Something had to give.
Georgia Southern entered Saturday’s game against North Dakota State boasting the sixth-best rushing offense in Division I-AA with an average of 241 yards a game. It found its match against a staunch Bison defense allowing a mere 29 rushing yards per contest, the fewest by any team in Division I.
The 11th-ranked Bison were successful in containing the Eagles’ ground game, holding No. 21 GSU (2-3) to 65 total rushing yards — four in the second half — to snap Georgia Southern’s streak of 137 consecutive games with more than 100 yards on the ground. North Dakota State (5-0) also reeled off 27 unanswered points en route to the 34-14 victory, the Eagles’ second home loss this season.
Georgia Southern’s 65 rushing yards were the fewest since 1995 when Montana held the Eagles to 70 in a 45-0 playoff loss.
“That’s the largest football team we’ll play this year, and they pushed us around, no doubt,” first-year coach Brian VanGorder said. “I thought our kids were trying to fight, we just don’t have a lot of depth. They kept the ball away from our offense.”
NDSU’s 20-point win was Georgia Southern’s largest margin of defeat at home since the Eagles fell to then top-ranked Marshall, 34-13, on Sept.17, 1994.
“It hurts to lose like that at home,” said senior linebacker John Mohring, who recorded a game- and season-high 12 tackles, including two for loss. “They are a good football team. They played hard, and they’re worthy of the win.”
Georgia Southern’s offense was led by quarterback Travis Clark, who completed 15 of 27 attempts for 164 yards before leaving the game with a likely concussion late in the third quarter. He was taken to the hospital, but his status wasn’t immediately known, VanGorder said.
Lamer Lewis led the rushing attack with 35 yards and one touchdown on 12 carries. Chris Covington also carried the ball 12 times, adding 22 yards and one score.
“They are prideful about stopping the rush,” fullback Dusty Reddick said. “We took it to them in the first half, but they came out and made adjustments and we just couldn’t rush the ball. That was very disappointing.”
Said Lewis: “We didn’t go after them. We got out of our game plan, and they just came out and dominated.”
Halfback Kyle Steffes led the Bison ground game with 128 yards and one touchdown on 26 carries. NDSU quarterback Steve Walker completed 14 of 26 attempts with two scores and one interception for 171 yards. The Bison also held a 33:01 to 26:59 advantage in time of possession and made 11 of 17 third-down conversions.
“The main problem was we left our defense on the field too much,” Covington said, who has rushed for a touchdown in all five games this season. “We didn’t move the ball when we had chances to. We let them wear us down instead of the other way around, which is usually what we do.”
North Dakota State took a 21-14 lead on its first drive of the second half with a 38-yard touchdown pass from Walker to Kole Heckendorf. NDSU stretched its lead to 28-14 late in the third quarter on a 3-yard TD run by Steffes and scored its final touchdown when Courtney Mitchell intercepted Chris Rogers’ pass and returned it 35 yards with 6:14 to play.
Georgia Southern had a chance to get back in the game early in the final quarter when Brandon Daniel recovered a fumbled snap, sending GSU’s offense onto the field at the Bison 20. But Clark-less Eagles couldn’t move the ball and Patrick Bolen missed a 47-yard field goal attempt.
Both of the GSU’s touchdowns came in the second quarter. After a scoreless first period, Georgia Southern and NDSU traded touchdowns on the final four possessions of the half. The Eagles struck first on Covington’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Georgia Southern looked like it would settle for a field goal on that drive, which appeared over when Bolen nailed a 20-yard attempt. But an illegal block in the back against the Bison erased Bolen’s field goal and gave the Eagles a first down at the NDSU 1.
NDSU knotted the game at 7-7 on its next possession when a 2-yard score by Walker capped a nine-play, 58-yard drive. The Eagles answered with a 77-yard drive of their own, taking a 14-7 edge on a 5-yard touchdown run by Lewis. Georgia Southern’s 14 points were the most NDSU has allowed in the second quarter all season.
The Bison converted three third downs on their final drive of the opening half to tie the game at 14-14 nine seconds before halftime on a 4-yard pass from Walker to Travis White.
“We feel bad right now, but we’ve just got to look at the future,” said Lewis.
The Eagles resume Southern Conference play next weekend when they host Elon for a 1 p.m. game in Paulson.
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.