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Eagles and App renew rivalry
GS Football
Georgia Southern head football coach Chad Lunsford, center, gets fired up over a special teams stop on a kickoff following a score in the fourth quarter of the Eagles' Sept. 8 victory over Massachusetts at Paulson Stadium. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT

There is still plenty of season to be played, but it’s already clear that the annual rivalry game between Georgia Southern and Appalachian State will have repercussions that will impact the entire Sun Belt Conference race.

No. 25 Appalachian State (5-1, 3-0 Sun Belt) was always supposed to be a part of the conference title chase. The Mountaineers haven’t missed a beat even as the graduation of a four-year starting quarterback and the injury of a three-year starting running back have served as tough tests.

On the other sideline, Georgia Southern (6-1, 3-0) has already made the ghosts of a 2-10 campaign last season a distant memory. The Eagles’ option offense is looking more like its old self with each passing week and — perhaps more surprisingly — the GS defense looks like one of the top units in the Sun Belt.

All of that is on the line — along with a quarter century’s worth of heated games between the two rivals — when Georgia Southern and Appalachian State kickoff tonight at 7:30 p.m. at Paulson Stadium in a game that will be televised on ESPNU.

“Over the offseason, we talked a lot about Georgia Southern history and what makes this team special,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “A big part of that is our rivalry with Appalachian State. We understand that we need to go into this one with the same approach for what we need to do. But it’s also a little more than just a game.”

Georgia Southern will enter tonight’s game looking to shake off three consecutive losses against the Mountaineers, which is tied for the longest Eagle slump in the all-time series. More importantly, the winner will remain unbeaten — along with Troy — in Sun Belt play and will control its own destiny in an attempt to qualify for the first ever Sun Belt championship game in December.

Both teams have done a stellar job of building championship resumes so far.

In addition to the perfect Sun Belt records to date, both the Eagles and Mountaineers have already notched a victory over an Arkansas State team that entered the season as a huge favorite to win the conference’s Western division.

The defenses for both teams are also raising plenty of eyebrows. Appalachian State went four consecutive games without giving up any points in the second half while the Eagles’ plus-14 turnover margin makes them one of the most opportunistic groups in the country.

But — as the saying goes — you can throw a lot of stats out the window during an intense rivalry game.

The postseason implications are a nice bonus, but nothing extra is needed to stoke the fire of this game.

“There’s going to be a lot of excitement and energy,” Lunsford said. “We need to remain focused, but you don’t want to get in the way of that excitement. Like we’ve said before, you only get 12 chances in 365 days to go out and play a game. We want to have fun with that, especially in a rivalry game.”

While both defenses figure to pose a stiff challenge, it’s the still-under-construction Eagle offense that could be the key Thursday night.

As new offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse has gained trust in his squad, the Eagles have steadily expanded their playbook, going from a read-option look in the opener, to a team confident enough to call a trick play with the Arkansas State game on the line, to a team that shuffled nearly a dozen skill players through different positions while combating injuries last weekend at New Mexico State.

The Eagles’ offensive struggles have been amplified what the Mountaineer defense is the opponent. Appalachian State hasn’t allowed the GS offense to reach the end zone in either of the last two meetings.

“It’s a little different,” Eagle quarterback Shai Werts said. “But our main concern has to be executing and doing the things we want to do. 

“At the same time, of course you think about what the game means. It’s a rivalry game on national television against a ranked team. That’s the kind of game I came here to play.”