Georgia Southern cruised to a rather workmanlike victory in its season opener against Savannah State Saturday night at Paulson Stadium, defeating the Tigers by a count of 54-0 without showing much of the playbook and, seemingly, without breaking much of a sweat.
The Eagles led 47-0 through three quarters and racked up 605 total yards to Savannah State’s 114. Georgia Southern rushed for 420 yards - setting a pace for a third consecutive run at leading the nation in the category - and also fulfilled a goal set in the postseason by gaining 185 yards through the air.
“I’m proud of what we were able to accomplish tonight,” GS coach Tyson Summers said. “We played hard, we played physical, and we got a win.
“There are places where we were lacking and where we need to clean things up, but we did what we set out to do eight months ago in preparing for the season and getting a win.”
Saturday’s win marked the first Eagle victory under the regime of Summers, as well as Summers’ first win as a head coach.
Georgia Southern (1-0) may have lacked the big plays that were so prevalent in their demolition of the Tigers two years ago, but that was due in large part to a thorough domination of all aspects of the game that made highlight plays unnecessary.
The Eagles converted on 9-of-12 third downs while holding Savannah State to just a 1-of-9 clip. Georgia Southern also continued last season’s trend of winning the special teams game, gaining 100 punt return yards while continually launching kickoffs that resulted in touchbacks and otherwise poor starting field position for the Tigers.
The tone of the game was set immediately.
Savannah State (0-1) lost a yard in its first three plays to open the game and quickly punted to the Eagles. Led by quarterback Kevin Ellison (70 pass yards, 57 rush yards), Georgia Southern drove 52 yards in 10 plays on its first possession of the season, reaching the end zone on a 2-yard rush by fellow quarterback Favian Upshaw.
With the senior quarterbacks splitting duty - as usual - throughout the night, Upshaw began and finished the Eagles’ second scoring drive. After a Rashod Saxton fumble and Jay Bowdry recovery set the Eagles up with prime field position, Upshaw broke loose on a 33-yard touchdown romp.
Another solid stand by the Eagle defense allowed the GS offense to launch a nine-play, 82-yard drive - capped off by a 1 yard touchdown plunge by Wesley Fields - to take a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.
“It felt good to get off to a quick start,” Upshaw said. “This is what we’ve been working so hard on during the offseason. It gave everyone a lot of confidence to get out there and do our jobs and put points on the board.”
That was more than enough for an Eagle defense that could join the offense as a nationally recognized unit this season.
Savannah State quarterbacks and running backs were under constant duress throughout the night. Eagle defenders accumulated four sacks and 11 tackles for a loss while Robert Brice snagged an interception and both Logan Hunt and Jay Bowdry fell on fumbles.
“We were just trying to be aggressive,” GS linebacker Ironhead Gallon said. “You talk all preseason about wanting to go hit someone else for a change. We were ready to get after it tonight and I think we did a good job of stopping what they tried to run.”
One of the few Eagle miscues of the night occurred in the second half when Upshaw threw downfield and was intercepted by Juwuan Tolbert. The score remained at 21-0 into the final moments of the first half before Upshaw found Matt Breida (111 total yards) on a 12-yard pass up a seam in the middle of the field to claim a 28-0 advantage for Georgia Southern at the half.
In the third quarter, the floodgates reopened.
After Georgia Southern received the opening kick of the second half, Ellison guided the Eagles 70 yards in just six plays, finishing things off himself with an 11-yard touchdown dash.
Upshaw took over on the next possession and led a marathon march of 92 yards to another touchdown. Facing 3rd-and-17 on the Savannah State 30, Upshaw evaded what looked to be a sure sack and rolled to his left. Utilizing his option skills, Upshaw pitched the ball forward to a wide open Fields who turned upfield, split a pair of would-be tacklers, and raced to the end zone.
The Tigers turned the ball over with another fumble on their next drive and - on the Eagles’ next snap - Breida scored in a way he’s more accustomed to, turning the corner off an option pitch and racing 26 yards for a touchdown that made it 47-0.
“You know, a lot of the offensive success was built off the defense,” Breida said. “They kept giving us short fields to work with and we wanted to capitalize.”
From there on out, the Eagles were content to work in the reserves.
Third-string quarterback LaBaron Anthony committed the Eagles’ second turnover when he was pressured on a pass attempt and fumbled, but he also directed the final scoring drive of the night.
Leading the way for the Eagles’ late offense was Demarcus Godfrey. The redshirt junior ended up leading the Eagles in rushing yards on the night, going for 124 yards on 14 carries. After Godfrey did the heavy lifting, Troy Stewart finished the Eagles’ scoring for the day with a 7-yard touchdown run.
“We got a lot of young guys and new guys some playing time tonight,” Summers said. “We want to see who’s going to help us and get us wins like this moving forward.”
The Eagles jump right into Sun Belt Conference play next week as they hit the road to take on South Alabama in Mobile, Ala. The Jaguars weren’t predicted to make much noise in the conference championship race this season, but they spoke loud and clear Saturday when they knocked off Mississippi State in Starkville, Miss. in their season opener.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-4908.