Georgia Southern played one of its best offensive games of the season and made huge plays on special teams and defense to boot.
But in the end, the result was a familiar one.
Ole Miss outscored the Eagles 28-7 in an explosive second quarter and kept Georgia Southern at an arm’s length the rest of the way, coming away with a 37-27 victory Saturday afternoon in Oxford, Miss.
Georgia Southern (4-5, 3-2 Sun Belt) jumped out to a 21-10 lead early in the second quarter, but the Rebels (4-5, 1-4 SEC) stormed to touchdowns on all four of its second quarter possessions. The Eagles continued to fight throughout the second half, but a pair of Youghoe Koo field goals over the final 30 minutes were matched with two field goals by Mississippi’s Gary Wunderlich to keep the Rebels out in front.
“We played extremely hard and did a lot of things we can be very proud of,” GS coach Tyson Summers said. “We never feel good about a loss in any way shape or form, but we made vast improvement from last week to this week."
With David Dean placed in control of the GS offense this week, the Eagles saw a bit more spark from their skill players and logged 401 yards of total offense.
Trailing 3-0 early in the game, Georgia Southern faced third and long. Kevin Ellison seemed to make a break for it after dropping back to pass, only to pull up before the line of scrimmage and deliver a strike to Myles Campbell, who hauled in the pass at the Ole Miss 5 and spun away from a tackle for a 29-yard touchdown to put Georgia Southern up in front.
Seizing on the momentum, the Eagle defense then forced a punt which Malik Henry flew in to block, giving the GS offense a short field to work with.
Georgia Southern worked down the field again and Ellison (134 pass yards, 64 rush yards, 2 total TD) capped a five-play, 49-yard drive with a 9-yard touchdown run to put the Eagles up 14-3.
"We tried to cut back a little bit and get good at the things we do,” Summers said. “The offensive line played by far their best game, our running backs did a much better job and Kevin (Ellison) did a great job managing the game."
Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly struck back with a 3-yard run to get the Rebels in the end zone for the first time, beginning the Ole Miss second quarter onslaught.
Georgia Southern notched its lone scoring play of the second quarter in impressive style. Ellison injured an ankle - something that would affect the GS offense the rest of the day - on a short run, so he turned to Matt Breida to convert a third-and-short.
The senior running back looked inside, then bounced to his right and found open space. Showcasing open field speed that he hasn’t had much opportunity to use this season, Breida easily breezed past the Ole Miss defense for a 68-yard touchdown and a 21-10 Eagle lead.
Following Breida’s run, Georgia Southern gambled with an onside kick. Ole Miss recovered and - armed with great field position - marched 41 yards in five plays, culminating with another touchdown run by Kelly.
"We all came here to win today,” Summers said of the decision to onside kick. “I thought it was the right time to try the surprise onside and that we had a great shot at it, given the looks we were seeing."
With Ellison’s ankle limiting the Eagles’ running options, the GS offense slowed and was ineffective for the rest of the first half.
Ole Miss responded with two more touchdown drives - highlighted by a 9-yard scoring run by Akeem Judd and a 38-yard touchdown pass from Kelly to Evan Engram - and Koo’s first missed field goal attempt on the season from 54 yards out brought the half to a close with the Rebels up 31-21.
Ellison’s injury continued to limit the Eagle offense in the third quarter and field goal drives were the best that Georgia Southern could muster. Meanwhile, the Rebels’ offense also took a hit as Kelly was knocked out of the game with a knee injury in the third quarter.
Koo connected on kicks of 41 and 38 yards in the third quarter, with a 29-yarder by Wunderlich sandwiched in between.
Georgia Southern got its best shot at a comeback early in the fourth quarter. Ole Miss backup quarterback Jason Pellerin looked to have a long completion downfield, but Eagle defensive back Darius Jones ripped away the ball for an interception at the GS 22.
With possession and the deficit down to just seven points, the Eagle offense hit a wall. Georgia Southern gained just one yard on three plays and Wunderlich hit a 38-yard field goal on the Rebels’ next possession to make it a two-score game.
The Eagles wound up turning the ball over on downs on their final drive of the day and Ole Miss ran out the clock for the win.
Sporting a losing record for the first time this season, the Eagles are now feeling some heat if they want to make a second consecutive bowl game.
"We have the opportunity to go 7-5 and make a bowl game and finish this thing the right way, and that's what we'll be looking to do,” Summers said.
Georgia Southern is tasked with another short week before hosting UL Lafayette on Thursday for homecoming. Following that will be a trip to Georgia State and a home date against Sun Belt frontrunner Troy. The Eagles must win at least two of those three to qualify for the postseason.
Mike Anthony may be reached at (912) 489-9408.
Quotes for this story courtesy of Georgia Southern AMR.