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Pride on the line as Chattanooga visits GSU

Chattanooga (2-1, 0-0) at Georgia Souther (2-1, 0-1) — Paulson Stadium, 6 p.m. Saturday

When it was announced last spring Georgia Southern would be joining the ranks of the FBS there was much joy and excitement in the Eagle Nation.

That joy and excitement was tempered slightly when the second part of the announcement fell: Georgia Southern would not be eligible for either the Southern Conference championship or a spot in the FCS playoffs.

That was the price the Eagles had to pay for the privilege of entering the ranks of FBS football. And, of course, that brought up the question of what do the Eagles have to play for?

"Pride," coach Jeff Monken said.

"Pride," quarterback Jerick McKinnon said.

It was going to be business as usual for a team which had reached the FCS semifinals the last three years, and —  if it was eligible —  going to be a factor on the national scene again this year.

Goals were set. The most notable one was to go 8-0 in Southern Conference play, something the Eagles had not done since 1998 in Paul Johnson's second year. Monken was an assistant coach on that team.

There was even talk of being unbeaten going into the season finale at Florida. Routs of overmatched patsies Savannah State (77-9), and St. Francis, Pa., (59-17) in the first two games of the season did nothing to quell the fans' enthusiasm.

The most serious road block looked to be a trip to Appalachian State on Oct. 26. Shucks, get past the Mountaineers and it's smooth sailing to Gainesville, Fla.

However, Monken saw things he didn't like, and he expressed concern about his team's play. Typical coach speak, right? Then came a trip to Wofford and pride took a 30-20 whipping. Only a touchdown with 26 seconds to play made the final score more respectable.

After a week off the Eagles (2-1, 0-1) return to action at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Paulson Stadium when they take on Chattanooga (2-1, 0-0). They will be looking to regain their swagger, but it will be a tough assignment.

Georgia Southern leads the series, 22-4, including one stretch in which it won 18 of 19. However, under fifth-year coach Russ Huesman the Mocs are on the cusp of joining the conference's elite as evidenced by winning seasons three of the last four years.

Despite that success Chattanooga has yet to garner a playoff berth. With Georgia Southern and Appalachian State out of the picture the Mocs believe this could be their year.

"They've been a playoff (caliber) team the last few years," said Monken who is 2-1 against the Mocs including a 39-31 triple overtime win last year. "Chattanooga is as good as they've ever been. We've been fortunate to win the last two years.

"They made some mistakes in the kicking game here two years ago," Monken said. "We had a lead (21-7 at the half), and they came storming back and went for two."

The Mocs didn't get the two-point conversion with 1:44 left, and wound up losing 28-27.

It is close losses such as that which have kept the Mocs out of the playoffs. Last year, for example, in addition to losing to Georgia Southern in overtime Chattanooga lost by three points to Wofford in overtime, and lost by three to Jacksonville State en route to a 6-5 season.

"When you're a winning program like Georgia Southern you figure out a way to win games like that," said Hueseman who was the defensive coordinator for Richmond's 2008 national championship team. "They know how to win the close ones. As a team we've got to figure out how to make a play at the end of games.

"There have been times when we shot ourselves in the foot," Huesman said. "We've muffed a punt..snapped the ball off a guard's leg. You can't do that against a good team. Offensively we need someone to step up and make a play."

The Mocs have some outstanding offensive weapons in sophomore quarterback Jacob Huesman, running back Keon Williams and tight end Faysal Shafaat.

Huesman has thrown for 450 yards and six touchdowns while completing 65 percent (41-63-2) of his passes. Williams has 293 yards rushing while Shafaat, one of the top tight ends in FCS, has nine catches for 129 yards and four scores.

Also not to be overlooked is talented Terrell Robinson who, in addition to being Huesman's backup, plays wide receiver where he has six receptions for 53 yards in two games. He has also ran for 58 yards on five carries.

Defensively the Mocs are giving up 18 points, and 321 yards per game, 145 on the ground.

Senior All America linebacker Wes Dothard and junior defensive end Davis Tull are on the Buck Buchanan Award list which goes to the top defensive player in FCS. Tull was the SoCon's Defensive Player of the Year last year. Defensive back Kadeem Wise leads the Mocs in tackles with 20 in three games.

"There comes a time in the game where you have to make a play," Huesman said. "Someone has got to step and make a play."

If that happens then Eagle Pride will get another gash.