It wasn’t hard, but it was certainly important.
With a game against the Georgia Bulldogs a week away, the Georgia Southern Eagles assured themselves of an eight-win season and a likely at-large bid to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs with a 69-26 thrashing of Howard on Homecoming weekend Saturday afternoon at Paulson Stadium.
"We all know what’s at stake," said GSU coach Jeff Monken, whose Eagles improved to 8-2. "Only two seven-win teams made the playoffs last year. If you look at the Top 25, 22 of those 25 already have seven wins, so that’s already leaving out a couple of teams. We couldn’t afford to hope and cross our fingers at the record we were at."
It was also Senior Day, and every senior for Georgia Southern — with the exception of suspended defensive lineman Brent Russell — played in the game.
Fifth-year senior tight end Tyler Sumner caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Jerick McKinnon, who threw two touchdown passes.
Sumner’s former high school teammate at Savannah Christian, senior quarterback Russell DeMasi, capped the game’s scoring with a two-yard run late in the fourth quarter. It was his first touchdown since a 2010 playoff win against South Carolina State on Nov. 27, 2010.
"It doesn’t matter who scores," DeMasi said. "We just wanted to get the win, and me scoring was just the icing on the cake."
The Eagles rushed for 529 yards in the victory.
Senior safety J.J. Wilcox recorded seven tackles and added two kickoff returns for 72 yards, including a 52-yard return in the third quarter.
Wilcox, like the rest of the seniors, won’t know if he played his last game at Paulson until the playoff field is released.
"Playing here for the last four years has just flew by," said Wilcox, who started his career at GSU as a wide receiver under Chris Hatcher and moved to running back in Monken’s first year in 2010 before switching to defense before the 2012 season. "I have great teammates and I wouldn’t trade them. The atmosphere, the unity, the crowd, it’s just been a great, four-year experience."
The Eagles scored early and often.
The Bison (6-4) held the ball more than twice as long as GSU in the first half, but that was only because the Eagles kept scoring.
Fullback Dominique Swope, who missed the last two games with a concussion, scored on two of his first three carries.
His first score was good for 58 yards and his second went for 34.
McKinnon took the first carry of the third drive 87 yards untouched to put the Eagles ahead, 21-0. It was the longest play of the season for GSU, and the longest run of McKinnon’s career.
McKinnon dominated the game, rushing for a career-high 198 yards on 16 carries, and three rushing touchdowns to compliment his two passing scores.
Swope left the game as a precaution with an injury after tallying 98 yards on four carries and scoring on half of them.
"It was a thigh bruise," Monken said about Swope. "He was having trouble lifting his leg. We had so many big plays an there were so many opportunities, I don’t know that it was critical that we get him back in there, especially after he was out two weeks with concussions. It was probably good we got him some rest."
Slotback Tray Butler left the game after an injury on a punt return. He returned the punt in place of Darreion Robinson, who also left with injury. The status of both players has yet to be determined.
Backup quarterback Ezayi Youyoute, safety Darius Eubanks and offensive lineman Dorian Byrd also sat out with injuries. Byrd, a junior, missed the first start of his career.
Trailing 21-0 early, the bleeding stopped for Howard when sophomore quarterback Greg McGhee entered the game with 4:23 to go in the first quarter.
To that point, the Eagles had out-gained Howard 207-46 with Howard’s Randy Liggins taking the snaps.
In the remainder of the half, McGhee orchestrated two touchdowns drives, passed for 132 yards on a 13 of 18 clip and rushed for another 38, including touchdowns of 4 and 7 yards.
He finished with 94 yards on the ground, three rushing touchdowns, and 24 of 38 passing for 239 yards and a score.
The Eagles slowed but didn’t stop, finding touchdowns on a 16-yard run by McKinnon and a 25-yard pass from McKinnon to Zach Walker, who dove in the back corner of the end zone to make the catch and secure a 35-13 GSU advantage at the break.
McKinnon scored for the third time on the ground on the first drive of the third quarter, and Robinson scored from 10 yards out in the fourth. Backup quarterback Matt Dobson threw Walker his career-best second touchdown pass on a 29-yard reception.
The Eagles close out the regular season against Georgia on Saturday in Athens at 1:30 p.m.
NOTES: GSU’s 69 points is the most since the Eagles scored 63 in a win over Morehead State on Senior Day, Nov. 12, 2005. ... McKinnon became the 20th Georgia Southern player in history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season Swope rushed for 1,000 yards in 2011. … Wofford’s 16-13, overtime win over Chattanooga on Saturday assured the Terriers a share of the SoCon title with GSU. Appalachian State defeated Furman, 33-28 on Saturday, making the Mountaineers the third team to share in the SoCon title. Due tiebreakers between the teams – ASU holds the advantage over Wofford with a win over Samford and the advantage over the Eagles due to a head-to-head win – the Mountaineers claim the SoCon’s automatic playoff bid. … Georgia Southern’s 529 rushing yards were the most allowed by Howard in program history. … Announced attendance was 18,069.
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.