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Georgia Southern's season ends with fifth straight loss

    The good news is it’s over.
    A season that started with a flop ended with a thud Saturday when the Eagles lost to Central Arkansas 34-31 in overtime to conclude a dreadful tour of duty under first-year coach Brian VanGorder.
    The calamity that was 2006 will go down as the worst campaign in Georgia Southern’s modern era. The Eagles finished the year with a record-low three wins and eight losses, six by a combined 21 points. Prior to this season, GSU has just one losing record in 25 years of rich football tradition – a 4-7 mark in 1996 under interim coach Frank Ellwood.
    The Eagles were doomed Saturday by the same problems they’ve had all season — a lackluster second half, an unreliable kicking game and an abysmal third-down conversion rate. Georgia Southern led 28-21 at the break but was outscored 13-3 after halftime, the Eagles botched the snap on an extra point, missed the potential game-winning field goal and went 3 of 12 on third downs.
    “The senior class definitely didn’t want to go out like this, but this has been our season,” senior center Lance Wayne said. “It’s a fitting end to our season. We come out in the first half strong and the second half was a little dead. We just didn’t play 60 minutes of good ball in all three phases.”
    The loss was the Eagles’ fifth straight and the fifth defeat at Paulson Stadium this year, both school records.
    After Georgia Southern turned the ball over on downs on the first possession of overtime, Central Arkansas drove to the GSU 8 where James Paul hit the game-winning 25-yard field goal.
    “It’s a signature win, no question,” said UCA coach Clint Conque, whose team concluded its first season in Division I-AA with an 8-3 record. “We can build off all this momentum.”
    The Bears tied the game at 31-31 with 7:43 remaining when Nathan Brown hit Brent Grimes for a 27-yard TD pass. Tristan Jackson then picked off a Travis Clark pass on the first play of GSU’s ensuing possession and returned it 25 yards to the Eagle 23. But the Bears couldn’t capitalize on a first-and-goal from the 8, and Paul’s 22-yard field-goal try went wide right.
    Georgia Southern’s offense took over and moved 66 yards on 10 plays before placing its hopes on senior Jonathan Dudley’s foot. Dudley, whose inconsistency cost him his a job as the starting kicker three games into the season, missed the 32-yard potential game-winner wide left with 46 seconds to play.
    “We can’t put (the blame) on him,” said senior receiver Darius Smiley, who caught three balls for a career-high 120 yards in his final game. “The kicking game has been up and down all year. It’s just something we have to deal with.”
    Smiley’s 74-yard TD catch late in the second quarter followed by Clark’s two-point conversion run gave the Eagles a seven-point halftime lead. Smiley’s score came just 21 seconds after UCA took a 21-20 edge on a 14-yard pass from Brown to Grimes.
    Georgia Southern out-gained the Bears 390 to 369, picking up 183 yards on the ground and 207 through the air. Clark was 8 of 20 for 177 yards with two interceptions and one touchdown. The sophomore threw for a school-record 1,808 yards this season, moving him ahead of legend Tracy Ham, who had 1,772 in 1986.
    Lamar Lewis paced GSU’s running game with 99 yards and one score on 19 carries. Chris Covington added 54 yards on 14 tries, while Jayson Foster had two TDs and rushed for 47 yards on five totes.
    Central Arkansas quickly took a 7-0 lead when Cameron Kinard returned the opening kickoff 100 yards to tie the Paulson Stadium record. But Georgia Southern evened the score on its first possession, capping a 10-play, 72-yard drive with Lewis’ 1-yard TD run over the right guard.
    Foster scored the next two touchdowns on a 78-yard punt return and a 39-yard reverse that was a near disaster. Foster fumbled the exchange from Lewis but quickly recovered and weaved in and out of a handful of Bear defenders before finding the end zone. The junior also tied the career record for most punts returned for a touchdown (2).
    Senior Charrod Taylor led the Eagle defense with a career-high nine tackles, including three for a loss and one sack. Carson Hill also set a career-high with eight tackles, while senior John Mohring added eight and senior Jason Earwood had seven.
    Despite their efforts, the Eagles failed to send off their 13 seniors with a win in their final game in blue and white.
    “It’s been a hard season,” VanGorder said. “You guys have no idea how it turns a coach’s stomach. To be so close in so many games and come up on the losing end has been rather unique in its makeup. It’s a sickening feeling, yet I’m realistic about it. I have a good feeling of where we are as a football team and a football program.”
    
    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.

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