ATHENS — The Georgia Southern Eagles have come a long way since their days of enduring double-digit losses to the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Eagles pushed their in-state rivals to the brink Nov. 21, but Georgia prevailed — as it has all six times in the series — sneaking away with a 23-17 overtime victory at Sanford Stadium.
The teams were knotted up at 7-7 after the first half and regulation ended in a 17-17 draw. When the Eagles (7-3) weren’t able to put up points on their overtime possession, the Bulldogs (8-3) were able to pull off the win.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” GSU coach Willie Fritz said. “I thought we really competed. Unfortunately, things didn’t go our way. We had lots of opportunities but just didn’t get it done.”
With the loss, Georgia Southern suffered its third near-miss in an upset bid of a “Power 5” opponent since moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks last season. In 2014, the Eagles had fourth-quarter leads on both Georgia Tech and North Carolina State of the Atlantic Coast Conference before falling in the final minutes each game. The “Power 5” conferences are the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-12.
The Eagles were to go back into Sun Belt play Saturday when they hosted South Alabama. The results were not available by press time.
Against Georgia, two losses on running plays led to a wild scramble by Favian Upshaw that came up just short of the first-down marker on the Eagles’ first possession of overtime.
Georgia Southern elected to go for it on fourth and 1, but L.A. Ramsby was stopped cold on a direct snap run.
One play later, Georgia running back Sony Michel burst through the middle on a 25-yard touchdown run to clinch the win for the Bulldogs.
“It’s something we’ve done. I’m pretty aggressive,” Fritz said of the decision not to kick in overtime. “We just didn’t block it. Obviously, if I could change it I would, but you can’t do that.”
In the end, the UGA defense proved to be just a bit too strong for the Eagles’ formidable run game. Georgia Southern gained
233 yards on the ground, but leading rusher Matt Breida was limited to just 66 yards, and solid run defense early in possessions constantly left GSU needing big yardage to move the chains.
Georgia Southern took its first second-half lead in the series history early in the third quarter when Ironhead Gallon forced a fumble from Isaiah McKenzie. Caleb Williams pounced on the ball, running 65 yards untouched for a 14-7 lead.
“We started a little slow and got behind, but then we played pretty good,” GSU safety Matt Dobson said. “One or two plays you look back on, and if we make those, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
The Eagle defense continued to make life tough for the Bulldog attack, but disaster struck late in the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out from the UGA offense, Derek Keaton couldn’t handle the ensuing Brice Ramsey punt, and the Bulldogs fell on the muffed kick at the GSU 29.
Latching onto prosperity, Georgia drove into the Eagle red zone and Greyson Lambert (16 of 25, 183 yards, TD) found Terry Godwin on a 12-yard touchdown to even the game at 14-14.
Georgia Southern was able to sustain a 13-play, 44-yard drive that reached the Georgia 31. The Eagles initially left the offense on the field for fourth down, but sent Younghoe Koo in following a timeout. Koo split the uprights from 48 yards out to regain a 17-14 advantage for the Eagles.