The regular season finale between Georgia Southern and Georgia State in Atlanta on Saturday may not have had huge implications on the Sun Belt standings or postseason bowl structure, but there was still plenty on the line.
For three years - through good seasons and bad - Georgia Southern couldn’t quite figure out its in-state rival and suffered three consecutive losses at the hands of the Panthers.
That all came to a quick and decisive end as the Eagles’ defense was stout all day and the offense gained steam along the way en route to a 35-14 victory.
“First off, I just want to say how proud I am of our players and staff,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “It was a tremendous job of buying in to what we wanted to do. We’re still learning how to win and how to do things the right way, but now we get to look forward to a bowl game and win number 10.”
Georgia Southern (9-3, 6-2 Sun Belt) notched a modest advantage in winning the total yardage battle 381-264, but the Eagles did the real damage on a handful of big plays.
Shai Werts (8-of-11, 105 yards, 2 TD) threw the first big punch of the day, adding to a 3-0 GS lead with a 38-yard touchdown toss to Darion Anderson midway through the second quarter.
Georgia State (2-10, 1-7) threatened to dent the scoreboard late in the half, but a Brandon Wright field goal attempt was blocked by Rashad Byrd and returned by Monquavion Brinson into Panther territory. After a few quick gains, Tyler Bass connected on a 49-yard field goal to send Georgia Southern into the half up 13-0.
Georgia State tried to turn the tide with a surprise onside kick to begin the second half, but Georgia Southern easily scooped it up. Even with the gifted short field, the Eagles soaked up some clock before Werts rushed in from 18 yards out to cap an eight-play, 51-yard march.
“I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the offensive line and what they did for me all day,” Werts said. “I didn’t need to scramble. I didn’t need to rush. We were comfortable the whole game. We made some adjustments in the second half and we just kept executing to get the win.”
Following the touchdown pass, Bass showed off his arm instead of his leg, hitting Deshon Cooper for a two-point conversion to make it 21-0.
The GS defense responded with a three-and-out on the Panthers’ next series, and when a wayward punt left the Eagles with another short field, Georgia Southern delivered the knockout punch.
Werts once again drew in the Georgia State secondary with play-action before finding Colby Ransom all alone for a 58-yard touchdown strike.
Georgia State finally got on the board in the fourth quarter as Ellington found Devin Gentry and Tamir Jones for passing touchdowns, but a Georgia Southern senior notching his first win over the Panthers made sure that the late outburst wouldn’t threaten his celebration.
Following the first Panther score, Georgia Southern senior Wesley Fields took a routine-looking inside handoff and immediately found room to run. Fields wove through the Panther secondary, cut back across half the width of the field and finally showcased one more stutter step and juke to cap off a 63-yard touchdown run and put the nail in the Panthers’ coffin.
“I’ve been wanting this (win over Georgia State) for me and for everyone else who has lost the last few years. When I got free, I knew I had to score. I didn’t know what I was going to have to do, but I knew no one was going to get me down.”
Fields led the Eagles in rushing for the second straight week, carrying 16 times against the Panthers for 151 yards and his long, galloping touchdown.
Georgia Southern will have to sit on the sidelines during next week’s Sun Belt championship game, but will get back to the practice field in preparation for a bowl game that will come forth on Dec. 2.
Georgia State is done for the season and — for at least the next year — so are the Eagles’ worries about having a rivalry loss hanging around.