Georgia Southern’s offense was off and on throughout the 2019 season. Playing its finale in Saturday’s Cure Bowl, the Eagles ended things with a huge swing and a miss.
Facing a Liberty team making its first ever bowl appearance, the Eagles (7-6) fell behind early, let up another quick score after tying the game, and never held a lead en route to a 23-16 defeat at the hands of the Flames (8-5).
“We didn’t do what we need to in order to win games,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “Our offense didn’t execute. The defense gave up some big plays. There were penalties that kept us from getting off the field.
“I’m proud of our guys and what they’ve accomplished. But the reality is that six losses isn’t acceptable for Georgia Southern. For all the good we’ve done, we need to look in the mirror and think about how we can be better next season.”
As was the case in most of Georgia Southern’s losses this season, an ineffective running game spelled doom. The Eagles rushed 46 times for just 194 yards - neary 70 yards below their season average. In previous setbacks, it was stout rushing defenses that made life tough for Georgia Southern, but Liberty’s defensive front had routinely been gashed.
But where other teams had found plenty of room to run, it was tough sledding for the Blue and White. Wesley Kennedy gained 104 yards and scored the Eagles’ only touchdown, but quarterback Shai Werts and running back J.D. King combined to average fewer than three yards per rushing attempt.
“It is what it is,” Werts said. “Liberty had some extra time to prepare and they executed really well. We didn’t.”
“We came into this game feeling good about our offense - winning six of our last eight,” Lunsford said. “I’ve got to give Liberty all the credit. They were a motivated team wanting to win their first bowl game”
The Eagles held Liberty’s potent passing attack to just 270 yards, but that was enough for the flames.
Liberty quarterback Stephen Calvert (16-of-35, 2 TD, 2 INT) found Johnny Huntley on a busted GS coverage for a 57-yard touchdown strike to open the scoring late in the first quarter.
Kennedy capped a quick Eagle response with a 10 yard run to tie the game on the second play of the second quarter, but Jashua Mack pushed the Flames back in front on a 3-yard run just over a minute later and Liberty retained the lead for the rest of the night. Alex Probert connected on a 46-yard field goal just before halftime to send Liberty into the break with a 16-7 advantage.
While the Flames’ biggest threat throughout the season was in their passing game, Liberty took the opening kickoff of the second half and ripped off half a dozen productive power rushes before Calvert found Antonio Gandy-Golden on a fade route for a 14-yard scoring strike.
“That first drive in the second half really hurt us,’ Lunsford said. “I thought our defense played well for much of the night, but that drive and touchdown got the score to a point where we just couldn’t come back.”
The Eagles had the time and opportunities to get themselves back into the game as that was Liberty’s final score of the night, but the GS offense just couldn’t get over the hump.
Java’n Singletary’s first career interception put the Eagles in great shape, but the offense was forced to settle for a field goal. Another interception by Kindle Vildor was followed by a huge pitch-and-catch from Werts to Mark Michaud - with a roughing the passer penalty to boot - to get the Eagles in the red zone again, only to settle for another Bass field goal.
Bass was called on once more with just over a minute to play for his third field goal of the night to set a new single-season record for Georgia Southern. Unfortunately, those kicks were only enough to get within a touchdown of Liberty.
“I love Bass,” Lunsford said. “He has been great for us for a long time. But field goals weren’t going to get it done. A big strength for Liberty was their red zone defense and they really showed that tonight.”
Bass’ final field goal (the senior connected from 28, 30 and 35 yards on the night) came with 1:44 to play and the Eagles had just one timeout remaining, forcing an onside kick attempt. The Eagles fell on the kick, but were ruled to have touched the ball before it had gone 10 yards.
Liberty ran the clock down and faced fourth down with six seconds left. A pass fell incomplete with one second clearly showing on the clock, but no review was called for and the Flames stormed the field to celebrate their first bowl victory.