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Eagles welcome #25 Dukes to Paulson
GS Football
Georgia Southern receiver Amare Jones (5) hauls in a passl during last Saturday's game against Georgia State in Atlanta. The Eagles will face a touch test against James Madison this weekend in Statesboro. - photo by Georgia Southern AMR

The Georgia Southern Eagles are currently at the midway point to the 2022 season and stand 3-3. Many Georgia Southern fans may have thought the team had a good shot at being 3-3 at this point but the record is a little deceiving as the Eagles have been in every contest and have not lost my more than one score. 

"I feel like the reason we have managed to be 3-3 is that our younger players are really developing at a fast pace,” said coach Clay Helton. “That has been able to keep us in games against good quality football teams. Five of our six games have been one score games in the fourth quarter. We have won half of the games and put ourselves in a position to win all of them. The last two conference games they put themselves in a position they weren’t in last year, and now it is about getting over that hump.” 

The Eagles are currently 0-2 in Sun Belt play and can ill afford a loss Saturday if they want to have any at possibly playing for the conference championship, which head coach Helton said was the goal of the team for the 2022 season. 

“I have always told our kids pressure is a privilege,” said Helton. “Being at Georgia Southern is a privilege because you know you the pressure is on you to always win championships. All we can focus on is the now, and the now is James Madison. If we finish 6-2 in the conference, I’m not sure what that will mean, but we have to fight like heck to get there. To get to 6-2 we have to focus on the now and that is a very good James Madison football team.”  

Georgia Southern owns a 7-1 overall record against JMU but they two teams haven't played since 1992. The Dukes are not only playing their first season in the Sun Belt Conference, but they are playing their first year of FBS football. Much like the Eagles did under Willie Fritz, the Dukes have made a successful jump and actually come into Statesboro ranked No. 25 in the latest NCAA FBS polls. 

“The credit goes to coach Curt Cignetti and his staff as they have done a great job in evaluating talent and recruiting,” said Helton. “They have a veteran team and a veteran staff who have been together a while. They have done a wonderful job and are warranted with their No. 25 ranking."

The Dukes come in averaging over 44 points per game and have only allowed 15 points per game. Last year the Dukes offense set a single-season record for passing yards (3,868), passing average (276.3) and passing touchdowns (43) behing All-American quarterback Cole Johnson who placed fourth in the Payton Award voting. 

This year the Dukes are about as balanced as you can get on offense as they have 63 rushing first downs and 62 passing first downs. They are averaging 213 yards rushing per game, and spread the ball around as Percy Agyei-Obese has 358 yards and four touchdowns, quarterback Todd Centeio has 325 and two scores and Latrele Palmer has 248 yards and four scores. Centeio has also thrown for 1,312 yards and 15 touchdowns with only one interception. 

“They bring in a very powerful run game,” said Helton. “You saw that last week against Arkansas State when things weren’t going their way early, they shifted to the run game. That is their baby and that is what they do. Their quarterback does a great job of working the RPO and the play-action pass. Where you really have to be good against this team is on early downs. You have to get them in situations where they have to pass the ball where they are out of their comfort zones in second and third and long situations.” 

As strong as the JMU offense is their defense may be even better. The Dukes currently have the No. 1 ranked rushing defense in the country as they are allowing only 42 yards rushing per contest. They are also No. 2 ranked in total defense and 14 in scoring defense. 

“This isn’t just one of the best defenses in our league, but in the country,” said Helton. “Their run defense has been exceptional. They bring zone pressure from everywhere from the field, the boundaries and the interior. They mix their coverages up on the quarterback and do a great job of playing sound, fundamental football.” 

The Eagles have played four of their first six games on the road and have had to travel for their first two Sun Bet games. Coach Helton and the players are excited about finally getting a chance to play at Paulson Stadium. 

“The power of Paulson is a real thing,” said Eagle defensive back Justin Birdsong. “Our fans make a world of difference. The last team we played that was ranked here was BYU and I remember the stadium was filled and that is a great atmosphere. Those kinds of games just bring our energy up so much.” 

The Georgia Southern vs James Madison game is scheduled for a 4:00 start at Paulson Stadium.