It wasn't easy, and it definitely wasn't pretty, but Georgia Southern escaped the Land of Enchantment with a 36-28 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday night.
I won't blame it on jet-lag, because the time difference wasn't all that much and going west is so much easier than going east. I won't blame it on the altitude, because it didn't look like the Eagles were winded.
I won't blame it on anyone. I'll credit it to New Mexico State. The Aggies had an excellent game plan and for the most part they executed well in the first half. They shut down Georgia Southern's offense on a level it had not seen since the first half of the Georgia Tech game. It helps that - like Georgia Tech - they have had experience dealing with the option. Three of their first five opponents were option teams, as I noted in the preview.
On offense the Aggies were able to move the down the field fairly consistently. Turnovers were a key to this game. NMSU had four and Georgia Southern only one. Some of those turnovers came after good drives, too. The Aggies actually out-gained Georgia Southern 517-437.
In the end Georgia Southern's running game just couldn't be contained for 60 minutes, as Kevin Ellison put up 159 yards rushing, Ramsby added another 136, and Matt Breida had 96 to wear down the New Mexico State defense and put the game away in the second half after Ellison's final touchdown on a beautiful called draw play.
Let's get on to some things of particular note:
Alex Hanks. I'm going to give Alex first billing here, because I've been a bit hard on him at times this season and he really hasn't given me any reason to be that way. I said at the season's start that after the last few seasons' kicking woes, the kickers would need to prove something before I felt confident in them. Well, Hanks is 9/10 on the year, with his only miss being from between 40-49 yards. I'll take that. Alex has done very well so far this season.
Kevin Ellison. Ellison has been money this year. Against New Mexico State he didn't throw the ball much, but just the threat of him throwing opens plays up. The last touchdown in particular is proof of this. If NMSU were not worried about his ability to throw the football, then I'm sure they would have left someone home to spy the QB draw. Instead no one was there and Ellison took it up the gut for a game-clenching touchdown.
Turnovers of the Good Variety. +3 in turnovers is always a great place to be. It is a key reason why Georgia Southern won this game. While many GSU fans have maligned the pass defense over the season, the team pulled down three interceptions Saturday night. Georgia Southern may be allowing a number of intermediate throws to gain yards, but when the goal line gets closer and the field gets smaller, they've been able to make the plays needed, lately.
A Second Half Team. Being down 14-0 had to be rough for the Eagles, but when you've come back from 35-10, then 14-0 is not all that daunting. The Eagles proved again that they're an excellent second half team. They made the adjustments they needed to make and took control of the game in the second half.
NMSU's Stadium. I don't know what it looked like in person, but the stadium looked like a nice place to play football. I've been to Las Cruces though, and can't say that I'd want to spend too much time there if I could help it. I do love the desert, though.
Turnovers of the Bad Variety. Ok, so it was just one fumble, but it killed the first sustained drive of the game for the Eagles. The Aggies drove the ball down the field before coming up short on a 4th down attempt, but a score there could have made things a lot better for the Eagles' confidence in the first half.
Allowing Long, Sustained Drives. Sure, the Eagles got stops and turnovers when they needed them. But it sure would have been nice if those drives were ended on forced punts much further back down the field. Allowing someone to move the ball almost at will on you is not a good sign. I still have confidence in this defense, but there are definitely some issues to be resolved, as well.
Matt Breida Didn't do Matt Breida Things. Y'all are going to think I'm nuts for putting this here, but I really did it just to be goofy. Can you really complain about a player not getting another 50+ yard touchdown run? No, you can't. Breida is still awesome and I bet he still has at least 2-3 more 50+ touchdowns in his future this season.