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SoCon era ends at Elon
Georgia Southern's Jerick McKinnon finds some running room against Elon at Paulson Stadium on September 22, 2012. The Eagles will play the last Southern Conference game in program history when they face the Phoenix on the road Saturday at 3 p.m., in Elon, N.C. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/file

Georgia Southern (5-4, 3-4) at Elon (2-8, 1-5)
Saturday, 3 p.m.
Elon, N.C.
Radio: 102.9 FM, 103.7 FM

   The Georgia Southern Eagles have won 115 games in the Southern Conference since joining the league in 1993, and lost 49.
    The Eagles have won or shared 10 SoCon titles in 20 years in the league — more than any other program in the span — and have more playoff appearances (13) than anybody else. They’ve won two national titles, more than anybody except Appalachian State (3), and have more national titles to their name (6) than any member of the SoCon or the Football Championship Subdivision.
    On Saturday at 3 p.m., at Elon, GSU will play its 165th and final game in the SoCon.
    The 2013 season hasn’t gone according to plan for the Eagles, who are 5-4 and 3-4 in the SoCon, but that doesn’t mean a winning record and an even SoCon slate isn’t something to play for, especially for the league’s most dominant program over the last two decades.
    “We’re all in it together,” GSU coach Jeff Monken said. “I’m pleased with the fact that our guys have continued to practice hard and continued to play together. They’ve got a lot of pride here. This team has a lot of pride in playing for Georgia Southern, and they’re going to play hard Saturday. We’ve still got a lot to play for, and a lot to prove."
    Elon (2-8, 1-5) has had its struggles, but struggles are uncommon at GSU.
    “We don’t like being a 5-4 football team," Monken said. "We sure don’t like being 3-4 in the league. There’s only one way to send a message that this isn’t representative of our football team, and that’s to go play good. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
    The Eagles had a season-high four interceptions last Saturday against Western Carolina, and the passing defense has benefitted greatly from increased pressure on the quarterback.
    “The thing that we were able to do was put some pressure on him early, and we got after him and made him nervous,” GSU co-defensive coordinator Jack Curtis said. “Once you do that and make them feel unsure about themselves you gain confidence in how you’re playing.”
    The Eagles have also worked hard on disguising their coverages and blitzes.
    “You’ve got to get the quarterback, when he gets to the line, unsure of what he’s about to see,” Curtis added. “That’s the way the game is today. It’s a chess match.”
    Offensively, the biggest question mark is the status of quarterback/running back Jerick McKinnon, who aggravated an ankle sprained earlier in the season against WCU. With two games left in the senior’s career, it’s likely McKinnon will see the field.
    “He’s not going to be full speed,” Monken said. “I wish he was and we need him to be, but he’ll play.”
    The Eagles have struggled with injuries and execution across the board offensively this season, and both areas have seen improvement. Offensive lineman Dorian Byrd has found a groove and the Eagles graded out well against the Catamounts.
    “He’s been playing really well the last couple of weeks and we’ve gotten some other guys healthy, so that’s certainly helped,” GSU offensive coordinator Brent Davis said about Byrd. “We had eight missed assignments last week on offense,” GSUI offensive coordinator Brent Davis said. “That’s pretty good when you take 60 plays and you take 11 guys on each play. There were eight mental mistakes, so that was a huge improvement from earlier in the year, and there are still young guys playing, and that makes it that much more encouraging.”

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