Thankfully for the Eagles, they’re light years ahead of where they were at this time last year.
Just 12 months after allowing Appalachian State to sneak out of town with a double-overtime victory — the beginning of a five-game season-ending losing skid for GSU — the Eagles danced on the field Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium, celebrating their 38-35 upset of the fifth-ranked Mountaineers and their first win in Boone, N.C., since 2001.
First-year coach Chris Hatcher has injected the Eagles with new life and hope, and a year after finishing a school-worst 3-8, the team is 5-2 overall and 2-2 in the Southern Conference heading into home stretch.
So what’s the biggest difference?
The feeling in the locker room, said safety Chris Covington.
“The coaches have instilled a find-a-way attitude,” said the junior, who came up with a key interception as Appalachian threatened to score late in the third quarter. “It doesn’t matter if you win by one or if you win by 20. You scratch, you fight, you play all four quarters and good things happen to you. I think we’ve really bought into that this year. It doesn’t matter if we are winning or if we are losing, we are just going to fight until the bell rings.”
Foster said another major change is the improvement of the offense, which is doing a better job of helping the defense.
“Last year we’d punt and hope for our defense to get the ball back,” he said. “This year we are trying to put them in a position to win the game, which they did today.”
Foster is a huge reason for the offensive upgrade, and he’s shined in his return to starting quarterback, which he last played as a sophomore in 2005. He is the SoCon’s leading rusher with more than 161 yards a game and 16 touchdowns. As for total offense, Foster ranks third in the league, accounting for nearly 268 yards a week.
“On the defensive side, it’s really scary to see (Foster at the helm),” Covington said. “When the kid gets the ball every play, everybody tightens up a little bit.”
Foster caused new problems for defenders Saturday, lining up at receiver and running back when freshman quarterback Billy Lowe rolled in under center. The result was a monumental win for the unranked Eagles, who toppled the two-time defending national champions that had won 30 straight at home.
What kind of message did it send?
“We’re back on track,” Foster said. “We felt we shouldn’t have lost the other games but we did. We didn’t make the plays that game. This game we came out here and made the plays late in the game.”
Said Lowe: “We are two plays away from being 7-0. We did it (Saturday), and it was a total team effort – that’s what counts. We are back on track in the thick of things. With Wofford losing, we can make the playoffs, and we still have all of our goals in tact.
Right time, right place for Lowe
Hatcher inserted Lowe into the offense at just the right time, using him in tandem with Foster to strengthen the Eagles’ passing game and confuse the Mountaineers. It worked as Lowe hit 8 of 11 attempts for 145 yards and one touchdown.
“I thought about playing Billy earlier in the year, but I didn’t think he was quite ready,” Hatcher said. “I wanted to make sure that when I did put him in the game that he was going to be successful. I felt like there was no better place to put him in a game at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C.
“He’s been getting better each week, and I finally felt comfortable enough that he would go in and be successful. The worst thing you want to do with a freshman quarterback is throw him out there to the wolves and not let him be successful. Today he made some big-time plays for us.”
The Eagles are determined to keep rolling, and a homecoming date Saturday with The Citadel will provide a huge test. Under third-year coach Kevin Higgins, the Bulldogs (5-2, 3-1) are even better than they were last year when they beat the Eagles 24-21 in Charleston, S.C.
Not only is The Citadel putting up a lot of points (40.1 a game, second in the SoCon to GSU’s 41.0), the Bulldogs are also equipped with a solid defense. They’re allowing a league-low 321.9 yards a game and 26.4 points a week, good for third-best in the conference.
Though GSU leads the all-time series with The Citadel 12-4 and the Bulldogs are just 1-8 at Paulson Stadium, they usually play the Eagles tough. In 2003, they spoiled Georgia Southern’s homecoming with a 28-24 victory.
By the way
Appalachian State only punted twice Saturday…The Eagles won the turnover battle 2-0…GSU called a timeout prior to its first play off the game because they had the wrong personnel. “We were one short on the field, and everybody’s looking at each other,” Foster explained…Lamar Lewis said he’s accepted the fact he’ll have to play through pain the remainder of the season. He’s been battling an ankle injury since the second game but tied a career-high with two rushing touchdowns at Appalachian.
Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.