There was nothing normal, or pretty, or routine about the way Georgia Southern had to approach its preseason in order to finally take the football field.
None of that seemed to change once the 2020 season got underway.
Hours before the Eagles kicked off their season, word came down that 33 players would be held out of action due to factors including positive COVID-19 tests, contract tracing and other disciplinary issues. Several injuries led to just over half of the Eagles’ scholarship players lasting to the end of Saturday’s game - a fitting result as Georgia Southern needed a comeback and a last-minute defensive stop to notch a 27-26 victory over the Campbell Fighting Camels.
The Eagles trailed until the fourth quarter, but it was Campbell that pulled within a point in the final seconds. The Camels opted to go fo two points and a potential win, but the Eagle defense stood tall and forced an incompletion to cap a dramatic opening win.
Georgia Southern surrendered touchdowns to the Camels (0-1) on each of their first two drives and trailed by as much as 20-6 before finally getting things in gear and fighting back for a win at Paulson Stadium.
“A win is a win,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “Did we play well? No. Can we play better? Sure. We made a lot of errors and - to be fair - Campbell played their butts off, but we were able to come together and get a big win.”
Fifth-year senior quarterback Shai Werts summoned everything within the captain’s ‘C’ emblazoned upon his shoulder in the second half. The Eagles’ veteran leader led the team with 155 rushing yards on 14 attempts. Most notably, Werts rushed for a 41-yard touchdown to put the Eagles (1-0) on top for good just one series after being sidelined when shaken up after a suspect hit.
“We never lost faith,” Werts said. “I don’t think we felt too much pressure. We didn’t force the issue. We just executed when we had to.”
The Eagles didn’t do much executing early on.
Campbell took the game’s opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in just six plays, aided by a couple of gashing passes down the middle by the Camels’ Hajj-Malik Williams (17-27, 237 yds. 2 TD) and capped off by a 10-yard scoring run from Bryant Barr.
Georgia Southern responded with Alex Raynor’s first career field goal from 41 yards out, but the Camels doubled down on the offense as Williams connected with Jai Williams on a 40-yard strike to make it 13-3.
A second Raynor field goal attempt in the first quarter was botched on a bad snap, but he connected again from 39 yards out to make it a 13-6 Campbell lead at halftime.
“We didn’t get down at the half,” Lunsofrd said. “We stayed positive. Guys were saying the right things. We were sure that we would get the kick, and go and score, and take over.”
That’s not quite how it went.
Najee Thompson fielded the kickoff to start the second half and fumbled just outside of the Eagles’ red zone as the Camels pounced on the ball. A few plays later, Williams scrambled 8 yards for a 20-6 Campbell lead.
The Eagles responded with a 10-play, 75-yard march that saw Werts hit D.J. Butler with a 2-yard toss on fourth-and-goal for Georgia Southern’s first touchdown of the season, bringing the deficit to 20-13.
From there, the Eagle defense locked down. And when Campbell punter Taylor McKay muffed a snap and was dragged down at his own 9, it took just two plays before J.D. King rushed in for a 5-yard score and the game was tied at 20-20.
With interior running bogged down for much of the game, Werts did a lot of heavy lifting to keep the chains moving for the Georgia Southern offense. Werts completed 7-of-13 passes for 51 yards, but stuck a dagger into Campbell when he found room off the right side on a sweep and blazed in from 41 yards out with 6:42 to play.
Campbell wouldn’t go down easily as Williams drove his team down the field once more. He scrambled on fourth down to keep the Camels’ final drive alive once and then found Jalen Kelsey in the back of the end zone for a 20-yard strike with 15 seconds remaining.
Campbell drew a delay of game penalty as it lined up to go for two points, yet still opted to go for two from seven yards out. Williams took the snap and released the ball quickly for an overthrow and one of his few misfires on the day.
Campbell then lined up for an onside kick. Georgia Southern recovered the first try, but a flag and a penalty on Georgia Southern led to a re-kick. Campbell then came up with a deflection on the next try, only to have it negated by penalty as members of the kicking team contacted GS returners before the ball had travelled 10 yards.
The third time proved to be the charm, as an attempted pooch kick sailed out of bounds, giving the ball to the Eagles and allowing Werts to take a knee to run out the final seconds.
Georgia Southern is expected to get the majority of its 33 scratches back on the roster next week as the Eagles host Florida Atlantic.