In the college football world, one month can make a world of difference.
At the beginning of October, the Georgia Southern Eagles were in flux. They had squandered a late lead against a Minnesota team that is now ranked 13th in the country and couldn’t find a way past Louisiana-Lafayette in their first Sun Belt matchup. The Eagles were staring 1-3 in the face, with memories of last season’s 10-3 bowl-winning run fading fast.
And no outside factors have helped since then.
Georgia Southern played a pair of home games through tropical storm environments before taking on arch-rival Appalachian State last week in near nor'easte conditions. The external conditions were harsh on their own, but the Eagle Football family has also endured internal tragedy as the team continues to deal with the death of freshman lineman Jordan Wiggins.
The Eagles are still hurting and battling through the passing of a teammate and family member, but they also enter November at 5-3 (3-1 in Sun Belt play) and in control of their possible path to the conference championship game.
The next step comes today as Georgia Southern plays a second consecutive road game against the Troy Trojans (3-5, 1-3).
“The win (over App) was great, but it’s time to flip the switch and start getting ready for the next one.,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “It’s all about moving on to the next game and improving from there.”
It’s been hard to get a good read on the Eagle offense over the last month. While playing through rain, cold and wind, the conditions have been so extreme as to not be able to properly critique the Eagles’ option attack.
With that said, the various weather events haven’t been able to slow down junior running back Wesley Kennedy. The Eagles’ do-it-all back has been on a tear since getting into the lineup after sitting out the first four games of the season due to academic suspension.
Kennedy took his punishment in stride and was vocal from his first days back with the team that he intended to make up for lost time. He has backed up those words with plenty of action as he has racked up seven touchdowns in his first four games of the season, including a career-high 145 yards and a pair of scoring runs in last week’s upset of Appalachian State.
Just as Kennedy has come on strong after missing the first month, the GS offensive line is also hitting its stride. The line has been devastated by injury as Brian Miller, Jakob Cooper and Aaron Dowdell have all been lost for the season, but the reserves along the front have embraced the ‘next-man-up’ mentality and have been a bright spot in each of the last two victories.
The same can be said for a stout GS defensive line that saw its share of injuries at Appalachian State, yet still held on to notch a huge win.
“That last win started up front,” Lunsford said. “We won the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball. That’s what got us started and what carried us through in such a hard-fought game.”
With the win at Appalachian State, the Eagles now control their destiny in the race for the Sun Belt championship. But that game is more than a month away and Lunsford is doing his best to keep his team focused on the task at hand.
Less than 20 minutes after the upset of App State, Lunsford and his players were already focused on Troy. And while shifting focus to the next opponent is standard coach-speak, the Eagles are taking it to heart as they know that their marquee win in Boone won’t mean much if they can’t keep up the pace.
“It felt good to win, but now we move on to the next one,” GS quarterback Shai Werts said.
It’s also not lost on the Eagles that a slip-up against Troy last season was a major blow that ultimately eliminated them from conference championship contention. The Trojans haven’t been quite the same force as last season, but still pose the same threat to the Eagles’ newfound Sun Belt title hopes.
“Troy is a good team,” Lunsford said. “They might be 3-5, but we could easily be 3-5. The record doesn’t tell you how good a team is. We’ve got to understand that we can’t overlook anyone.”
The trip to Troy completes another page in the latest chapter of GS Football history. A road game at Troy was the first game for a newly-minted interim head coach Chad Lunsford in 2017. Lunsford and the Eagles took their lumps that day, but have been steadily building from there.
Lunsford and his players won’t speculate beyond what could happen today at Troy, but the fact is that they have already brought about what Lunsford has preached since his first day as head coach.
Georgia Southern has a standard of excellence. The Eagles expect to win and to win championships. Regardless of how the season started, the last few games have put the Eagles on track to live up to that standard, so now it’s time to see how the team responds with its goals in its sights.