A roller coaster season took another big drop and climb for the Georgia Southern football team. Last Saturday the Eagles tied their game with Georgia State with just over a minute to play, only to see the Panthers march down field and score the game winning touchdown with :26 remaining as they held on to win 21-14.
This week athletics director Jared Benko announced the hiring of former USC head coach Clay Helton as the Eagles new head coach. Helton was introduced in a press conference Thursday where he also met with the team and plans to be on hand for this Saturday's game with Coastal.
Saturday the Eagles have to get back to business on the field as they welcome in No. 21 ranked Coastal Carolina to Paulson Stadium. Interim head coach Kevin Whitley admits it’s been hard to keep the player’s attention and focus with all that is going around them but believes the team will be ready Saturday.
“The longer you go in a challenging season it gets tougher to keep everybody on board,” said Whitley. “One thing I have tried to stress to the guys is everybody here is interviewing. You have an obligation to yourself to perform well as the new coach and whoever he brings on as staff will be watching tape to see how you perform. Everyone should be playing and coaching hard as if we are under the microscope.”
Whitley has told the players if they are not bought in, he’d prefer if they’d just leave the team.
“I told the players whenever you want to quit you can leave,” said Whitley. “I would rather they keep on fighting and keep believing. For me this is Georgia Southern so for me I don’t know what quitting is. I am going to keep fighting and keep working to give us the best chance of winning Saturday.”
Winning will be a true challenge Saturday. Coastal Carolina comes in as the highest ranked FBS team to ever play at Paulson Stadium. Last year the Eagles went into the fourth quarter with the Chanticleers tied at 14-14 before Coastal outscored the 14-0 in the fourth for a 28-14 victory in Conway S.C.
“Coastal Carolina has done an excellent job the past couple of years in building their program into a nationally ranked team,” said Whitley. “They play tremendously hard, but one thing about the Sun Belt is anybody can be beaten on any given week. We still haven’t played a full four quarters, let’s just play four quarters and then see where it falls.”
The last time the two teams played the Chanticleers played without quarterback Grayson McCall. McCall has put up some impressive numbers and is among the leaders in the NCAA at quarterback. He has passed for 2,063 yards and 16 touchdowns with only two interceptions and has completed over 73 percent of his passes. He has also rushed for 194 yards and three touchdowns.
“A lot of times you see a kid with the ‘it’ factor, and I think he has it,” said Whitley. “I don’t think you can say he just does one thing well because he does so many things well. He is also a great competitor as you see him on the sidelines during the game keeping the guys up. I think he is one of the best quarterbacks in the nation not just in the Sun Belt.”
Not only do the Chanticleers have one of the top quarterbacks, but they are also quite good at running the ball. They are averaging 231 yards per game on the ground and are led by Shermari Jones with 524 yards rushing and eight touchdowns.
“They are by far the best offensive team we have faced this year,” said Whitley. “They can run the ball as they are the number one team rushing the ball in the Sun Belt. That just gives us a challenge to compete against a nationally ranked team and hopefully a chance to redeem ourselves for some of the way we have played throughout the course of the season.”
“We have to do a great job of mixing things up Saturday,” said Whitley. “We have to throw the ball when they don’t expect us to throw it and run the ball when they don’t expect us to run. We definitely want to control the ball as the best way to stop a good offense is to keep them off the field.”
Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina are scheduled for a 6 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Paulson Stadium.