The prevailing news throughout the week was a change at offensive coordinator for the Georgia Southern football team, but it was the Eagle defense that put its mark on Saturday’s 20-3 victory over Florida Atlantic at Paulson Stadium.
The Eagle defense came up with two fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions - winning the turnover battle 4-0 - en route to a total shutdown of the Owls’ attack.
“There’s a lot to look at and figure out from tonight, but I’m proud of our guys,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “There’s no question that we left two wins out there in the last two weeks against Army and Georgia State. We didn’t finish in those games, but we did a much better job of that tonight.”
The installment of Doug Ruse - who served as offensive coordinator for the Eagles in 2014-15 and returned to the program as a tight ends coach last season before again assuming play-calling duties after last week’s dismissal of Bob DeBesse - didn’t immediately light up the scoreboard, but still gave a breath of fresh air to the Eagle offense.
“I thought the offense adjusted well,” Lunsofrd said. “We had to get with a faster pace and prepare for more hurry-up and no-huddle. Usually it’s just the quarterbacks getting signals from the sideline, but everyone was getting those signs tonight and I though we did a good job of executing in that regard.”
Starting in place of an injured Shai Werts, Justin Tomlin was able to command the Eagle attack. The offense wasn’t spectacular, but did manufacture a key touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter to give the Eagles some breathing room. And just as importantly, in the drives where the Eagles couldn’t secure points, Tomlin took care of the ball and never gave the Owls a short field with which to attack.
“I don’t think it was too much (too take over the offense),” Tomlin said. “I kind of knew I’d be starting by the end of the week. But I always try to approach every week as if I’m going to be playing and starting, so it didn’t put too much more pressure on me.”
Tomlin did more than just manage the offense. While his 3-of-12 performance through the air wasn’t much to brag about, he led the team in rushing, gaining 78 yards on 20 carries. Gerald Green and Logan Wright rushed for 74 and 57 yards, respectively, with Wright notching a 2-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter.
While the offense tried to find its footing, the Eagles got a huge boost from their special teams when Khaleb Good diced through the FAU coverage team to return a punt 49 yards for a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter. Tomlin and company were able to drive close enough for Alex Raynor to nail a 30-yard field goal to put the Eagles up 10-0 at halftime.
Raynor connected again from 37 yards in the fourth quarter, but also had his first attempt blocked in the first quarter.
“I think (FAU) may have bee offsides on that one, but we still need to fix our protection,” Lunsford said of a field goal unity that has been hit-and-miss throughout the season.
While it was never a runaway victory for the Eagles, the Georgia Southern defense made it seem like a comeback was never going to be in the cards for the Owls.
Florida Atlantic cracked the Georgia Southern red zone just twice, with a Vladimir Rivas 26-yard field goal in the third quarter serving as the Owls’ only points and the team’s final drive ending with a turnover on downs at the GS 14.
“We went into this game with the mentality that we would dominate every rep and get better with every quarter,” Lunsford said. “We stayed steady and poised. We got the points we needed and our defense never backed down.”
While the offense trudged along, the Georgia Southern defense put up one of its best showings of the season.
Four consecutive Florida Atlantic possessions ended via turnover as the Owls were robbed of possession of the ball on their final two drives of the first half and their first two drives of the second half.
Senior linebacker Rashad Byrd blasted FAU quarterback Javian Posey and forced a fumble that was recovered by Reid Dedman. With the Owls driving inside the GS 40 in the final minutes of the first half, Posey fired deep downfield and was intercepted by redshirt freshman Derrick Canteen for his fifth pickoff of the season.
A promising drive by FAU to begin the second half was ended when Benz Josue shook the ball loose from Willie Wright and Parker Devine recovered at the GS 21. The Owls drove into Eagle territory once again on their next drive, but Justin Birdsong - starting at safety in place of an injured Kenderick Duncan Jr. - tracked down a Posey overthrow for the Eagles’ fourth takeaway.
A pair of Tomlin runs to begin the fourth quarter set up Wright for a 2-yard scoring plunge and Raynor connected from 37 yards out on the Eagles’ next drive to stretch the score to 20-3.
Never giving in, the Georgia Southern defense conceded a long drive to the Owls, but forced a turnover on downs at its own 14 to end Florida Atlantic’s final gasp.
With the victory, Georgia Southern improves to 7-4 overall and snaps a two-game losing streak. The Eagles will conclude their regular season schedule next Saturday as they host arch-rival Appalachian State at 6 p.m. in a Sun Belt Conference clash.