Something familiar happened to the Eagle fans at Saturday’s game against the Western Carolina Catamounts.
Things have been a little different around Statesboro for the past few years. During the years surrounding Georgia Southern’s last two National Championships, fans of the Eagles had high expectations, and for the most part, those expectations were met.
The schedule from the late 90’s through the early 2000’s had a lot of similarities. There was usually a tough non-conference game early in the season (UGA, Oregon State, Delaware, McNeese State, etc.) and the two big Southern Conference games (Appalachian State and Furman).
Then, there was everybody else.
Fans would show up, wear shirts that said, “‘Our House’ Rules: You play, you lose, you go home,” cheer on the Eagles as they scored touchdown after touchdown and watch, week after week, as GSU knocked off the Chattanooga’s, East Tennessee State’s, VMI’s, WCU’s and UTC’s of the world.
The only thing that was really tough on the fans was coming up with new and clever ways to mock each team that paid a visit to Paulson Stadium.
The Eagles made it all the way to the semifinals in 2001 and 2002, but then, in 2003, something was different. GSU, as usual, was ranked in the top five entering the season. Early losses to Wofford and McNeese made fans a bit uneasy, then — after a loss on the road to Appalachian State — it happened. Georgia Southern lost to the Citadel at homecoming. The epic home winning streaks and constant blowouts started to become a thing of the past. In a season highlighted by a 29-24 win over Furman, the Eagles missed the playoffs.
Two thousand and four and 2005 had its high scoring affairs, and the Eagles still returned to the playoffs, but first-round losses to New Hampshire and Texas State left Eagle fans completely unfulfilled for the first time in the better part of a decade.
2006 had fans just hoping to squeeze out a win against anybody, and 2007 started off with shootouts that seemed like track meets with a lot of points scored that could have been anybody’s game to win.
After the SoCon-opening loss to Chattanooga, Georgia Southern seemed to be at a crossroads. When they took the field Saturday against Western Carolina, the Eagles had a point to prove.
The “Jayson Foster Show” added some new acts, with six different Eagles reaching the end zone, the defense scooped up four turnovers, Foster completed every last one of his passing attempts and GSU fans got that feeling back.
Not since a 63-17 blowout against Morehead State in 2005 have GSU fans actually been completely at ease in the second half of a football game. So relaxed was the student section this time around, in fact, that WCU actually got a round of applause when it finally scored in the third quarter. The cheers got louder with each proceeding touchdown scored by the Catamounts, because the fans that were left just knew the Eagles had that game dominated.
“Now there’s a sight for sore eyes,” remarked one fan as the students pulled out their keys to symbolize to WCU that — in their eyes — it was time for them to go home.
“I miss that sound,” said another as the keys jangled and the GSU Fight Song played.
Many fans, however, weren’t there as time ran out in the 50-21 win because, for the first time in a while, they knew this one was over way before it was actually over.
The Eagles have not hit the tough part of their schedule yet, and it is just going to get harder from here. Still on the ticket are Furman, ASU, Wofford, surprising Elon and Citadel teams, South Dakota State and Colorado State.
With teams like that remaining on the schedule, nobody is crowning the Eagles champions of anything just yet, but for at least one Saturday at Paulson in 2007, Eagle fans remembered what they got so accustomed to over the years, and what it felt like to be at the top. Having already matched the win total from 2006, there is only one direction for the program to go. Saturday at Paulson against Western Carolina, those GSU fans, at the very least, got a taste of the past.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9404.