Georgia Southern kicked off its season by playing a pair of teams ranked sixth in the nation and the results couldn’t have been more different.
The Eagles spun their wheels on offense and couldn’t do anything to slow down LSU in a rocky season-opening loss. Last week, Georgia Southern took on a Maine squad that was ranked sixth in the FCS poll. The Eagles bounced back with nearly 400 yards of rushing and - while it wasn’t all smooth sailing - was able to put one in the win column.
This afternoon, the Eagles figure to land somewhere in the middle of those two matchups as they make their first ever trip to the University of Minnesota to take on the Golden Gophers in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. Georgia Southern will once again be punching above its weight class against a ‘Power 5’ school that can claim recruiting rankings and program amenities that surpass anything seen in Statesboro, but that has never stopped the Eagles from believing that they can compete - and beat - anyone who happens to be on the schedule in a given week.
Georgia Southern will once again be playing with less than a full deck as backup quarterback Justin Tomlin appears to be the choice to start today’s game. Tomlin entered the LSU game in the second quarter following a shoulder injury to starter Shai Werts. The team has maintained that Werts remains on a day-to-day basis, but stated on Monday that it was moving forward with the assumption that Tomlin will start against Minnesota and has said nothing else to sway that line of thinking.
Tomlin was a driving force in the win over Maine, rushing for 154 yards and a touchdown while also connecting on 4-of-9 passing for 63 yards.
Logan Wright and Matt LaRoche also eclipsed the 100-yard mark on the ground last week and will once again be leaned heavily upon to put a dent in the Minnesota defense.
The only thing preventing a runaway victory last week was self-inflicted wounds, as the Eagles committed seven penalties and put the ball on the ground seven times.
“Right now it’s important to concentrate on ourselves,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “Of course we’ve looked at Minnesota and are preparing for what they will show us, but we’re also focused on taking care of us. That’s what needs to improve first.””
Stopping the run hasn’t exactly been Minnesota’s calling card so far in 2019. The passing-minded Fresno State squad it faced last week never really tested things on the ground, but the Gophers allowed over 5 yards per carry in a Week 1 game against South Dakota State that required a fourth quarter comeback to get Minnesota the win.
At the same time, Minnesota has proven that it can be dangerous through the air, and with Georgia Southern notching just two sacks from 87 dropbacks from opposing quarterbacks over the first two weeks, the Eagle defense will also have its work cut out.
The Gophers run a balanced offense, but their gamebreaking ability lies in star receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. That 1-2 punch was put into question in fall camp when presumed starting quarterback Zack Annexstad was lost for the season due to injury, but backup Tanner Morgan has stepped in and has the team’s full confidence moving forward.
“They’re a spread-style offense,” Lunsford said. “They run zone and zone read with RPOs. Then they have great receivers. (Johnson) is real good and Bateman is a guy who was committed to Georgia Southern at one point, so we know all about how good he is.”
While injuries have plagued the Georgia Southern offense early this season, the defense figures to be able to put its best foot forward in trying to slow down the Minnesota attack.
Defensive end Justin Ellis was lost for the season at LSU due to a knee injury, but the rest of the defensive depth chart looks to be intact as oft-used nose guard C.J. Wright is expected back after missing the Maine game.
For the Eagles, today's game has plenty of storylines.
On one hand, it's the next game on the schedule, and the 'coachspeak' portion of the team's preparation is simply focused on performing as well as it can against its next opponent.
Then there is the tactical side of things that tries to weigh the difficulty of each opponent while also quantifying team growth and development on a game-to-game basis. The Eagles appeared to be in over their heads against LSU and seemed to have missed out on several chances to run away from Maine, so a team that falls somewhere in the middle of those two seems appropriate to judge how the Eagles can show what they've learned through two weeks of play.
And then there's the angle of facing a P5 school once again.
Plenty of G5 teams with far lesser resumes have had far more success against the big conference teams than Georgia Southern. The Eagles have put plenty of scares into very good teams, but it seems as if one of the next steps for the program in its growth as an FBS member should be to make headlines every once in a while with wins over the Big Tens and SECs of the world.
The big picture holds plenty of possibilities and uncertainties for Georgia Southern this afternoon, but the team remains focused on just one simple goal.
Kickoff against Minnesota is the beginning of the next game. It's a chance for a team that believes it's on the rise to make another argument for that belief.
So they might as well take the next step and win.