SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Georgia Southern has gone from one of the last teams picked for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs to one game away from playing for the national championship.
The Eagles (10-4) shot out to a 17-point first half lead, then hung on in the second half to beat Wofford 23-20 on Saturday in the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.
Georgia Southern is on a six-game winning streak as it travels to No. 3 Delaware in the semifinals next week. The Blue Hens are the highest remaining seed in the FCS tournament. The Eagles haven't made it this far since 2002, when they won the last of six national titles in 17 years.
"I love it. I love the intensity of each game and the do-or-die of each game and the atmosphere -- everyone is going to play hard because it counts so much," first-year Eagles coach Jeff Monken said.
Wofford (10-3) outgained Georgia Southern 343 yards to 246 yards. But mistakes killed the Terriers. They turned the ball over on fumbles their first two possessions, leading to touchdowns, including one scooped up by Eagles defensive end John Douglas for a 20-yard score. The Terriers fumbled four more times, but managed to recover them all.
Wofford also had six penalties for 55 yards, and two of them were key. The Terriers lost a chance for a final drive with a face mask after appearing to stop the Eagles on third down with 2 minutes left.
"I'd like to have seen us have an opportunity one more time with the football," Wofford coach Mike Ayers said. "That penalty toward the end was a killer. We were out of time."
A 50-yard pass by the Terriers in the first half got called back because of a block in the back.
"We just made too many mistakes there in the first half," said Ayers, whose team trailed 20-3 at the break. "We dug ourselves a hole."
Monken reinstalled the Eagles traditional option attack, and they ran for 168 yards Saturday. Quarterback Jaybo Shaw led the team with 60 yards on 15 carries. Robert Brown ran 17 times for 50 yards.
But Shaw completed some key passes too, going 5-for-11 for 78 yards and a touchdown.
The Eagles first score came on a 25-yard pass from Shaw to a wide open Tray Butler. Shaw also completed a couple of key throws in the final minute of the second quarter that led to a field goal that put the Eagles up 20-3 at the break. And on third-and-6 late in the fourth quarter, Shaw threw a 13-yard pass to J.J. Wilcox to keep Wofford from getting a chance for a final drive.
The Terriers held Georgia Southern to just six yards in the third quarter and 55 yards in the final 30 minutes. But they needed a perfect second half to climb from the 17-point halftime hole and couldn't quite get it.
After converting three fourth downs in the second half, Wofford was stopped on a fourth-and-1 from the Georgia Southern 4, down 10 points in the fourth quarter. Then they couldn't stop the Eagles until almost the last play of the game after Alex Goltry returned a fumble 19 yards for a touchdown to cut the Georgia Southern lead to 23-20 with 5:13 left.
Wofford's Eric Breitenstein ran 23 times for 102 yards to extend his season rushing record. But no one else for the Terriers ran for more than 25 yards. Quarterback Mitch Allen was 8-for-12 for 160 yards and Brenton Bersin had five catches for 99 yards as Wofford had to pass more than usual to try and come back.
The Terriers went 3-8 in 2009 -- their worst season since 1997 -- and Ayers challenged them to not let a program that had just one other losing season in the past decade slip into mediocrity. The coach said he was proud, even though they couldn't make it to the semifinals for the first time since 2003.
"The thing we talked about starting January was the road to redemption. I believe," Ayers said, pausing to swallow hard and keep the tears from coming. "I believe they traveled that road with honor."
Now Georgia Southern, picked to finish seventh in the Southern Conference this season and with just two players picked on the SoCon's first team offense and defense, is the last team standing from the league.
"I don't think you need to have the best players to win," Monken said. "You need to have the best team."
And the Eagles, who were 4-4 at one point, are still in the national title hunt, thanks in no small part to Shaw, who knows both the BCS and the FCS after being on the sidelines last season for Georgia Tech's 24-14 loss to Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
"All we needed to do was get in," Shaw said. "I knew anything could happen if we could just get in."