First off, let me apologize for not having the Maryland writeup done yet. Between the short week and my DVD recorder heading off to that great home theater in the sky, the deck was stacked against me. I know nobody wants to dwell on that game, so I’ll try to get the writeup out as soon as possible.
The short week is bad for me, but it might be a good thing for Navy. Usually after you lose, you want to get back on the field as soon as possible to get that foul taste out of your mouth– and there’s plenty of gnarly aftertaste lingering after Monday’s game. Over the summer it looked like the Georgia Southern game would be a bit of a trap; it’s short week after a tough game against an opponent that’s familiar with what you do. After the Maryland stinker, though, it would be extremely disappointing to see the Mids come out at anything less than their best tomorrow.
Most Navy fans are at least somewhat familiar with the history of Georgia Southern football; certainly anyone who reads this blog on a regular basis is. (Rumors that I was actually a member of the Southern Boosters for one year cannot be confirmed nor denied.) Football started at the school as it grew from a rural trade school to a teacher’s college in 1924, but was suspended at the outbreak of World War II. The sport didn’t return to Statesboro until 1982, when it hired Georgia defensive coordinator Erk Russell to revive the dormant program. Russell brought some guy named Paul Johnson in to coach his defensive line in 1983, and promoted him to offensive coordinator the following year. With Johnson running the offense, the Eagles would go on to win the first of six I-AA championships. Four of those involved Johnson; two as offensive coordinator, and two more as head coach.
When Johnson left to take the Navy job following the 2001 season, he was replaced by Mike Sewak. Sewak had some success, including three playoff appearances and two conference titles. But it wasn’t the kind of success the Southern faithful had become accustomed to. Sewak’s teams were characterized by the same powerful offense, but a defense that gave up a lot of points. After a 50-35 loss to Texas State ended GSU’s 2005 season with an 8-4 record, Sewak was fired. The program hasn’t been the same since. Sewak’s replacement, Brian VanGorder, scrapped the spread option, rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, and left at the first chance he could. Considering his 3-8 record, it was probably for the best. He was replaced by Chris Hatcher, who had turned Valdosta State into a Division II powerhouse. Hatcher led the Eagles back to respectability after the VanGorder debacle, going 7-4 in his first year. He couldn’t improve on that record over the next two seasons, though, and after a 5-6 campaign in 2009, Hatcher’s contract was not renewed.
In an effort to return Georgia Southern to its position as I-AA’s most successful program, athletic director Sam Baker turned to one of Paul Johnson’s protégés, Jeff Monken. Monken, of course, had coached with Johnson at Southern before following him to Navy to mentor the slotbacks. He left with Johnson in 2007 to join his coaching staff at Georgia Tech. Monken’s return to Statesboro also meant the return of the beloved spread option offense that was the trademark of Georgia Southern football.
On the surface, Navy and Georgia Southern seem like an unlikely matchup. The game was scheduled at the request of Paul Johnson (I’ll let you guess why), and when he left I actually thought that it would disappear along with him. I suppose it’s cheaper to keep her, because here we are. It’s the first meeting between the two schools; in fact, this will be the first time that GSU has ever even played in the state of Maryland. When Navy wants to sprinkle in a I-AA team on its schedule, there are plenty of local programs eager to oblige. Yet despite their seemingly random pairing and lack of a playing history, the common coaching pedigree brings a level of familiarity to the matchup. Monken spent six years in Annapolis. Current Navy coaches Ivin Jasper and Danny O’Rourke both coached at Georgia Southern under Johnson, as did Chris Culton, who was a student assistant and graduated from GSU in 2001. It’s this familiarity that makes Saturday’s game interesting for the Xs & Os enthusiast. Everyone on both sides has a pretty good idea of what their counterparts like to do. Preparation for the game also takes on a new twist. The happiest people on the Yard right now are probably the players on the offensive scout team, who got to spend a few days practicing the offense they were actually recruited for. One of the biggest advantages that come from running the spread option is that it’s hard for other schools’ scout teams to simulate the speed and execution that their defenses will face on game day. That doesn’t really apply here. This isn’t an advantage for Navy, but it helps make the short week a little bit less of a disadvantage; with only three days to prepare, it helps that Navy is playing an offense that’s similar to the one they practiced against all spring and half of the fall.
Georgia Southern is returning to the offense of its roots, but they have a long way to go before they’re back to being the juggernaut program of their heyday. Monken’s squad is a work in progress, and his depth chart includes 28 freshmen and sophomores in the two-deep. That includes freshman starters at both fullback and left tackle—two positions where experience is usually a prerequisite. One of the few players that does have prior experience in the new offense is quarterback Jaybo Shaw, a transfer from Georgia Tech. Shaw, who ran a spread option offense in high school and was also recruited by Navy, came to Georgia Southern after sitting out last season with a broken collarbone. He got a lot of playing time at Tech as a freshman, though, and even started against Duke. He threw for 230 yards on 9-for-13 passing in that game. Of course, it helps to have Demariyus Thomas on the receiving end of all 9 of those passes, but it was still the most passing yards ever by a Georgia Tech quarterback making his first career start. When Josh Nesbitt left the Mississippi State game with a hamstring injury on Tech’s first series, Shaw stepped in and led the Jackets to 438 rushing yards in a 38-7 win. Having played against ACC and SEC defenses as a freshman, Shaw isn’t going to be intimidated going up against Navy. How his less experienced teammates will respond is less certain. They certainly didn’t have any trouble last week against Savannah State, piling on 540 yards of offense in a 48-3 frogstomp of one of Division I’s worst programs. Savannah State lost to two NAIA programs last season, so it’s hard to use that game as a measure of Georgia Southern’s progress.
One of the subplots of this game is that Georgia Southern and Navy meet fairly often on the recruiting trail. Navy recruits heavily in Georgia Southern’s home turf of Georgia and North Florida, and several players on both rosters held offers from both schools. This was true even before Southern returned to a spread option offense. Now that both schools are playing the same style of offense, it stands to reason that they’ll go head-to-head for recruits even more. This game isn’t just a paycheck for Georgia Southern; if they can come into Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and pull off a win, it will be a huge coup for Jeff Monken as he goes against Navy in Georgia’s living rooms in an effort to jumpstart his program.
That’s one big if, though. I don’t doubt that Coach Monken has a few tricks up his sleeve for his former comrades, but Navy should still win this game by a comfortable margin. After a regrettable performance against Maryland and with another month before the next home game, the Mids might be in for big trouble if they don’t.