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UMass Wins I-AA Championship

Don't call the Massachusetts Minutemen losers anymore. Try national champions.

Marcel Shipp rushed for three touchdowns and a record 244 yards as 11th-seeded Massachusetts upset top-ranked Georgia Southern 55-43 for its first Division I-AA championship Saturday.

The victory capped an amazing turnaround for the Minutemen (12-3) who rebounded from a 2-9 record in 1997 by winning more games than any other team in school history.

"This is just unreal," quarterback Todd Bankhead said. "I can't describe this season in words. ... This is just incredible."

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Nobody had given the minutemen a chance against Georgia Southern (14-1), a four-time national champion looking for its first title since 1990. First-year coach Mark Whipple said his Minutemen heard the talk and decided to do something about it.

"They just wanted it more than anyone else in the country," Whipple said.

Massachusetts completed a magical season by forcing Georgia Southern into seven turnovers, which the Minutemen converted into 31 points. Six of the turnovers were fumbles, a title-game record.

Georgia Southern coach Paul Johnson said there was nothing magical about how the Minutemen beat his team. He pointed to a very opportunistic defense that grabbed its chances against an offense that outgained Massachusetts 595 yards to 462.

"We dug ourselves such a hole that we could not climb out of it," he said.

"Everything I knew couldn't happen today happened. We couldn't let them rush. They had 303 yards. We could have no turnovers, and we turned it over seven times."

By the time it was over, Massachusetts set a title game record for points and the teams, two of the top three offenses in Division I-AA, combined for the most points ever in a title game. The 98 points topped the 86 scored in 1985 by Georgi Southern and Furman.

"Fifty-five's more than 43," Johnson said when asked if he appreciated the exciting game. "If it's 6-3, 50-49, it doesn't matter. We got beat."

Massachusetts jumped on the Eagles quickly, forcing a record four fumbles in the first quarter. The Minutemen never trailed after driving 67 yards in the first two minutes for a 7-0 lead.

Georgia Southern had won its other three playoff games by at least 20 points but never looked comfortable Saturday.

Kole Ayi picked up Greg Hill's fumble on the Eagles' second possession and returned it 9 yards for a TD and a 14-0 lead. Ayi recovered another fumble three minutes later on the Eagles 7, and the Minutemen scored a play later as Jamie Holston hit Adrian Zullo for a TD and a 21-7 lead.

Georgia Southern, which had been looking for its first national title since 1990 and fifth overall, didn't give up despite trailing 38-21 at halftime.

The Eagles held Massachusetts scoreless in the third quarter and kept the ball for most of the quarter in closing to 38-33 on TD runs by Adrian Peterson and Hill. But their final turnover, a fumble by Hill with 13:30 left, set up Shipp's third TD.

"They drove the ball all the way down and just broke our backs," end Eric Davis said.

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