ATHENS — Georgia Southern had its chances Saturday, but by the time the Eagles began to capitalize on them, it was too late to make a difference.
The Eagles put in plenty of footwork in the 45-21 loss to No. 1 Georgia, but they struggled to finish in the clutch plays of the first half. A game that could have been much closer slipped away from Georgia Southern (0-1) by the end of the first half.
"The talent level is there," senior defensive back Chris Covington said. "We were playing with Georgia. We make a couple plays here and there and the game's a lot closer, so that's definitely encouraging. Now all we have to do is capitalize on that."
Still, the game was as encouraging as a loss could ever be, according to Georgia Southern coach Chris Hatcher.
"You hate to get beat 45-21," Georgia Southern head coach Chris Hatcher said. "We wanted to win the ballgame, that was what we came up here to do, but they are the No. 1 team in the country. … But we had a lot of questions going into the season with all those freshmen early in the game."
"We got the victory, and that's a great thing for Georgia," UGA coach Mark Richt said. "If you had told me before the outcome would be regardless of what the score would be, I would have taken it. I was pleased with the victory. I am happy to win, even though we made some mistakes."
Georgia pushed Georgia Southern back to its own 16 in the opening drive. Following the Eagles' punt, UGA executed a five-play, 57-yard drive in which running back Knowshon Moreno had three rushing attempts for 17 yards, including a two-yard run up the middle for a touchdown putting the Bulldogs on the board, 7-0. They added a field goal on their next set of downs after Southern's second drive of the game ended in four downs to go up 10-0.
Moreno finished as the Bulldogs' leading rusher with 59 yards on eight carries and three touchdowns.
Georgia Southern gained some momentum in the following series after Antonio Henton took the field in place of starting quarterback Lee Chapple, turning a fourth-and-one from the Georgia 43-yard line into a red zone opportunity. The Georgia defense delivered a stop in the following three downs, though, with the help of a sack from lineman Jarius Wynn for a loss of 10 yards.
Georgia Southern placekicker Jesse Hartley missed the ensuing 36-yard field-goal attempt, but the Eagles' defense gave the offense another try three downs later. Covington recovered a fumble, which gave Georgia Southern the ball at the UGA 35-yard line. Henton and running back Darrell Norman brought the Eagles back within striking distance with a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, but after a fruitless quarterback sneak and a false start, Henton was tripped up in the backfield and followed with a pass right into the hands of Georgia linebacker Dannell Ellerbe in the endzone.
"We moved the ball well," Chapple said of the offense, "but we've got to put it in the end zone when we get down into the red zone area. That's going to be big for us. You've got to score points to win the ballgames."
GSU didn't make it onto the scoreboard until the third quarter, after Georgia had built a 38-0 lead.
Dogs quarterback Matthew Stafford hit split end Kris Durham in space at the Georgia Southern 30-yard line which Durham ran in for a touchdown with 12:38 remaining in the first half. Stafford finished 13-for-21 passing for 275 yards with two touchdown throws. They tacked on seven more with a 3-yard rush up by Moreno to give Georgia a 24-0 lead with 24 seconds before the half.
It took the Bulldogs 46 seconds to bolster their first-half advantage. A 47-yard pass from Stafford to Mohamed Massaquoi set up Moreno's third touchdown of the day with a 24-yard run into the endzone to give Georgia a 31-0 lead following the extra point. A 5-yard pass from Stafford to Demiko Goodman saw the Dogs go up 38-0.
Following an unremarkable start by Chapple that was followed by Henton taking the field under center, Chapple redeemed himself with a third-quarter drive that saw 2-of-4 passes complete for 26 yards and added a one-yard touchdown rush up the middle, ending Georgia's hopes of a shutout, though UGA still held a sizable 38-7 lead with 1:28 remaining in the third quarter.
Freshman running back Samair Baker followed it up early if in the fourth quarter with a 2-yard touchdown run with 11:38 remaining in the game, leaving the Eagles behind, 38-14. Baker finished with three carries for eight yards.
Stafford's backup, Joe Cox, tossed a 4-yard pass into A.J. Green in the endzone to give Georgia a 45-14 lead with 7:46 remaining.
GSU true freshman Leander Barney got his first collegiate touchdown with 1:45 left in regulation with a 34-yard reception from Antonio Henton as most of the fans in the sold-out stadium of 92,746 had already filed out. It was one of only two catches for Barney, totaling 39 yards.
Henton completed 10 of 18 passes in the game for 102 yards with a touchdown and added 21 yards rushing on nine carries. Chapple was 9-for-18 with 86 passing yards.
"Going against the No. 1 team in the country your first game, it's pretty exciting," Chapple said. "We feel like we could have executed better, but overall we were kind of happy with our performance but also disappointed in the loss."
Darrell Norman led Georgia Southern's ground effort with 12 carries for 61 yards while freshman Adam Urbano added 21 yards on five carries. Marcus Russ led the team's receivers with four catches for 59 yards. Tim Camp had three receptions for 48 yards.
Defensively, GSU was led by Quentin Taylor who had five tackles and a sack while Corvey Irvin finished with six tackles and a sack to lead Georgia (1-0).