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New class, old rivalry
111409 GSU FOOTBALL 12
Georgia Southern students Drew Cheshire, 19, left, and Ben Stephens, 20, both of Statesboro, lend a Scottish flavor to homecoming at Paulson Stadium for a game against Furman in this Saturday, Sept. 14, 2009 file photo.

#3 GSU (5-1, 4-1) at Furman (2-5, 1-3)
Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
Greenville, S.C.
TV: None
Radio: 103.7 FM

    The current crop of Georgia Southern Eagles weren’t around when the Furman Paladins came into Paulson Stadium ranked No. 1 in the nation and lost, 27-24, to a GSU team that was hanging around in its fight to make the playoffs in 2005.
    No current player was an Eagle when a 2007 field-goal attempt missed as time ran out, and the Paladins escaped with a 24-22 win, dashing GSU’s hopes of a Southern Conference title and ultimately, a playoff berth.
    Nobody was there when Furman handed GSU its first-ever playoff loss in Paulson Stadium, winning 24-17 in the 2001 semifinals — a game that also happened to be the last in Statesboro for Adrian Peterson and Paul Johnson.
    No current Eagle was alive when Erk Russell’s Eagles beat Furman in the 1985 national championship, or when they lost to Furman in the 1988 title game.
    But, for the No. 3 Eagles of 2012, make no mistake, Furman is still a rival.
    “From what I hear, the tradition runs deep, and the rivalry runs deep,” said GSU cornerback Valdon Cooper, who transferred last spring from Illinois.
    The 2012 team doesn’t need to rely on the distant past, either.
    In 2010, Georgia Southern played its last regular season game against the Paladins in Greenville, S.C.
    Had the Eagles lost that one, the record would have been 6-5, and the run to the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals never would have happened.
    “We had to win just to have a hope of getting into the playoffs,” said head coach Jeff Monken, whose first year as a head coach was that season. “There certainly wasn’t any guarantee. I remember the excitement, the back-and-forth, and thinking, ‘Golly sakes, what a tough ballgame.’ But our guys found a way.”
    The Eagles snuck into the 20-team field at 7-4, and finished in the Final Four.
    “Instead of finishing 6-5,” Monken added, “we finished 10-5.”
    The rivalry is renewed Saturday, when Furman (2-5, 1-3 SoCon) plays host to GSU (5-1, 4-1) at 1:30 p.m. in Paladin Stadium.
    Many marquee quarterbacks have faced off in the history of the series, from Tracy Ham and Bobby Lamb to Jayson Foster and Ingle Martin, but this time around, both teams are breaking in first-year starting quarterbacks.
    Junior Jerick McKinnon snagged the starting nod after taking over during the second half of a 35-16 win over Samford on Sept. 29, and the Paladins are breaking in a true freshman.
    Reese Hannon took over for injured Dakota Derrick during the second game of the season against Coastal Carolina and brought Furman back into a game that eventually slipped away after three overtimes. His first-career start came against Clemson.
    In six appearances, Hannon has completed 105 of 169 passes for 1,291 yards and six touchdowns.
    “If you just watch the film and don’t know that he’s a freshman, you couldn’t tell he’s a freshman,” said GSU defensive coordinator Jack Curtis. “He’s a leader and he’s done a good job.”
    Furman also sports one of the SoCon’s top rushers in Jerodis Williams, who leads the Paladins’ balanced attack with 116 yards per game and seven touchdowns on the ground.
    “They’ll spread it around a little bit,” Cooper said. “They’ve got three good receivers and a good running back.”
    Offensively for the Eagles, which have completed only 12 passes on the entire season, the focus remains on executing the running game and holding onto the football.
    “There’s always things we can get better on,” said McKinnon. “We’ve still yet to play our best offensive ballgame. We’re still striving to be better, and that’s a good thing.”

    Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.