Two of the most intimidating places to play in the Southern Conference are Appalachian State and Georgia Southern.
However, don’t look for the No. 1 ranked Eagles to be in a back down mode when they take on the Mountaineers at 3 p.m. Saturday at sold-out Kidd-Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C.
“It’s a great place to play,” Georgia Southern nose tackle Brent Russell said. “It’s a tough place to play because they have good teams, it’s loud, and their fans are on you, yelling stuff at you — just like ours do at Paulson.
“I have tremendous respect for their program and Coach (Jerry) Moore…he’s a legend,” Russell said. “But, we’re not going up there scared. (Roderick) Tinsley and I love to play in games like this. This is what college football is all about.”
The 6-foot-2, 291-pound junior was a key factor in the Eagles’ 21-14 overtime win over then-No. 1 App State last year, a victory which was the linchpin of a six-game winning streak that ended in the FCS semifinals.
A year later it is the Eagles who are ranked No. 1 in FCS football. Georgia Southern’s 48-14 win over Presbyterian last Saturday was its 13th in its last 14 games, and 10th straight regular-season victory.
In a game which will be televised by PBS stations in Georgia and South Carolina in addition to ESPN3, the Mountaineers will be drawing their 39th straight crowd in excess of their stadium’s 21,650 seating capacity. More than 28,000 are expected for the game.
While six of the Eagles’ seven wins have been by double digits, Russell, a finalist for the Buck Buchanan Award which goes to the best defensive player in FCS, said his team has plenty of room for improvement.
“I don’t think we’ve played a complete team game yet,” Russell said. “We haven’t had a game yet where the offense, defense and special teams have all played their best.
“Against Chattanooga in the first half you saw how great this defense can be,” Russell said. “But, we haven’t played a complete game yet — the linebackers may make a great hit on one play, and the defensive line will make a great play on another. We haven’t jelled yet.”
Russell holds himself to a high standard, and he expects the same of his teammates. Much of that goes back to the Eagles’ unexpected 10-5 season of a year ago.
“After last year we saw how great we can be,” Russell said. “We have to strive to be better. We don’t feel we’ve arrived yet …we’re still missing too many tackles, and not getting off blocks.
“Coach (Jeff) Monken is not letting us take off mentally,” Russell said. “The mindset is we can get a lot better. We prepared the same way for Presbyterian we did for Furman.”
By almost anyone else’s standards, Russell is having a stellar season. He has 28 tackles (8.5 for a loss), four sacks, a pass breakup and a blocked extra point against the Paladins that Laron Scott returned for a momentum-changing two point conversion.
“I’ve been drawing a lot of double teams,” Russell said. “But, I’ve been hanging on blocks too long. I’ve got to get off them better, and focus on playing sound football.”
While Russell’s self-criticism may sound harsh, Monken has no complaints about a player who is considered by many to be the best defensive lineman in school history.
“Teams are holding him, chop-blocking him, resorting to any means to stop him,” Monken said. “On the blocked kick against Furman, he went straight ahead and a guy had him hooked around the neck, but he’s so strong he still got the block.
“I don’t want to over exaggerate, but he’s such a good football player. He’s a tough battle whatever the position … he plays with such emotion and effort.”
If playing Appalachian State is not enough to get the juices flowing, Russell also has the memories of one of his worst days ever on the football field. It was two years ago the Mountaineers rolled up a school-record 712 yards in a 52-16 win over the Eagles.
That game will no doubt be brought up and discussed this week by Russell and the others who were there.