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Eagles offense must deal with SDSU defense
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   If Georgia Southern could script today’s game, a repeat of last week’s performance would be just about perfect.
The Eagles saw plenty of encouraging signs in last Saturday’s blowout win over Western Carolina, and they hope to continue that progression and momentum when they step out of Southern Conference play today for a 2 p.m. home game with South Dakota State.
    “We want to come out and have another big win,” said star quarterback Jayson Foster, undoubtedly a target of SDSU defenders. Foster’s been the dynamo of Georgia Southern’s offense all season, and the senior received a little help against Western when five other Eagles found the end zone, equally the total number of touchdowns his teammates scored in the first three games.
    This afternoon GSU’s potent offense — which leads the nation with more than 390 rushing yards a game and ranks fourth with more than 43 points — will be facing a SDSU defense the Eagles (1-3) consider the best they’ve seen so far this year. The Jackrabbits (2-3) haven’t allowed a touchdown in their last two games, and Stephen F. Austin never made it into the red zone against SDSU last Saturday.
    South Dakota has faced offenses similar to GSU’s in its last three games, and the Jackrabbits hope those experiences will play to their favor.
    “Being familiar with something and (practicing against it) each and every week — that isn’t very comforting to us,” Eagle coach Chris Hatcher said.
    GSU will look to use its speed and a little south Georgia heat to slow the bigger Jackrabbits, who haven’t visited Statesboro since 2004 when the Eagles were dominating in a 63-7 win. The teams met again the following year in Brookings, S.D, where a scoring circus ensued and GSU escaped with a 55-42 victory.
    While Georgia Southern has twice changed football coaches and entire offensive and defensive schemes since that 2005 matchup, the most significant difference for the Jackrabbits is their number of scholarships, which has almost doubled. This is the first year SDSU has funded the full 63 allotted to Football Championship Subdivision schools.
    “We think we’ve raised the ability level in our program,” Jackrabbit coach John Stiegelmeier said. “We’ve got 18 seniors this year — we didn’t have anything close to that in 2005-06 — guys who have matured with this mentality and competing at this level.”
    SDSU strives to be like Georgia Southern in terms of tradition and success, Stieglemeier added, but he doesn’t want the Jackrabbits to be in awe of the Eagles when they take the field this afternoon. He’s already seen his team behave that way once this year in an early September visit to Youngstown State, and the result was a slow start and an eventual loss.
    “Whether we can do that or whether we are capable of playing with those guys, I don’t know,” Stieglemeier said. “They are a good football team. We’ve come a long way.”
    The Jackrabbits’ “blue collar” defense bases out of a 4-3 and doesn’t blitz much. SDSU hopes to escape Statesboro with a win by playing sound defense and limiting big plays. Eagle coaches characterize the Jackrabbits’ defense as being very disciplined and not missing a lot of tackles.
    Offensively, SDSU tries to keep defenses on their toes with numerous personnel groupings and formations.
    The Jackrabbits started the year 0-3 after close defeats at Western Illinois and Youngstown State and a home loss to Northern Iowa. They bounced back and picked up some much-needed confidence with lopsided wins over Texas State and Stephen F. Austin the last two weeks. Stieglemeier said his team hasn’t changed anything since the beginning of the year and that the last two wins were the result of players staying the course and believing in themselves and the program.
    Keep an eye on SDSU’s stud kicker, senior Parker Douglass, who nailed a school and Great West Football Conference-record 57-yard field goal last week. He’s made all 10 of his field goal attempts this year and 12 straight dating back to last fall.
    The Eagles, already with one loss in conference play, know today’s game could have playoff implications.
    “We’ve got our backs against the wall each and every week,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got a really good football team coming to town. We’ve got our work cut out for us, and I think this will be one of our tougher battles throughout the course of the season.”
    For GSU to pick up its fourth win of the season, the Eagles need to build on their solid all-around performance against Western Carolina, an outing that helped GSU bounce back from a heartbreaking loss to Chattanooga.
    “Now we see how we can win decisively and put a complete game together finally,” senior offensive lineman Pierce Giboney said. “We’re back on track, and hopefully we can make a run at this thing.”

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.