley.

Good Times Return

The Option. The beautiful, beautiful Option. (Todd Bennett/Getty Images)

Jeff Monken returned the option, and winning, to Georgia Southern in 2010. A product of Paul Johnson, and by extension Erk Russell, what's old became new again. Monken led the Eagles to three straight national semifinals, two conference crowns and a win over the mighty Florida Gators in just four seasons.

Army snatched up Monken, opening the door for current coach Willie Fritz. I, for one, was scared to death when I learned the Fritzkreig offense wasn't the triple option. Fritz recognizes his talent though, keeping the ball in the hands of playmakers and on the ground. With three more wins this Georgia Southern team will be one for the ages. In the Tennessee analogy, well, thankfully we can drop the Tennessee analogy.

Those four years, the dark era, seem like a blip now, especially when sandwiched between great option teams. They weren't. Four years of mediocrity, or worse, is unbearable for a football diehard who waits all year to watch things implode.

If that Texas State game ended differently, the next four years would too. Who knows what we'd be watching now, what would have transpired.

Today's Eagles were middle schoolers or even elementary school students in 2005. Still, the illogical fan in me hopes they play to avenge that loss Saturday. To me this is a must win. Or, let's put it another way:

There is No Option.