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The Charleston floppers
GSU in danger of first losing season since 1996
Citadel 6
Tory Cooper dives over Georgia Southern linebacker John Mohring during The Citadel's 24-21 victory Saturday in Charleston. - photo by RUSS PACE/The Citadel
    CHARLESTON, S.C. – Slowly but surely, 2006 is beginning to remind Georgia Southern fans of 1996 all over again.
    In a quarter of a century filled with rich football tradition, the Eagles have just one season they’d like to erase from their memories and the record books. That would be 1996, the only losing season in GSU history.
    The Eagles turned in an abysmal performance Saturday at The Citadel, falling to the Bulldogs 24-21 for Georgia Southern’s first loss in Charleston, S.C., since 1996. GSU will miss the playoffs for just the second time since that dreaded year, and the Eagles have already lost three home games and fallen to Chattanooga for the first time in a decade.
    Georgia Southern (3-5, 2-3 Southern Conference) will now have to win all three of its remaining games, which include matchups against Wofford and Furman, to avoid the second losing season in school history in the modern era.
    On Saturday, the Eagles never recovered from a dreadfully slow start and quarterback Travis Clark struggled for the second straight week as GSU dropped back-to-back games for the first time this season.
    “We knew this was going to be a tough football game, and we came out flat,” first-year coach Brian VanGorder said. “The guys weren’t dialed in, weren’t focused and didn’t realize the importance of the football game.”
    Junior receiver Jayson Foster was one of the lone bright spots for the Eagles. He sparked the Georgia Southern offense, reeling in three catches for a career-high 114 yards and one touchdown. Foster set a new school record for longest reception when he caught an 85-yard TD pass from Clark to pull GSU within three with 6:11 remaining.
    “It was a normal cross route that we run pretty regularly,” Foster said. “I caught the ball and no one was out there. Our receivers picked up some blocks downfield and it was off to the races.”
    Georgia Southern out-gained The Citadel 421 to 340, but Clark was erratic, completing just 13 of 32 attempts for 220 yards and one touchdown. Lamar Lewis paced Georgia Southern’s ground game, carrying the ball 17 times for 86 yards and one touchdown. Chris Covington added 75 yards on nine totes.
    Citadel quarterback Duran Lawson threw for 201 yards, two scores and one interception on an 18 of 27 clip, while tailback Tory Cooper gained 71 yards and one TD on 24 carries.
    The Bulldog victory was a milestone for the military school, which celebrated by relaxing its strict rules and allowing upperclassmen an overnight leave and freshman a late curfew.
    “It’s a huge win,” Citadel coach Kevin Higgins said. “We talked to our players about playing a championship type of program, one that's beat us soundly in recent years, and we challenged them to make a statement in the Southern Conference. We had a chance to go 3-2 in the league and potentially have a chance at a winning record in the
league, and that's all in front of us now.”
    The loss dropped the Eagles into fourth place in the league standing and possibly lower depending on the outcome of the Chattanooga/Elon game. The Citadel (3-5, 3-2) and Wofford (4-4, 3-2) are tied for third. Georgia Southern beat the Bulldogs by 35 points last season.
    GSU trailed 21-7 at the half, but started the third quarter on a good note when sophomore cornerback Dawayne Grace intercepted a Lawson pass – his first career interception - on The Citadel’s first play after the break. GSU took over at the Bulldog 30 and moved 23 yards, before Foster also came up big, rushing for a 7-yard score on a fake field goal attempt.
    Georgia Southern’s offense couldn’t get anything going in the first half, when Clark was 5 of 16 for 31 yards. He repeatedly overthrew his receivers, who let the ball slip through their hands when the pass did go their way.
    The Eagles quickly found themselves in a 14-0 first-quarter hole after Georgia Southern punted on its first three drives while The Citadel scored on a 10-yard pass from Lawson to Cooper and a 46-yard TD catch by Rontreal Tyler.
    The Eagles’ only points of the first half came on their fourth possession, a 72-yard drive highlighted by a 9-yard TD run by Lewis to cut the Bulldog lead to 14-7.
    GSU missed a major opportunity to tie the game in the second quarter after the Bulldogs fumbled a punt and the Eagles took over at The Citadel 47. The Eagles managed just 17 yards on the drive, moving to the 30 before Clark’s third and fourth-down attempts fell incomplete and the home team took over on downs.
    “This is the first game we didn’t get better,” VanGorder said. “We’ve been getting better each ballgame and today we didn’t. That’s not to take anything away from The Citadel. The Citadel earned this victory. They are a very good offense, great concepts. It took us a while to adapt to it.”
    Georgia Southern returns home Saturday to host Wofford for a noon game.

    Alex Pellegrino can be reached at (912) 489-9413.