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Eagles take down UMass
Georgia Southern avenges '17 defeat
Georgia Southern center Curtis Rainey, bottom left, raises running back Monteo Garrett in the air after Garrett's coffin-sealing touchdown with two minutes left in the game against UMass at Paulson Stadium Saturday. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Georgia Southern did much more than avenge a blowout loss from last season on Saturday night at Paulson Stadium.

The Eagles dealt out a beating of their own.

Georgia Southern racked up 488 yards of offense and scored 24 of the game’s final 27 points as it avenged a 2017 loss to Massachusetts with a 34-13 victory to move to 2-0 on the season.

“We preached it throughout the week,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “We’re a blue collar team. We’re not sexy. We need to play a lot of guys and have them fill a lot of roles to win games, and that’s what we did tonight.”

Last season, UMass (1-2) eclipsed 300 yards on the ground and in the air in what proved to be the final game of Tyson Summers’ head coaching tenure at Georgia Southern. Lunsford was named the interim - and later, the official head coach - to replace Summers. Given his first crack against a team that had beaten the Eagles last season, Lunsford and his team took full advantage.

“It’s a new year,” Lunsford said. “We’re a new team. I didn’t say a word about (last year’s game against UMass) during the week. If our players used it as motivation, good for them.”

One particularly motivated Eagle was Wesley Fields. The senior running back rushed for a game-high 144 yards.

While Fields provided the consistent yardage on offense, a host of other Eagles put up the points.

Trailing 3-0 in the second quarter after a Mike Caggiano 32-yard field goal put the Minutemen up in the first period, Eagle quarterback Shai Werts hit Cam Brown for a 5-yard touchdown strike that put Georgia Southern up. The touchdown and catch were career firsts for Brown.

The Eagles kept the momentum rolling as Tyler Bass connected on a 41-yard field goal. UMass answered with a 12-play, 75-yard drive capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Jordan Fredericks.

Georgia Southern received the ensuing kickoff with just 2:11 remaining in the first half. Primarily a rushing team, Werts got the Paulson Stadium crowd jumping with consecutive completions to Wesley Kennedy III for 25 and 28 yards, respectively. Werts skipped into the end zone from 3 yards out with 35 seconds to spare in the half, giving Georgia Southern a 17-10 lead that it never relinquished.

“It was a lot of fun out there,” Werts said. “(Fields) and all of our running backs were doing their thing all night. Once (UMass) had to respect the run, it really opened up what we could do passing.”

“I’ve got to give it to the hogs,” Fields said, crediting his offensive line. “They were opening lanes all night and making it easy. Then they gave Shai time to throw. People sleep on his passing, but when he gets to stand in the pocket, he can make big plays.”

Tyler Bass kicked a career-long 50-yard field goal to begin the second half for the Eagles. The Minutemen answered as Caggiano split the uprights from 41 yards out, but the Eagles took full control after that, racing down the field on a five-play, 70-yard drive capped by a 17-yard play-action toss from Werts to Colby Ransom. 

With just over two minutes to play, UMass had all but waved the white flag, but the Eagles dealt a knockout blow. Georgia Southern ate up over five minutes of clock and Monteo Garrett plowed in from five yards out to make it a laugher.

“One of the things about being a blue collar team is that you have to know how to finish games,” Lunsford said. “We missed a few chances to do that earlier in the game, but at the end we were able to step up and finish it.”

Werts followed up a 163-yard rushing performance in the opener with 154 passing yards and two touchdowns on a 6-of-9 performance Saturday. He also chipped in 83 yards on the ground while Garrett ran for 90 to combine with Fields for the bulk of the Eagles’ effectiveness on the ground.

Massachusetts starting quarterback Andrew Ford completed 22 of his 33 attempts, but a swarming Eagle secondary limited Ford to just 190 yards through the air. The window finally shut for good on Ford’s final pass of the night as Eagle linebacker Benz Josue perfectly read a receiver settling into a hole in the GS zone and recorded his first career interception.

The Eagles had significant receiving stats for a change. Kennedy hauled in three catches for 92 yards while Malik Murray had a 40-yard reception. Ironically, it was the other two completed passes that accounted for the Eagles' pair of touchdowns through the air.

Georgia Southern is riding high and quickly putting the ghosts of 2017 behind it, but the Eagles will face their toughest test of the year next week as they hit the road to take on No. 2 Clemson.