Georgia Southern was on top of the world last Saturday, and that’s exactly where the Eagles will do their best to remain.
A week removed from toppling two-time defending national champion Appalachian State, the Eagles are determined not to have a letdown in today’s noon Homecoming game against co-league leader The Citadel.
“We try not to get too high, and we try not to get too low,” defensive end Larry Beard said. “We try to stay even keeled, and hopefully staying there will get us through the entire season.”
No. 22 Georgia Southern (5-2, 2-2) jumped back into the national rankings after the monumental win over the Mountaineers, and with two league losses, the team is in full-playoff mode.
“Our main focus is to keep the momentum going,” senior quarterback Jayson Foster said this week.
The 25th-ranked Bulldogs have made noteworthy progress under third-year coach Kevin Higgins, who last season guided the school to its first winning league record (4-3) in 14 years. This fall The Citadel’s been solid – its only setbacks coming in a respectable 45-31 loss at then seventh-ranked Wisconsin and a 28-7 defeat by Wofford. At 5-2 overall and 3-1 in league play, the Bulldogs are in a three-way tie with Wofford and Elon for first place in the Southern Conference.
“This may be the best team we’ve played all year, so we better be ready (by game time),” Eagle coach Chris Hatcher said.
The Bulldogs come in as underdogs against a Georgia Southern team equipped with the league’s best offense, directed by the hard-to-tackle Foster.
“We know the type of program they are,” Higgins. “Of course it’ll make it that much more challenging playing on the road and in front of a Homecoming crowd. I think our guys understand what they’re up against, and it’s just a matter now of whether we can execute it or not.”
Georgia Southern’s offense successfully debut a new weapon last week – freshman quarterback Billy Lowe, who takes the snaps when Foster slides over to either running back or receiver. The tactic helped the Eagles hang 38 points on the Mountaineers, and GSU will need similar offense production today to counter The Citadel’s high-scoring attack.
Behind senior quarterback Duran Lawson (246.6 passing yards a game), the Bulldogs are scoring 40.1 points a game, second in the conference to Georgia Southern’s 41.
“We know they score a lot, so as an offensive unit we’ve got to be prepared to score a lot of points,” Foster said. “We’ve got great trust in our defense, so hopefully we’ll hold them. If not, we’ve got to come prepared as an offense. The Citadel plays very hard, and they don’t quit. They play to the whistle, and when you got teams like that it’s going to be a close game.”
Lawson likes to throw to Andre Roberts (six TDs), while running back Tory Cooper (96.6 yards a game, 13 TDs) is also a threat.
“They use a lot of their perimeter and skill guys, so we’ve got to have it really tight on the defensive back end, make sure the front four get a good rush, keep the quarterback contained,” Beard said.
Middle linebacker Willie Rowell (8.9 tackles a game) and free safety Josh Lawson (6.7) lead the Bulldogs’ aggressive defense, which ranks first in league in fewest yards allowed (321.9). They’re likely to stay busy this afternoon trying to contain GSU’s potent offense, which leads the nation with more than 340 rushing yards a game.
“They probably blitz about 95 percent of the time,” Hatcher said. “They put a lot of guys in the box, and we’ve got to find a way to be able to run the football. It’s not anything we hadn’t seen all season long, but they do blitz a lot more than we are accustomed to seeing. So we’ve got to be ready to do a good job with our run fits.”
The Eagles have been plagued with injuries all season and suffered another blow with recent loss of starting cornerback Carson Hill, who’s likely out for the year. Hill was a crucial part of an already thin secondary and had an interception in each of his last three games. Dedrick Bynam was suspended on the Friday for violating team rules making the secondary even thinner. First-string defensive end Matt Wise and receiver Mike McIntosh are also out for the game. Georgia Southern’s running backs Lamar Lewis, Mike Hamilton and Chris Teal should all play despite nagging injuries.
Though The Citadel is 4-12 in the all-time series with Georgia Southern and has won just once in nine visits to Paulson, the Bulldogs usually to put up a good fight against the Eagles. Just last season The Citadel beat GSU, 24-21, in Charleston, S.C., and in 2003 the Bulldogs rained on GSU’s Homecoming by scratching out a 28-24 win.
“Everybody seems to play up to Georgia Southern,” Beard said. “We kind of still have that target on our chest even though we haven’t been in a national championship (run) since 2002.”
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.