The Georgia Southern football team has defeated one Power-5 school and come oh so close on so many occasions. Over the past 10 years alone the Eagles had the lead, were tied or were within a touchdown late in the game on numerous occasions but just couldn’t close things out. From N.C. State and GA Tech in 2014 to UGA in 2015, and most recently at Minnesota in 2019 defeat was snatched out the hands of victory.
This past Saturday against Nebraska had all the makings of the aforementioned games. The Eagles go toe-to-toe with a Power-5 school and have the lead late in the game. A couple of replay reviews calls go the home team’s way (see GA Tech 2014) and all of a sudden, the Eagles find themselves trailing with time winding down.
Apparently, Eagle quarterback Kyle Vantrease hasn’t been digging through the Georgia Southern football history books when it comes to playing Power-5 teams and instead decided to write his own chapter.
Trailing 42-38 with just over three minutes left and facing another heartbreaking loss, Vantrease helped lead the Eagles on a 75-yard scoring drive which included converting on fourth and two from their own 33-yard line. The big play of the drive came on a 27-yard pass to a diving Khaleb Hood at the Nebraska 17-yard line. On second and goal from the 8-yard line with 36 seconds left offensive coordinator Bryan Ellis called a rare quarterback draw. Vantrease had only one other run in the game and it was for negative yards, but this time Vantrease would not be denied as he took a hard hit by a pair of defenders at the three, and dove into the end zone for the touchdown.
“Coach Ellis called that play for me and we have been practicing it all week and we knew it may come in handy,” said Vantrease. “The offensive line did a great job of executing the play gave me the opportunity to get into the end zone. The pass game compliments the run games and we have playmakers all over the field and they did their jobs tonight. It was great to see the kind of turnaround we had this week in the run game.”
The trouble for Eagle fans at this point was they knew a field goal would tie the game and most of them held their collective breath for the last 36 seconds. The Cornhuskers managed to get the ball within reasonable field goal range, but Timmy Bleekrode’s last second 52-yard kick sailed just wide left, and the Eagle sidelines erupted.
“What a college football game, and what a great group of kids,” said Eagle head coach Clay Helton. “We said there was going to have to be a mental toughness to be in this game and that the ups and downs would come. We had to handle each and every gut punch you get, and that is what we did. We felt like if we could get it in the fourth quarter and put it in these kid’s hands that they would get it done. This is one of those special memories that you will never forget.”
Saturday marked the first time in school history quarterbacks have thrown for over 300 yards in back-to-back games. Vantrease went 37-56 for 409 yards with one touchdown and a pair of interceptions, as well as scoring a rushing touchdown. For his efforts in the game Vantrease also became the first Eagle player to ever win the Walter Camp national offensive player of the week award.
Georgia Southern athletics director Jared Benko was on hand and knows how much this victory meant to the coaches and players, especially the ones who had such a tough season a year ago.
“Seeing what our young men went through last year and then seeing how much work they put in during the off season,” said Benko. “People still doubted them, and then you see what they did tonight. I’m so proud for them and what an awesome night it is for all of Eagle Nation. This win is just the start. We are coming for more and not just football but every sport.”
Less than 24 hours after the game Nebraska athletics director Trev Alberts announced that he met with head coach Scott Frost and informed him they were making a change in the leadership of the Cornhusker football program effective immediately. Much had been speculated leading up to the game as Nebraska had won only three games in each of the past two seasons.
The Eagle victory capped off an impressive Saturday for the Sun Belt Conference as Marshall started the day with a 26-21 win over No. 8 ranked Notre Dame. Appalachian State was next up with a 17-14 win at No. 6 Texas A&M. The Eagles followed suit with their win over Nebraska. The week before Old Dominion made a splash in their Sun Belt debut taking out Power-5 member Virginia Tech 20-17.