Georgia Southern's record going into Saturday night's game was not impressive. If a casual observer looked at it and saw the Eagles were 1-2, they may have scoffed at this upstart FBS program. So many teams attempt to make the jump from FCS to FBS and struggle mightily. Some teams have failed to even win a single game against FBS competition in their first year or two at the FBS level.
Someone with a more knowledgeable viewpoint knows that Georgia Southern's 1-2 record was just one or two plays from being 3-0. Those two losses weren't to just any teams, either. They were losses by a combined total of five points to two currently undefeated ACC teams.
On Saturday night the Eagles walked out on the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, AL to take on the South Alabama Jaguars in their first conference game as a member of the Sun Belt. South Alabama is a program still in its infancy in FBS, as well. On top of being new to FBS, they are only five years removed from the inception of the program as a whole as well.
However, the Jaguars are no pushover. Athlon Sports predicted them to finish second in the conference in their preseason preview. While the score was not exactly close, the Jaguars did put up a good fight against Mississippi State - a team that just defeated LSU on the road - in their home stadium the week previous. South Alabama had every reason to feel confident in this game before the season started.
The first quarter was filled with back and forth punting until Georgia Southern sophomore Matt Breida did Matt Breida things. Breida has scored first blood in the Eagles in all four games so far this year. That is impressive by itself, but it doesn't tell the full tale. Three of those four scores were from 60+ yards.
It started with this 61 yard run against North Carolina State. He scored from 14 yards out against Savannah State in game two. When the Eagles needed a spark most, Breida busted loose for a 69 yard touchdown run on an option pitch from Kevin Ellison. On Saturday, Breida appeared to be stopped at the line on the final play of the 1st quarter before he burst from the back and sprinted 64 yards for the score.
I have said it before, but Matt Breida has shown he is truly worthy of that #36. He is a running back in the tradition of Joe Ross who will pound out the yardage, but with the breakaway speed threat of Bennie Cunningham. Two Eagle greats to don that number. He ended the night with 187 yards on 21 carries and earned Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Week honors for his performance.
The Eagles defense played well against the Jaguars, allowing only six points and less than 300 yards of total offense. They benefited from some very key drops or errant passes to open receivers by South Alabama, but six points is still only six points. Poor tackling led to the Jaguars' only touchdown on a fourth down play late in the 2nd quarter. The defensive line played lights out, and Sophomore DL Jay Ellison showed that he will be a force on the defensive line for the next few years.
The offense looked sluggish at times throughout the game, but they came through when they needed to. Kevin Ellison is still one of the most efficient QBs in college football, though he did throw his first interception of the year Saturday night. This was Kentrellis Showers' first game in the 2014 season with a touchdown reception, but BJ Johnson stepped up in a big way with five catches, including one highlight-worthy snag on a deep ball.
The fourth quarter was sloppy on both sides, with a combined four turnovers between the two and one fumbled ball by Georgia Southern that the Eagles recovered. One of those turnovers resulted in a long return leading to the Eagles' final touchdowns, as well as one of the more vicious blocks I've ever seen by Eagles' Safety Matt Dobson. The Eagles also missed a field goal that could have made the game much more comfortable midway through the 4th quarter.
On the other hand, the Eagles benefited from a bad call by the officials who ruled kick-catching interference on a South Alabama player after a muffed punt, though replays clearly showed it was a Georgia Southern played who made contact with the his own return man. I have not been able to watch a replay to determine whether a Georgia Southern player did touch the football, but that could easily have been South Alabama ball deep in Georgia Southern territory when the game was still very much in doubt.
The game was pretty much over when Kevin Ellison juked his way into the endzone for a six yard touchdown with just over three minutes left on the clock, but the Eagles' defense came up big one more time with a sack by Ryan George on 4th down to close out the Jags' last opportunity. From there the Eagles just ran big Ean Days into the middle twice to run out the clock.
When the clock struck zero, the Eagles came over to celebrate with the small section of Georgia Southern fans who made the trip to Mobile from all over to cheer on their team.* It may not have been a large crowd - certainly not anywhere near the size who attended last week's game against Georgia Tech - but it was a vocal crowd. I overheard one South Alabama fan complimenting a group of Georgia Southern fans as we were leaving the stadium about the level of noise the Eagles brought. It was a good way to end an evening of good football.
Where the Eagles can feel good moving forward is in that it was just that: good football. It wasn't great football. There were mistakes on offense that need to be cleaned up and some issues like improving tackling on the defense and making sure receivers aren't as open as many of the Jaguar receivers during the night. These are mistakes that helped cost the Eagles the North Carolina State and Georgia Tech games.
With all of that, the Eagles went on the road in their first Sun Belt Conference game to face a team picked to finish in the top of the conference during the preseason and left the stadium three touchdown victors. Georgia Southern was picked to finish in the bottom half of the Sun Belt in the preseason, and South Alabama was penciled in as one of their losses.
After narrow defeats against two good ACC foes and a near flawless dismantling of FCS Savannah State, the Eagles continued to roll in their conference opener. Rather than playing by the preseason script, the Eagles served notice to the Sun Belt Conference, instead. Georgia Southern is ready to compete for the conference championship immediately. Hail Southern!
*I'd like to give a special shout out to Mrs Wanda Parrish, who sat next to myself and my girlfriend at the game, along with many other members of the GSUFans.com forum. I was amazed at the number of you who read my articles here and wanted to let y'all know how much I appreciate it. Mrs Parrish made my night by assuring me she's read the articles I've been writing and even asked for my autograph. Thank you, Mrs Parrish, for that gesture, for the stories about Erk, and for being a great and dedicated Eagle!