STATESBORO — Perhaps suffering from some tryptophan-induced sleepiness or a lingering hangover from a near-upset at Georgia, Georgia Southern came out a bit flat Saturday afternoon against South Alabama at Paulson Stadium.
The Eagles surrendered an early touchdown and trailed midway through the second quarter after allowing the Jaguars to return a fumble for a touchdown, but found the end zone three times in the final 6:28 of the first half and rolled to a 55-17 victory.
“I’m proud of everyone in the program — coaches, trainers, our fans who showed up, and especially the players,” GSU coach Willie Fritz said. “We had a tough loss last week and I had to put my psychologist hat on. Around Wednesday, we really started focusing on South Alabama. We didn’t play real clean early on, but it was great to see us bounce back.”
Georgia Southern (9-3 overall, 6-1 Sun Belt Conference) has already qualified for its first bowl in program history and can match last season’s record with a win over Georgia State in this Saturday’s regular-season finale at 2 p.m. in Statesboro.
Following Devon Earl’s 62-yard fumble recovery and return for a touchdown to put the Jaguars (5-6, 3-4 Sun Belt) ahead 14-7, the Eagles responded with a drive highlighted by a 56-yard Kevin Ellison run and capped by a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Matt Breida.
Georgia Southern clawed ahead minutes later when Ellison found Derek Keaton on a 23-yard touchdown pass and — following a Darrius White interception and return to the USA 8 — Ellison plunged into the end zone from a yard out to put GSU firmly in front at halftime.
“It was big to get those points (late in the first half),” Fritz said. “I wish we could have continued it on our first drive of the second half, but overall we did a good job of making big plays.”
The Jaguars looked to get back into contention when they held GSU on its first drive of the second half. Ryan Nowicki’s punt was blocked and Margo Reed fell on the ball at the GSU 8-yard line, but the Eagles’ defense limited South Alabama to a 24-yard field goal by Aleem Sunanon.
On the next play from scrimmage, the Eagles stormed back. Breida (21 carries, 187 yards, 2 TDs) found a seam up the middle and outran the Jaguar defense for a 75-yard touchdown run and a 35-17 Eagle lead.
“It was great to see those wide open holes,” Breida said. “Our line did a great job of blocking and giving everyone room to run. It’s definitely fun whenever you can break one big.”
For the third consecutive game, the Eagle defense allowed a long scoring drive on the opponent’s first possession. After a touchback, the Jaguars drove 75 yards in 11 plays, highlighted by three third-down conversions. The third conversion was a 35-yard completion to Gerald Everett down to the GSU 5, and Tyreis Thomas capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown plunge two plays later for an early 7-0 lead.
From there on out, there was little for the Jaguar offense to get excited about. In all, South Alabama was held to just 136 offensive yards – including just 61 after its game-opening touchdown drive.
“It’s fun when everything is clicking,” White said. “We were defending the pass well and the (front seven) did a great job of getting after the quarterback. They hit us in the mouth on the first drive, but we hit back.”
Over the final quarter and change, the Eagle defense continued to dominate while the offense steadily pulled away. Younghoe Koo connected on field goals of 21 and 38 yards while L.A. Ramsby did his best Breida impersonation, racing 46 yards through the open field for a touchdown. Keaton returned a punt 74 yards to the USA 4, and Vegas Harley jogged in to notch his first career rushing touchdown.