A cursory glance at the stat sheet following Georgia Southern’s 41-38 win over South Dakota State Saturday would reveal what looked like a pretty rough afternoon for the Eagle defense.
Along with 38 points, the Jackrabbits churned out 450 yards of total offense, including by 335 through the air from quarterback Ryan Berry.
The Eagles also surrendered a 24-point halftime lead and allowed SDSU to score twice in less than four minutes to tie the game at 38 with 2:16 to play.
But in the end — after the celebration died down from Jesse Hartley’s 54-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired — the Eagles were thanking their defense for pulling them through.
After all, it was cornerback Carson Hill’s first-career interception with 31 seconds to go that gave the Eagles to opportunity to put the game on Hartley’s foot.
“The whole time on that interception, I sat on the china route,” Hill said. “I saw it the whole time.”
On SDSU’s previous possession, the GSU defense made another big stop, halting the visitors at the Eagle 21-yard line where standout kicker Parker Douglass missed a go-ahead, 37-yard field-goal try wide right.
The unit was dominating in the first half, returning two fumbles for touchdowns and forcing a third, which set up an Irving Campbell TD catch. Safety Chris Rogers and end Larry Beard recovered the first two loose balls and scored on runs of 46 and 29 yards, respectively.
“Turnovers are always big for a defense,” said Rogers, a converted quarterback playing his first year on defense. “It gets the momentum in your favor, and to score on defense is definitely a huge, huge plus.”
Hill said the Eagles thought they had the game put away with a 31-7 lead at the half, but the Jackrabbits never caved.
“The first half we were clicking, we had three takeaways, but I guess we got a little worn out with the humidity,” he said. “In the second half we were on the field too long. They were getting 60, 70, 80-yard drives. It’d wear anybody out.”
Eagle coach Chris Hatcher was proud of the group for playing hard the entire game and displaying the same aggressiveness they showed a week earlier in a blowout win over Western Carolina.
“I thought our defense played hard the entire night,” Hatcher said. “When you score 14 points on defense, you are doing some good things. We forced several turnovers, and I was real proud of the way the defense fought and hung in there.”
Showing that the defense can make enough plays to carry the Eagles when the offense struggles was big for a GSU team heading into the bulk of its Southern Conference schedule.
“Hopefully we won’t have too many more close games, but if we do, we’ll feel confident going into them,” quarterback Jayson Foster said.
Wofford stays on top
The Terriers remained the only unbeaten team in Southern Conference play with a 28-7 win at The Citadel Saturday to improve to 3-0 in the league. Georgia Southern, Appalachian State, The Citadel, Chattanooga and Elon are all tied at 1-1, while Furman is 0-1 and Western Carolina is 0-2. This week Georgia Southern travels to Elon, Furman visits The Citadel, Chattanooga hosts Western and Wofford welcomes non-conference foe Gardner-Webb.
The Eagles’ 3 p.m. matchup at Elon Saturday marks the beginning of a crucial two-game road swing, which includes a trip to No. 5 Appalachian State on Oct. 20. Under second-year coach Pete Lembo, Elon looks much improved from recent years.
True freshman quarterback Scott Riddle has been the talk of the Phoenix and currently leads the nation in completions with 30.2 a game. He ranks first in the SoCon in passing yards (320.2) and total yards (321.8).
Elon (3-2) squeaked by Western Carolina Saturday, holding on for a 38-36 victory, the Phoenix’s first in nine tries in Cullowhee, N.C. Lembo was encouraged to see his team find a way to win a close road contest despite not playing well.
Like several other GSU games, this week’s contest has the makings of a shootout. Elon’s defense is giving up 28.6 points and 391.2 yards a game, while the Eagles are surrendering 31.8 points and 371.6 yards a week.
Both schools also have prolific offenses, as GSU averages 43.2 points and 494 yards a game to Elon’s 36.8 and 421.4.
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.