Decimated by injuries and playing their seventh game in less than seven weeks, the Georgia Southern Eagles took another big hit Thursday night.
A UL Lafayette team that had been averaging just 22 points per game on the season easily surpassed that mark and sent Georgia Southern to its sixth loss in seven games, outlasting a late Eagle comeback effort to notch a 33-26 victory at Paulson Stadium.
“We’re disappointed, obviously,” Georgia Southern coach Tyson Summers said. “I thought our guys played hard and kept fighting, but we didn’t play with the kind of consistency you need to win.”
Leading 21-13 at halftime, the Ragin’ Cajuns (4-5, 3-3 Sun Belt) added a 36-yard Stevie Artigue field goal to stretch its lead. When Georgia Southern (4-6, 3-3) went three-and-out on the ensuing drive, UL Lafayette took over at the GS 48 and needed only one play to reach the end zone as Al Riles hit Keenan Barnes for a long touchdown pass.
Even when Georgia Southern fought back, things broke bad for it.
A fake punt pass from Matt Flynn to Ross Alexander kept an Eagle drive alive and L.A. Ramsby scored on a 2-yard run with 13:05 remaining in the game, but an attempted fake on the extra point wound up in the hands of the Cajuns’ Otha Peters, who went 98 yards for a two-point conversion and a 33-19 lead.
With the Eagle defense finally digging in, the special teams showed up to set up another score.
Darius Sapp managed to partially block a Steven Coutts punt and Ironhead Gallon returned it to the ULL 3. On the Eagles’ third attempt to punch it in, Ramsby prevailed once again, scoring from a yard out to get the Eagles within 33-26 at the 4:23 mark.
But that’s where the comeback ended.
Georgia Southern elected to kick deep and UL Lafayette was able to move the chains and prevent the Eagles from ever seeing the ball again. The Eagles were able to force a 3rd-and-9, but Jennings (17-of-26, 210 yards) hit Riles for a 12 yard gain and the Cajuns took a pair of knees to kill the clock.
“Again, it’s consistency,” Summers said. “We have some spots where we can’t get our defense off of the field or we commit a penalty. We had our spots of good play, but there weren’t enough plays to win.”
Following a quick stop on the Cajuns’ first offensive series of the night, the Eagle defense struggled to slow down the UL Lafayette attack.
The Cajuns scored three touchdowns on their final four drives of the first half. It could have been a perfect 4-for-4, but Georgia Southern forced a fumble at its own 9 early in the second quarter.
Aside from the turnover, UL Lafayette had smooth sailing.
Anthony Jennings connected on 11 of his 14 first half passes for 157 yards and the combination of a read-option running game and Dion Ray running out of the wildcat formation left Eagle defenders flailing.
Ray’s rushing set up the Cajuns for a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Elijah McGuire to give ULL the lead midway through the first quarter and a pair of 15-yard penalties on the Eagle defense helped the Cajuns down the field and led to a 16-yard rush by Ray around the right end to extend the Cajuns’ lead.
Georgia Southern struck back late in the first half when Seth Shuman tossed his first career touchdown pass - hitting Myles Campbell with a 10-yard strike - to pull the Eagles within 14-13.
A close halftime margin appeared imminent, but UL Lafayette started its next drive at its own 8 and proceeded to run a flawless two-minute drill.
Following a 16-yard rush by McGuire, Jennings connected on four consecutive passes for 66 yards down to the GS 10. With 13 seconds remaining in the half, Jennings scrambled to his left and waltzed into the end zone nearly untouched to stake UL Lafayette to a 21-13 halftime advantage.
“That hurt a lot,” Summers said. “You think you’ve built some momentum with a nice touchdown drive and then they go right down the field. That really hurt going into halftime and then we didn’t respond well at the beginning of the second half.”
With starting quarterbacks Kevin Ellison and Favian Upshaw both sidelined due to injury, the Eagle offense was left in the hands of true freshman Seth Shuman.
Shuman had seen only sporadic action in a few games this season, but played every snap on Thursday night. He connected on 21 of his 36 attempts for 228 yards and the touchdown strike to Campbell.
Shuman was also key in moving the chains on the Eagles’ two early touchdown drives and - in a cruel twist of irony - ended the night as the team’s leading rusher with 23 yards.
With the loss, the Eagles’ postseason hopes are in peril. Georgia Southern must win both of its remaining games to finish at 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game. The Eagles travel to Georgia State next weekend before wrapping up the regular season at home against Troy on Dec. 3.