Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken saw plenty of things that impressed him about William and Mary on film — running back Jonathan Grimes, middle linebacker Dante Cook and tight end Alex Gottlieb, to name just a few.
But the thing that struck Monken the most about his team's second-round FCS playoff opponent was more intangible.
"I value toughness in a football team, and I see that personality in their football team," Monken said. "They have a tough football team. They play hard, and along with that, they're talented. They've got good players who play hard. They're just not a tough team that goes out there and slugs around and hopes for the best."
The Tribe (8-3), the No. 2 national seed, had a bye last weekend, while the Eagles (8-4) beat South Carolina State 41-16 for their first playoff victory since 2002. The victory continued an upswing of success for Monken, a former Eagles assistant in his first year as head coach of a program that has won six I-AA national championships.
Monken has re-installed the triple option offense that his mentor, Paul Johnson, made famous at the school, to great effect. Georgia Southern ranks fourth in the nation with 255.8 rushing yards per game, while the Eagles' defense is seventh in the country, giving up just 285.9 total yards.
"Their defense is extremely aggressive, and they run very well," William and Mary coach Jimmye Laycock said. "When you talk about the uniqueness of their offense, you forget that their defense is one of the top-ranked defenses in the country."
The Eagles average seven tackles for loss, led by Buck Buchanan award finalist Brent Russell's 15 1/2.
"Overall, (the Tribe is) probably the best team we've seen so far," Russell said. "They're good on defense, they're good on offense. … You can't just focus on one thing, because they're just such a great team."
The same could be said for Georgia Southern.
Six players have 50 or more carries in a rushing attack led by freshman fullback Robert Brown's 72.7 yards per game, and while quarterback Jaybo Shaw, a Georgia Tech transfer, has only completed 59 of 111 pass attempts for 1,071 yards, leading receiver J.J. Wilcox averages 27.2 yards per catch.
"A lot of teams try to find one guy to shut down or focus a lot on, and with us, anybody can make a play," said Shaw, who has 357 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 162 carries. "This offense is built around everybody just playing hard. That's what makes the option so much fun."
Not so much, maybe, for opposing defenses.
"They know more about their offense than we know about defending their offense," William and Mary defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said. "They take what you give them. If we're taking away the fullback, then the quarterback's going to be the main ballcarrier. If we're taking away the fullback and the quarterback, then they'll utilize their pitchmen. … When they get that thing cranking, they get it going pretty good, and they're playing probably their best football at this point."
William and Mary may have played its most complete game on Nov. 20, shellacking Richmond 41-3 to earn its first Colonial Athletic Association title since 2004 and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. If the Tribe keeps winning, it will keep playing at Zable Stadium right up until the national championship game on Jan. 7.
"Our guys have been through a lot of games," Laycock said. "They've played a lot of tough games and played some good teams. It's just a matter of we have to make some adjustments, and some of them we might have to make on the run."