WILLIAMSBURG ——Evan Francks was certain the tide had turned.
Francks, William and Mary's senior linebacker, had just returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown, and five minutes later, Drake Kuhn's third field goal gave the Tribe its first lead. Up by a point going into halftime, Francks figured his team would soon be celebrating a victory against Georgia Southern in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Except that Darreion Robinson took the first play of the third quarter 44 yards, and three plays later, the Eagles were in the end zone again and on their way to a 31-15 upset of the Tribe, the No. 2 national seed and the Colonial Athletic Association champion.
"Honestly, going into the locker room, I was almost 100 percent sure we were going to win the game," Francks said. "We had all the momentum going into the second half. Everybody was ready to come out, and then we just couldn't get a stop."
That touchdown put the Eagles (9-4) up 21-15, erased the only lead of the game for the Tribe (8-4) — which lasted for all of 1:13 - and shook off any lingering effects of Francks' big play.
"That definitely hurt us, but we went into halftime and rallied around each other," said Georgia Southern junior quarterback Jaybo Shaw, who had 87 yards and tied a single-game high with three touchdowns. "We were able to capitalize and go score on the first drive after halftime, so that was huge for us."
Robinson's run down the right sideline off a pitch was part of the 423 rushing yards the Eagles' triple-option attack piled up, but perhaps an even bigger story was Georgia Southern's constant harassment of Tribe quarterback Mike Callahan and the consistent penetration of its defensive line. Callahan, coming off a 331-yard performance against Richmond in William and Mary's regular-season finale, was just 16-of-34 for 113 yards, was sacked four times and spent most of the afternoon scrambling out of trouble.
"It was just a tough day," said Callahan, who, with the Tribe down nine late in the third quarter, had a 44-yard completion to Ryan Moody called back on a holding penalty. "Every time we kind of got something going, we'd shoot ourselves in the foot."
The most devastating setback came with six minutes left and the Tribe facing fourth-and-5 at the Eagles' 20-yard line. Brent Russell, Georgia Southern's sophomore defensive tackle who came into the game with a team-best seven sacks and 16 1/5 tackles for loss, dragged down Callahan for an 11-yard loss that brought the fans who made the trip from Statesboro, Ga., to their feet and sent a steady stream of Tribe faithful toward the exit.
"We didn't block real well," William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said. "… They come off the ball and they run hard and they block well, but we've seen people than run hard and block well before, and we've played better. We just didn't rise up and play as well as we have in the past. I don't know why."
The Eagles, coming off a 41-16 first-round win against South Carolina State while William and Mary had a bye week, set the tone early, forcing a Tribe three-and-out to open the game and then taking just four plays to score on their first possession. Freshman fullback Robert Brown, who had a career-high 178 yards on 24 carries, went 45 yards on the first play of the game, then bowled over left tackle three plays later for a six-yard score on one of the Eagles' 59 carries.
Shaw completed just three of six passes for 31 yards, but the Tribe allowed the country's fourth-best rushing attack 167 yards more than its season average of 256.
"We practiced well," Francks said. "We really had it down, but it was really nothing like we saw in practice — the speed, the physicality. It wasn't VMI of a couple of years ago. It was something that we'd never seen before."
The Eagles outgained the Tribe 163-16 in the third quarter and picked up eight first downs to William and Mary's one. With 11:26 to play in the fourth, Shaw capped a 10-play, 69-yard, 4:36 drive with a 3-yard TD before Georgia Southern's defense came up with the game-clinching stop.
"I'm disappointed with the way we played," Laycock said. "We obviously had some issues defensively, and we knew we would with defending the option, but we kind of let some of those compound into not tackling real well and not running to the ball as well as we have been.
"… It was a situation where we had to play better, and we didn't play well enough."