STATESBORO -- There was no question in Maine quarterback Warren Smith’s mind that the Black Bears could move the football against Georgia Southern in Saturday’s FCS playoff game.
But the problem for the Black Bears was one of possession.
Owning the football, especially in the first half, proved to be a problem the Black Bears could not overcome Saturday afternoon against Georgia Southern and its triple-option offense.
As a result, Maine was eliminated from the playoffs by the No. 3 seed Eagles, who owned the ball for 42:24 in a 35-23 win.
“We knew going into the game we could move the football,” Smith said. “We had seen film on their Old Dominion game, and we didn’t think they could stop us.
“We had three turnovers, and had we not turned the ball over it could have been a 37-35 game. I thought our defense defended well in the first half. We didn’t give up a big play, but they are a four-down team with that offense.”
Eagles quarterback Jaybo Shaw ran for two touchdowns and threw for another to lead the Eagles to their third win in as many meetings with Maine.
All three games have come in the playoffs -- the last was a 31-7 loss in 2002 -- and all have come at Georgia Southern’s Paulson Stadium, where 12,886 fans roared their approval from the onset Saturday.
The Eagles (11-2) had 476 yards total offense, including 360 rushing, in dispatching the Bears (9-4). Georgia Southern will now play at North Dakota State (12-1) on Friday or Saturday. The Bison advanced by defeating Lehigh.
This marks the second straight year Georgia Southern has advanced to the semifinals. The Eagles lost at Delaware last year.
“Our defense made some big plays,” Georgia Southern head coach Jeff Monken said. “They took a lot of criticism this past week, including some from me, but they gave up only 23 points, seven of those on a kickoff return, against a really good offensive team.
“We beat a really good football team (Saturday). They played hard. I couldn’t believe the stats at halftime. They had run nine plays, yet they had 10 points.”
J.J. Wilcox led Georgia Southern in rushing with 99 yards, and he scored touchdowns on runs of 2 and 7 yards. Shaw scored on runs of 2 and 1 yards, and he completed 7-of-8 passes for 116 yards.
Smith completed 15-of-29 passes for 229 yards and two touchdowns, but he was intercepted three times. Jerrick McKinnon had two interceptions for Georgia Southern.
Maine was held down in the first half by the Eagles’ offense, a turnover and its own ability to score quickly. As a result, the Black Bears had the ball for 4:52 of the opening half and had just 61 yards total offense on seven running plays and only two passing attempts.
Georgia Southern scored on its opening drive and then it made it 14-0 when McKinnon picked off Smith on Maine’s second play of the game.
After Wilcox scored on a 2-yard run, Roosevelt Brown answered for Maine with a 91-yard kickoff return.
The Bears finally came up with a stop when they held Georgia Southern on downs at the Maine 34 with 9:47 left in the second quarter.
On its second possession of the game, Maine drove to the Eagles’ 2. But Georgia Southern All-America nose tackle Brent Russell blew up a third-down running play as he stopped Pushaun Brown for 3-yard loss that forced a 21-yard field goal by Brian Harvey.
Georgia Southern answered with a 67-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard run by Wilcox on a on a pitch play to the right.
“Although we had the ball for only nine plays, we were still in it at the half,” Maine head coach Jack Cosgrove said. “We never felt we were out of it until that third interception.”
The Black Bears scored on the opening drive of the second half to cut the Eagles’ lead to 21-17, but Georgia Southern answered with a 56-yard scoring drive and then came up with an interception by Darious Eubanks on the Bears’ ensuing possession.
Eubanks’ interception of a pass intended for Justin Perillo gave the Eagles the ball at the Maine 27, and two plays later, Shaw found a wide open Kentrellis Showers in the end zone to make it 35-17 with 7:32 to play.
Although the Black Bears answered with an 80-yard touchdown drive, the deficit was simply too much to overcome.
“Our program faced a multitude of challenges this year,” Cosgrove said. “It’s been a lot of fun. We got better as the game went on, but time ran out.”