For the first time in nearly three years, the Georgia Southern Eagles are riding back-to-back losses.
For the first time in… well… a long time, an immediate fix to problems doesn’t seem so clear.
The Eagles stormed into 2016 as two-time defending national rushing leaders and one of the favorites to take home the Sun Belt Conference championship. That storyline carried through the first few games as Georgia Southern got itself off to a 3-0 start and continued to rack up yardage despite some closer-than-expected scores and a lack of the explosive offensive plays that have become the Eagles’ calling card.
Over the last two weeks, things have gone downhill in a relative hurry.
Georgia Southern was dealt its first loss of the season at Western Michigan. The main factors in the loss stemmed from one-off big plays made by WMU’s defense and special teams, but there was no ignoring the fact that a Bronco squad that had been repeatedly victimized by huge running plays at Paulson Stadium a year prior were now pinning their ears back and taking it to a running game that couldn’t find open space.
To be fair, Western Michigan had been on a steady rise since its loss in Statesboro in 2015 and was — rightfully — favored to win this year’s matchup.
But the same can’t be said for the Eagles’ last game.
Heading into Arkansas State last Wednesday, the Eagles should have been primed for a bounce-back performance. Sure, the Red Wolves were the defending Sun Belt champs and were more talented than their 0-4 record suggested, but that didn’t change the fact that they were a confused and struggling team that didn’t seem to have its offense or defense on track.
That much was evident when the Arkansas State offense turned the ball over four times — including a fifth turnover by the special teams - and the defense allowed the two longest scoring plays of the season for Georgia Southern. Unfortunately for the Eagle faithfull, Georgia Southern somehow overcame all of its good fortune to walk away with a loss.
Those five turnovers only resulted in three Georgia Southern points. The 120th-ranked rush defense in the country held the Eagles to just 3.6 yards per carry (much closer to 2 yards per tote if not for L.A. Ramsby’s 61-yard touchdown run). The GS offense went three-and-out on two consecutive possessions that could have sealed the victory and the defense gave up a 4th-and-18 conversion to keep the eventual game-winning drive alive in the waning seconds.
When the dust settled, what should have been a 4-1 Georgia Southern team with a clear path to the Sun Belt title had turned into a 3-2 squad that no longer controls its own destiny in the conference and - of more concern — seems to be losing its identity.
Georgia Southern is still set on running the ball. The problem is that its stable of talented ball-carriers doesn’t often have room to run.
Georgia Southern is still set on playing aggressive defense. The problem is that many of the defenders arriving at the point of attack quickly aren’t making the tackle and are allowing for opposing players to turn potential disasters into big plays for their team.
Most troublingly, Georgia Southern is still a team defined by big plays — although that distinction is now describing its shortcomings rather than its reason for success.
In recent years, opponents went into games against the Eagles waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even scrappy underdogs that put up a big fight lived in constant fear of one broken play or turnover ultimately shifting the game in the Eagles’ favor.
That hasn’t been the case in 2016.
Even in Georgia Southern victories — other than Savannah State, anyway — it has been the Eagles overcoming big plays for opponents in order to secure a win.
And in the two losses, things have been just as unsettling. The Eagles played a solid game against Western Michigan, only to see every back-breaking play go against them. And playing against Arkansas State last week, the Eagles won the big-play battle, but couldn’t provide the knockout punch and instead allowed a pair of fourth quarter scoring drives that wiped away its lead.
Things aren’t going so great for Georgia Southern at the moment. Of course, the silver lining to that observation is that things can turn for the better as quickly as they turned for the worse.
Nothing seems promising after two disappointing losses. Then again, nothing would be as rewarding as a win over an in-state ‘Power Five’ rival this week.
The best thing about a sudden slump is that the plays and players that have come up short recently are the same ones who have ridden high before. A fix to the Eagles’ current problems is likely easier said than done, but this is still a team capable of winning and achieving its goals.
All it takes is one good game to turn things around. It’s just that the Eagles don’t normally need more than a game or two to provide that turnaround.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.