As the old saying goes, the tenth time is the charm.
Georgia Southern spent the first three-quarters of its season coming up with new and inventive ways to come up short in games. A winless 2017 season seemed to be a very real possibility, but the Eagles suddenly and stunningly looked like the Sun Belt Conference contenders of previous years on Saturday afternoon, flooring South Alabama with a dominant 52-0 performance at Paulson Stadium.
The Eagles (1-9, 1-5 Sun Belt) cruised 81 yards in nine plays on its opening drive, capped by a 2-yard touchdown plunge by L.A. Ramsby. The senior running back scored a pair of touchdowns on the night. Fellow senior Demarcus Godfrey scored his first career touchdown late in the game and both Shai Werts and Kado Brown threw for scoring strikes.
Georgia Southern set season highs in rushing yards (356), passing yards (227) and total yards (583) as everything that had been going wrong for two months finally - for one night, at least - went right.
“It’s a whole lot more fun to do it this way,” GS interim head coach Chad Lunsford said as he entered the postgame press conference. “I’m extremely proud. Proud of the players. Proud of the seniors. Proud of the fans. They showed up and we showed out.”
Lunsford has consistently preached positivity and excitement since being placed in charge of the team after the midseason dismissal of Tyson Summers. Lunsford dropped his first three games, but was finally able to let loose — along with the rest of the Eagles — after Saturday’s win.
“You could see the pressure mounting every week,” Lunsford said. “We would point out where improvements were being made — where we were better from week to week. But after the losses, you can sense the pressure on the team’s shoulders.
“Tonight, we let that pressure go. To see the joy on their faces when I stepped into that locker room… There aren’t words.”
The biggest key in the Eagles reversing their fortunes was their ability to back up positive plays with more positive plays.
All too often this season, a big play or clutch drive on offense has given way to the defense allowing opponents to quickly answer. And many forced turnovers have seen the Eagle offense hand the ball — and the momentum — right back.
That wasn’t the case against South Alabama (4-7, 3-4). The Eagle defense forced a quick punt on the Jags’ first possession and Deshaun Cooper ended the second drive of the night after just two plays when he pounced on a fumbled handoff.
Ramsby found the end zone for the second time on the ensuing drive. Taking a wildcat snap, Ramsby made half a dozen jukes and cuts to turn a potential loss of yardage into an 8-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 lead.
“I was definitely trying to run hard today,” Ramsby said. “It was the last one (in Paulson). It meant a lot to play well and to leave with a win.”
Two more stellar showings led to another pair of impressive scoring drives for the offense. Wesley Fields (64 rush yds.) ran for an 8-yard score and Shai Werts (113 rush yds., 107 pass yds.) muscled in on a 1-yard sneak to make it a commanding lead. Tyler Bass rode the wind on a breezy afternoon for a 31-yard field goal that sent Georgia Southern into the locker room with a 31-0 advantage.
When asked about what he told a team that hadn’t experienced anything resembling a commanding lead this season, Lunsford gave a quick glimpse behind the curtain.
“Don’t let up,” Lunsford said he told his team. “Put your foot on their throat. Choke them out.”
The message got through, loud and clear.
South Alabama received the second half kickoff and was immediately shut down by the Eagle defense. Following another quality drive, the GS offense gambled on 4th-and-4 from the USA 8. Werts found Malik Henry, who spun and put the ball right on the pylon for a 38-0 lead.
Forced to go to the air almost exclusively, the South Alabama passing game couldn’t figure out the Eagle secondary. In total, GS defensive backs and linebackers broke up nine passes while Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson each picked off USA quarterbacks Garvin Cole and Dallas Davis, respectively.
A dump-off by Brown (120 pass yds, 47 rush yds.) to Fields resulted in the junior running back picking up a convoy of blocks and picking his way into the end zone for a 25-yard pitch and catch to make it 45-0 after three quarters. The defense never budged an inch as it held tight for the shutout. The offense eased up just a bit as backups entered the game, but made sure to give Godfrey one final memory of Paulson Stadium.
A theme over the last few weeks has been that the rest of 2017 is about the seniors. While the Eagles will fall far short of most team goals, players and coaches alike have been focused on making sure that the team’s eight seniors could have something to hang their hats on.
“It was just hard work by everyone,” Ramsby said. “The seniors are trying to lead and show how to do things right. The younger guys, you can tell, want to win for us. In the end, I’m just glad to be able to stand there with my teammates after a win and celebrate what Georgia Southern football is all about.”
The Eagles are done at Paulson for the season, but still have two more cracks at notching wins and building towards the future. Georgia Southern will head west next week for their first ever trip to UL Lafeyette.