In a game where a lot of Georgia Southern Eagles were able to shine, perhaps the biggest surprise was the backup quarterback.
Jerick McKinnon and Dominique Swope got their yards, but redshirt freshman Kevin Ellison led the offense for most of the second quarter and most of the second half, amassing 94 rushing yards on eight carries and another 65 yards through the air as the Eagles dominated visiting Savannah State 77-9 Saturday evening in the season opener at Paulson Stadium.
Naturally, GSU head coach Jeff Monken wasn’t satisfied.
“I’ll just tell it like it is,” Monken said. “I don’t think it was a very good performance for Georgia Southern.”
Monken pointed primarily to missed assignments, including a on a field-goal attempt that was blocked in the first quarter.
Ellison first entered the game in the first quarter, and promptly converted a 3rd-and-9 with a 14-yard pass to Kentrellis Showers. Ellison’s next four touches went for runs of 12, 14 and 22 yards.
“The coaches told me to be ready,” Ellison said, “and when my time was called I was there to help my teammates any way I could.”
He scored his first-career touchdown on an 8-yard run in the third quarter.
McKinnon (12-109) and Swope (17-100) carried the GSU running game as expected early, helping the Eagles (1-0) rack up 651 total yards on the night. The Eagles converted 35 first downs.
Another surprise was senior slotback Torrence Hunt, a transfer from East Carolina, who showed off his speed on 7 carries for 77 yards, including a 34 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that put the Eagles ahead 55-9.
Savannah State (0-1) was held to 183 yards of offense on the night, and didn’t cross the 50-yard line until less than 3 minutes remained in the third quarter. Backup quarterback Zack Hutcheson led a scoring drive capped off with a 5-yard pass to Kris Drummond.
Georgia Southern was flagged for an illegal block on the ensuing kickoff resulting in a drive that started at the 10-yard line, and Ellison’s biggest miscue happened when a high snap carried him into the end zone and he pounced on the ball for a safety, making the score 48-9.
In the fourth quarter, third-string quarterback Vegas Harley took his first-career carry 30 yards to the house. Harley finished out the game with 4 carries for 72 yards.
The Eagles punted only once, in the fourth quarter.
Backup fullback William Banks scored twice and rushed for 44 yards, and James Dean, who came into fall camp as a linebacker, scored a touchdown and rushed for 33 yards.
True freshman fullback Chris Jordan capped off the scoring from 2 yards out with 1:18 to go.
Linebacker Carlos Cave even got involved in the offense, running 37 yards on a faked punt in the fourth quarter with the Eagles ahead, 63-9.
“I promised our kids we wouldn’t back down,” Monken said. “I promised our kids we wouldn’t let up. Within reason, I would have taken a knee, but they kept throwing the ball. They were trying to win, too. … There was no deliberate attempts to run the score. We were playing a bunch of young guys, a bunch of inexperienced kids at the end of the game, and we faked a punt, and we got a first down. It’s not against the rules. It’s not like we were chucking it around in a hurry-up offense. We were snapping the ball with 6-8 seconds on the shot clock. It wasn't like we were trying to run it up.”
Cornerback Valdon Cooper and safeties Deion Stanley and Steve Williams each recorded an interception in the second half. The Eagles put the ball on the ground four times, but didn’t commit a turnover.
Georgia Southern’s first two drives of the game stalled with missed field goals. redshirt freshman Conner Tierney missed from 33 yards out on the Eagles’ first drive. His second attempt, from 27 yards, was blocked by SSU’s Trevion Ashford.
Fortunately, while the Eagles were missing first-quarter field goals, SSU was having a tough go on offense.
The Tigers went without a first down in the first quarter, and managed only 19 total yards. The first Savannah State first down didn’t come until 8:39 remained in the second quarter. Quarterback Leon Prunty scrambled for 11 yards and moved the chains, and followed that play with another first down -- a 13-yard pass to Drummond.
The Eagles cracked the scoreboard after the two failed field goal tries when McKinnon ran 66 yards for a score after breaking a pair of tackles at the line of scrimmage.
McKinnon followed up on the next drive with an 8-yard scoring pass to slotback Devin Scott, which put the Eagles up 14-0.
Ellison played most of the second quarter and led GSU on two more first-half scoring drives. Swope scored on runs of 1 and 5 yards.
Tierney was good on all seven of his extra points. He actually made a 27-yard field goal in the second quarter, but SSU was flagged for roughing the kicker, which resulted in a Swope’s second touchdown, which gave the Eagles a 28-0 lead at halftime.
The Tigers managed only 48 first-half yards, to GSU’s 291.
Tierney was replaced in the second half by Alex Hanks, who made 4 of 4 extra-point tries.
Hanks and Luke Cherry handled the kickoffs, except for one -- an onside attempt by Ryan Nowicki.
“I don’t think any of those positions are solidified,” Monken said about the kicking game, “We’re probably going to continue to evaluate. We very well may use (true freshman) Younghoe Koo in the field goal and PAT area just to see him challenge. We’ll see what happens this week in practice.”
The Eagles return to action Saturday in Paulson Stadium against St. Francis.
NOTES: Nine different Eagles scored a touchdown in the game, good for a GSU record. … The 77 points scored by GSU is the second most in program history. The Eagles beat Johnson C. Smith 84-3 in the home opener in 2004. … The game was delayed 34 minutes by lightening in the area, forcing the stands to be cleared. … With an 8-yard run in the first quarter,Swope passed raymond gross (2,290) for 11th in GSU history in career rushing yards. … Announced attendance was 16,528.