By MIKE ANTHONY
Georgia Southern’s usually-dangerous offense didn’t provide the expected fireworks, but that only served to show how the Eagle defense can take over - and win - a game.
UL Monroe scored on two of its first four drives, but found the end zone just once more Saturday night in front of an alltime record crowd of 25,735 at Paulson Stadium. The Warhawks had a chance to steal a win on the road, but Craig Ford’s 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked with just over a minute to play and the Eagles escaped with a 23-21 victory.
“We’re 3-0, we got the win, our guys played hard,” GS coach Tyson Summers said. “Those are positives. We have a lot that still needs to be worked on, but we’re glad to have the win.”
ULM looked to be in prime position for a game-winning field goal, but Chris DeLaRosa burst through the line to sack Garrett Smith and push Craig’s attempt back nearly 10 yards. After that, it was all R.J. Murray with the block.
“It was chaos,” Murray said. “I have to give credit to the guys in front of me. They got a great push and I was able to get upfield farther than usual.”
The kick bounced off of Murray and into the arms of ULM holder Cody McGuire, who was immediately bottled up by Ironhead Gallon.
After playing out two straight fourth quarters with the result more or less in hand, the Eagles (3-0, 2-0 Sun Belt) had the fate taken out of their hands, instead having to get in the way of Craig’s foot to seal the late win.
The Warhawks (1-2, 0-1) had a one more chance after stopping the Eagles’ final offensive drive, but GS punter Matt Flynn punted to the ULM 27 with 10 seconds to play. A last-gasp hook-and-lateral play was attempted by the Warhawks, but the first attempted pitch resulted in a fumble that Georgia Southern’s Bernard Dawson dove on as the clock timed out.
Georgia Southern built its lead with offense that was slow to arrive and didn’t always finish the job.
Kevin Ellison (86 rushing yards, 7 passing yards) capped a nine-play, 74-yard drive with a six-yard burst up the middle just before the end of the first quarter. In the second quarter, Favian Upshaw and the Eagles had a potentially failed drive revived when ULM was assessed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after the Eagles had come up short on third down.
Armed with the new set of downs, Upshaw and the Eagles drove as far as the ULM 15 and Younghoe Koo split the uprights from 32 yards out to bring the score to 14-10, which stood until the end of the first half.
The Eagles continued their comeback in the third quarter.
Koo finished off the second half’s opening drive with a 37-yard field goal and connected again from 43 yards out to give the Eagles the lead.
Despite the 23 points, the Eagles continued to be beset by penalties that eliminated opportunities to do more damage.
The turnover bug also bit hard as the Eagles fumbled away a chance to build on its third quarter lead when a potential 84-yard touchdown drive ended in a fumble at the ULM 2.
“We cannot continue to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Summers said. “I had hoped that would have been evident after last week. We have to put a stop to it.”
Georgia Southern finally found the end zone again when Wesley Fields rushed in from 2 yards out with 12:51 to play, but ULM quickly closed the gap to 23-21 when Smith (17-of-33, 283 yards, 2 TD) found Marcus Green in the back corner of the end zone for a 10-yard strike at the 10:12 mark.
Georgia Southern hadn’t allowed a touchdown since the first half of last season’s GoDaddy Bowl, but UL Monroe put a quick end to that streak.
On their second drive of the game the Warhawks needed just three plays to reach the end zone. Xavier Brown caught a pass for eight yards and Ben Luckett rushed for 11 more before Brown hauled in another Smith pass, this time scampering 32 yards for a ULM touchdown.
More big plays were in store for the Warhawks on their next drive as another three-play drive resulted in another seven points.
Taking over at its own 28 after a Georgia Southern punt, Smith hit Marcus Green for a 65-yard strike down to the Eagle 7 yard line. The GS defense held for one play before Smith took a keeper off the left side and barrelled in for a 7-yard score to give ULM a 14-0 advantage.
But that was just about it for the ULM attack. Aside from the Warhawks’ fourth quarter touchdown drive and a long pass that set up the ultimately-failed final field goal, the Georgia Southern defense held firm and allowed its offense to climb back into the game.
“They were big tonight,” Ellison said. “We know that we can lean on the defense. We can lean on our special teams, too. (Koo) was huge for us, finishing off drives and getting points for us. That’s the effort we need from everyone to win.”
After a pair of Sun Belt victories, the Eagles now face a tough non-conference test. Next week, Georgia Southern travels to Kalamazoo, Mich. to take on a Western Michigan squad that is 3-0 and which has already notched wins over Northwestern and Illinois this season.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.