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Eagles ready to rage against Cajuns
GS Football
Georgia Southern running back Matt LaRoche runs for a touchdown during the Eagles' Sept. 7 victory against Maine at Paulson Stadium. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

It’s the first Sun Belt game of the season for both teams, yet it feels like a matchup with huge implications for farther down the road.

Both Georgia Southern and Louisiana-Lafayatte entered the 2019 season with high hopes. And while the current records are a bit different - ULL at 3-1 and Georgia Southern at 1-2 - the main goal for each remains as both hope to end the season as Sun Belt champs.

But the Sun Belt isn’t the same conference it was just a year or two ago. Where previous seasons saw a select few teams battle it out while beating down multiple conference doormats, this season is shaping up to have a lot more parity. That means that there are fewer opportunities for any team to get back into the title chase if they fall behind early, so a September meeting between two sides with championship aspirations carries a ton of weight.

Today’s game might seem a bit odd as it features the Eagles as an underdog despite their lifetime 193-40 mark at Paulson stadium.

“Well, Louisiana is 3-1 and we’re 1-2, so I guess we should be the underdog,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “We still aren’t where we want to be. We’re not winning turnover battles and not living up to our mantra of Eagles not beating Eagles. That has to improve, but we’ve had some good practices and this is a team that is moving in the right direction.”

For the last two weeks, the biggest question around the Georgia Southern program has been whether Shai Werts will return to action. The junior quarterback was knocked out of action in the second quarter of the season opener at LSU and hasn’t played since.

The Eagles often keep injury info close to the vest, and news about their starting quarterback has been even harder than usual to come by, but the few sound bytes that have been released seem to hint at Werts’ return.

“We like what we’ve seen from him,” Lunsford said. “He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and is on track to get back on the field.”

Whether it’s Werts or Justin Tomlin in at quarterback, the Eagles will have to find a way to put a few dents in the scoreboard. Louisiana has been one of the best offenses in the nation over the first month of action. Trey Ragas and Elijah Mitchell have already rushed for 417 and 321 yards, respectively, while quarterback Levi Lewis has thrown for 815 yards and seven touchdowns against just one interception. 

“They’re a different deal,” GS linebacker Rashad Byrd. “They like to run and they do it well, but we like to stop the run. But we have to take care of your assignments. They have a lot of guys who can make nothing into something if we don’t do our jobs.”

A dominant running game is usually something that the Eagles are able to boast. That’s still the title they want to hold, but things haven’t gone smoothly so far for the GS offense. A combination of Werts’ injury, an academic suspension for Wesley Kennedy III and a slew of costly penalties at inopportune times have kept the offense from getting anywhere near its potential.

“We know how important this game is in terms of what we want to accomplish this season,” GS offensive tackle Drew Wilson said. “We want to go out there and play with a lot of pride. We need to drive the football and show what we can do against a really good team.”

Louisiana will be looking to notch its second victory at Paulson Stadium in as many tries. The Cajuns rolled into Statesboro in 2016 and faced an Eagle squad that lacked both members of its quarterback tandem. That game saw recently-departed GS baseball star Seth Shuman get his only start on the football field, and while he put up a good fight, it was Louisiana that rolled to a win. 

The only other meeting between the schools came in 2017. Georgia Southern was reeling as it was in the middle  of its worst season in school history, but Lunsford had begun to turn things around after being named the interim head coach a few weeks prior to their game at ULL. The Eagles had notched their first win of the season a week before their trip to the bayou and notched their only onther win of 2017 with a dominating rushing performance against the Cajuns. 

But a lot has changed in the two seasons since the Eagles and Cajuns have crossed paths.

Louisiana has a new coach of its own and the Cajuns were a surprise winner of the Sun Belt West last season, earning the right to play in the league's first ever conference championship game. But for all the goodwill garnered by the run through the regular season, the postseason was marred by a loss to Appalachian State in the Sun Belt title game, followed by another setback against Tulane in the Cure Bowl. 

Georgia Southern knows it's in for a big test against the Ragin' Cajuns, but the feeling is mutual. The disparity of records that Lunsford mentioned as a reason for his squad being underdogs isn't something that ULL is feeling all that comfortable with.

"That's a tough place to play," ULL coach Billy Napier said during his weekly press conference with local media. "They had Minnesota on the ropes. I know they didn't quite get the win, but that shows what they're capable of and I know they're going to be eager to win the next one.

"This is a well-coached team and an offense that presents a lot of differences from what we normally see going through this conference. It's going to be a tough game where whoever wins is going to be thrilled."