Some teams like to win ugly. Georgia Southern appears to love winning in ugly conditions.
The Eagles ripped off a four-game winning streak in October on the back of solid performances in a pair of nearly tropical storm situations and a brutally cold and wet night at Appalachian State.
Georgia Southern lost in ideal conditions at Troy last week, but - faced with more rain and an unseasonably cold Statesboro day - never trailed against UL Monroe and pulled away late for a 51-29 victory Saturday evening at Paulson Stadium.
“Going into this week, the message was that we would be a player-led team,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “Last week wasn’t good. We were embarrassed and needed to make things better, and we put it on the players to make sure they did that.
“They responded and even at halftime it was guys talking in the locker room, pushing us to be better. The team took control and they took care of business.”
Every aspect of the Eagles’ game had something to be proud of.
The offense rushed for 245 yards - 102 of them by J.D. King - despite losing their fourth starting offensive lineman of the season prior to the game.
Quarterback Shai Werts also piled up the damage on the ULM (4-6, 3-3 Sun Belt) defense as he rushed for 53 yards and a pair of touchdowns while also throwing for 80 yards and adding another touchdown through the air.
The Georgia Southern (6-4, 4-2) special teams unit continued to be one of the nation’s best at forcing big plays. In addition to Tyler Bass connecting on his one field goal try and hitting six extra points, the Eagle punt team recovered a botched return late in the third quarter to help put the game out of reach and Monquavion Brinson capped the night’s scoring by returning an onside kick for a touchdown in the closing seconds.
“It was one of those nights,” Werts said. “I think everyone was feeling it. We just executed the game plan. Defense and special teams made plays to make our job easier and then the offense went out and scored to make their jobs easier.”
The Georgia Southern defense entered Saturday with the most to prove after allowing over 600 yards to Troy in last week’s loss. UL Monroe brought a similar offense to Paulson and boasted one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the league in Caleb Evans, but the Eagles clamped down hard.
Linebacker Rashad Byrd intercepted Evans on the Warhawks’ second drive of the game to set up a Werts touchdown run for the game’s first points. Evans completed just 21 of his 36 pass attempts and most of his 285 passing yards were accumulated after the Eagles had seized control on the scoreboard.
The biggest blow by the GS defense came just seconds into the fourth quarter when safety Donald Rutledge undercut a deep route and picked off Evans, returning his interception 42 yards for a 38-14 lead that put ULM well out of comeback range.
“It feels great,” Byrd said. “I’m proud of everything we’ve done over this last week. This one’s good, but we’re not satisfied yet. We’ve got more to do.”
ULM answered Werts’ opening score when Austin Vaughn rushed in from 3 yards to tie the game at 7-7, but that was all for the Warhawk offense in the first half. Bass kicked a 26-yard field goal early in the second quarter to retake the lead for Georgia Southern and Werts ripped off a 24-yard scoring run on the Eagles’ next drive to make it 17-7. Werts took to the air with time winding down in the first half and found Darion Anderson for a 33-yard pitch and catch to give GS a 24-7 advantage at halftime.
With injuries mounting and doubt from last week’s loss creeping into the heads of Eagle fans throughout the week, the hot start was just what the team needed.
“Nobody outside these walls understands this team,” Lunsford said. “When you live with them and know what they’re going through - for those guys to just keep coming back, going to work and trusting in what we do, I can’t say enough about them.”
Monroe launched an 84-yard drive that was capped off by a 1-yard Evans touchdown dive midway through the third quarter to pull within 24-14, but the Eagles weren’t about to let the game get away.
King beat the third quarter gun with a 6-yard rushing touchdown to make the Eagle lead comfortable once again and Rutledge stuck the dagger in just minutes later.
Following a Markis McCray 1-yard touchdown pass from Evans, Eagle running back Wesley Kennedy III plowed in from a yard out to score a touchdown in his sixth consecutive game.
Josh Pederson hauled in a 16-yard scoring strike from Evans with 20 seconds remaining, leading to the botched onside kick that ended with Brinson and friends celebrating in the end zone.
With the win, the Eagles stay in contention for the Sun Belt East division race. More importantly, Saturday’s win was the sixth of the season for Georgia Southern and qualified the team for a possible third bowl appearance in program history.
Georgia Southern hits the road next Saturday as it travels to Arkansas State.