No coach likes to claim a moral victory, but Georgia Southern head coach Clay Helton said after the Eagle’s 34-30 loss to Coastal Carolina that it gave them the feeling, they can compete with the top teams in the Sun Belt conference.
“What Saturday told me is that I know this can be a championship football team,” said Helton. “We are still learning how to be champions. We played a team that has 21 wins in the past two years and took them down to the wire. I think our guys come out of Saturday knowing we can compete with anyone. This was a three-win team last year and I can feel the confidence growing and I feel like we expected to win that game against Coastal and even if we came up short, I think we can run with anybody.”
It may be hard to call the second conference game of the season a must win game, but Saturday’s Georgia Southern vs. Georgia State game will see the winner put themselves in a great position while the loser will be behind the eight ball in trying to fight their way for a good spot in conference play and a possible Bowl game.
The Eagles currently sit 3-2 overall and 0-1 in conference play, and are only three wins from earing Bowl eligibility. The Panthers are 1-4 overall and 0-1 in Sun Belt play. A loss Saturday would force them to win five of their last six games in order to keep their streak of three straight Bowl appearances intact.
Helton is well aware of the significance of Saturday’s game in Atlanta and feels confident the Eagles won’t let their tough loss Friday on the road carry over into this weekend’s matchup.
“We are all human, and we all poured so much into that game Saturday,” said Helton. “For us we have always been about that 1-0 mentality every week. Saturday’s loss hurt, but we will learn from that and improve. I thought for three quarters and three minutes we played our best team football. This week we have to go out and do the same thing for four quarters.”
The players know how close they were to knocking off the team most picked to win the Sun Belt conference this year. The Eagles admit the loss stings, but are confident they will grow from the loss.
“It is definitely hard to put away the thoughts that we were so close Saturday to beating them,” said Eagle linebacker Marquez Watson-Trent. “We have been taught here that each week we are 0-0 and trying to go 1-0. We know Georgia State is a tough team and we have to be focused on trying to stop them this week.”
In the past many coaches and players have played down the Georgia State vs. Georgia Southern game as a rivalry. This year coach Helton and the team seem to be embracing it and are excited about Saturday’s game in Atlanta.
“This game means a lot to us,” said Eagle running back Jalen White. “How can you say it is not a rivalry when we play each other every year and are in the same conference and the same state. It’s a big game for us and we would love to get the victory.”
Georgia State has struggled on the defensive side of the ball as they are giving up over 33 points a game, although they did limit Army to just 14 points in last week’s victory. On offense the Panthers are averaging 28 points per contest and 214 yards rushing per contest. They are led by Tucker Gregg with 349 yards rushing and four touchdowns. Quarterback Darren Grainger has thrown for 1,028 yards and 10 touchdowns and is also the Panthers second leading rusher with 233 yards and two scores.
“They have a powerful run game, and it is a quarterback driven run game much the same as Coastal Carolina,” said Helton. “They have a quarterback who can run, but also has the ability to spin it pretty well. In Tucker you have a physical back who really makes everything go. He is the leading rusher in school history and has really opened up things for the quarterback and the passing game. They have some great weapons outside as well and they make you have to decide which are you going to try and stop.”
The other concern for the Eagles is the tempo at which Georgia State plays, and the number of plays they get off in a game.
“This will be the fastest tempo team that we have played,” said Helton. “They average getting off a play every 11 pr 12 seconds so you had better be lined up and ready as soon as the play is over. They attack you in every way and it is going to be important for our defense to limit the big plays and get their offense off the field.”
Georgia Southern and Georgia State are scheduled for a 2 p.m. kickoff Saturday afternoon in Atlanta.