Despite a week’s worth of homecoming festivities, Georgia Southern’s 41-7 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday at Paulson Stadium never looked much like a joyous annual celebration.
The hour leading up to kickoff brought rain showers that progressed into an outright downpour that last through most of the game. A second consecutive home game marred by terrible weather kept thousands of fans away. And regardless of how many were cheering the Eagles from the stands, the GS victory - while vital to its hopes for making a bowl game this season - there wasn’t much that could put the Eagles in good spirits after an incredibly upsetting previous week.
On Monday, freshman offensive lineman Jordan Wiggins took his own life. The team was rattled by the news and Wiggins’ life and the mindset of the team weighed far heavier on head coach Chad Lunsford’s mind following Saturday’s game than any bowl status or conference standing.
“I’m so proud of those guys,” Lunsford said, visibly trying to control his emotions. “From a terrible Monday night, to a Tuesday with nothing, to going back to work Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, there was no playbook for this situation.
“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have a recipe for success in this situation. So we can talk about a plan to win, we can talk about stats, and we can talk about the scoreboard, but I want to say that the brotherhood of this team showed today.”
The fact that the Eagles rolled to an easy victory over New Mexico State was probably for the best. No player or coach will be judged for thinking more about Wiggins and the trying nature of having to prepare for and play a game under difficult circumstances, but the game still had to be played and Georgia Southern put forth what was easily its most complete effort of the season.
Georgia Southern (4-3) fumbled away the first possession of the game and the Aggies (0-8) turned the turnover into seven points when Jason Huntley rushed into the end zone from three yards out.
But just as Eagle fans were starting to lament another offensive lapse - and also when the rain clouds really let loose on what would become another soaking wet day at Paulson - The GS option attach sprang to life.
Wesley Kennedy III tied up the game after a 71-yard touchdown run. He backed that up with a 47-yard scoring run in the second quarter and put the game away for good with a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown in the third quarter.
“Fast, physical and fearless - those are the words that I want to define me,” Kennedy said. “I’m kind of mindless out there. It’s a clear mind once any play starts. I’m always trying to finish through the end zone. It’s exciting when everyone puts in the work and gets me a chance to get to the end zone. Everyone else is doing the hard work to give me a chance to go, so my part of just running is easy. They’re the ones that need to get the credit.”
The offensive line and the punt return unit did their role to spring Kennedy for his three scoring runs and the Georgia Southern defense made sure that those scores would stand up.
Following the Aggies’ opening drive that resulted in a touchdown, the rest of the afternoon was an unwelcome grind for New Mexico State. The Aggies lost a fumble and a pair of interceptions to Georgia Southern while surrendering possession on downs back to the Eagles four times.
The Eagles lost three fumbles to New Mexico State on Saturday and are a far cry from last year’s squad that set record marks for turnover margin and lack of giveaways, but that didn’t deter the Eagles as they ground away and took care of business.
Georgia Southern continued to have some hiccups on offense, but also showed the most explosiveness in years, which has been a sticking point even after last season’s bowl victory.
Lunsford expounded on the ins and outs of the game, but the main point was that the Eagles won, and that a win was good, but not the most important part of the day.
“No matter what anyone thinks, my job is not to win football games,” Lunsford said. “It’s to affect each one of theses kids, whether they’re a husband or a father or whatever they’re going to be when they leave here. And when you do that, wins happen.”
While Georgia Southern had its thoughts and ambitions far beyond the Sun Belt and bowl standings, the game the Eagles just played still counts and helps them immensely in any postseason stride.
The Eagles have a much-needed win added to their record and still control their own destiny in Sun Belt play as they face road games against Appalachian State and Troy in the coming weeks.
J.D. King and Kennedy each finished with 143 yards and the Eagle rushing attack rolled up 404 rushing yards while gaining just three yards through the air. The GS defense continued to rack up sacks, tackles for a loss and other key plays that allowed the Eagle offense to play from ahead for much of the game.
Georgia Southern has no time to rest as it goes right into a short week that will end with a date at Appalachian State - which figures to be a top-20 team - Thursday night in Boone, N.C.