“We knew he was going to boot it through,” senior running back Dusty Reddick said. “We knew we were going to win the ballgame the whole time.”
Hartley’s kick was set up by sophomore cornerback Carson Hill, who recorded his first-career interception when he picked off a Ryan Berry pass at the GSU 46-yard line with 31 seconds remaining. The Eagles moved 17 yards on the next two plays before handing the game over to Hartley, who only took one practice kick on the sidelines. The field goal was the longest by an Eagle since Chris Chambers hit a 57-yarder at Oregon State in 1999.
“I was ready,” said Hartley. “As soon as their kicker missed their field goal, I knew I was going to get a shot. I still can’t believe it happened. What a feeling.”
The last-second victory was a definite confidence booster for a Georgia Southern team looking to build on the momentum from last-week’s blowout of Western Carolina. With their second-straight win, the Eagles improved to 4-1 on the year and have now surpassed their win total from a year ago. South Dakota State fell to 2-4.
Georgia Southern quarterback Jayson Foster, who was named the Southern Conference’s offensive player of the month for September, continued to establish his presence as a passer, completing 23 passes (31 attempts) for 225 yards, both career highs. He also threw for one touchdown and one interception. Foster’s 225 passing yards were the 11th most in school history and third best since 1990. He added a game-high 92 rushing yards and one touchdown on 25 carries.
The Eagles appeared to be in control of the game when they stretched their lead to 38-24 with 12:07 to play on a 14-yard touchdown run up the middle by Foster. But the Jackrabbits answered immediately as Berry hit Chris Wagner for a 2-yard TD pass on fourth-and-goal to pull within a touchdown at 38-31.
South Dakota kept rolling, knotting the game at 38 with 6:28 to go when redshirt freshman running back Kyle Minett barreled up the middle for a 7-yard score.
Georgia Southern then marched to the 50 before being halted on fourth-and-1, allowing the Jackrabbits to take over on downs. SDSU moved to the GSU 21 where stud kicker Parker Douglass missed a 37-yard field-goal attempt wide right, ending his streak of 12 successful tries dating back to last season.
The Eagle offense stalled on the ensuing drive and was forced to punt before Hill’s interception gave the Eagles one final shot. GSU finished with 451 total yards of offense to SDSU’s 450, and the Eagles were held to a season-low 226 rushing yards.
“Offensively we struggled all night,” Eagle coach Chris Hatcher said. “I know we were able to punch a couple in there late in the half, but they pretty much had our number. They out-physicaled us up front, but again, when it’s all said and done, we made one more play than they did. That’s all that matters.”
Georgia Southern’s defense locked up the Jackrabbits in the first half but couldn’t carry the momentum into the final two periods. After leading 31-7 at the break, the Eagles were outscored 31-10 the rest of the way.
During the dominating first half, the GSU defense returned two fumbles for scores – the unit’s first touchdowns this season. It was the first time the Eagles returned a pair of fumbles for touchdowns since the first round of the 2001 playoffs against Florida A&M.
Free safety Chris Rogers made the defense’s first big play of the game, recovering running back Cory Koenig’s fumble and sprinting 46 yards untouched to put GSU up 14-0 with 6:58 to play in the first quarter.
Late in the second period, the GSU defense came through again when tackle Damon Suggs punched the ball out of Minett’s grip. End Larry Beard scooped up the loose ball and hauled 29 yards for the score, giving the Eagles a two-touchdown lead at 21-7.
A 24-yard Hartley field goal put GSU up 24-7, but the Eagle’s defense wasn’t done as Rogers forced wide receiver Chris Doblar to give up the ball and E.J. Webb recovered. The play set up Irving Campbell’s first-career touchdown catch, a 7-yard pass from Foster to stretch Georgia Southern’s lead to 31-7 at the half. Campbell finished with seven catches for 122 yards, both career bests.
Georgia Southern started the game strong, opening with a 13-play, 96-yard drive capped with a 1-yard touchdown run by Lamer Lewis. Reddick kept the drive alive with a career-long 35-yard rush up the middle on second-and-1.
SDSU’s only first-half score followed a Foster fumble at the Jackrabbit 20, which set up an 80-yard drive highlighted by Berry’s 30-yard touchdown pass to JaRon Harris, who was wide open in the right corner of the end zone. Berry went 25-for-47 for 335 yards and three scores, and Harris reeled in six passes for 122 yards.
Georgia Southern resumes Southern Conference play Saturday, traveling to Elon for a 3 p.m. game.
“We are going into conference full-steam ahead,” Hill said. “They better hop on the bandwagon cause we’re rolling.”
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.