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Once more, Eagles are headed up the mountain
Georgia Southern in Boone to face App State trying to snap three-game skid
GS Football
Georgia Southern's Shemar Bartholomew, left, stands stunned as Old Dominion celebrates their 20-17 victory on Ethan Sanchez' 22-yard field goal as time expired at Paulson Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 18. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Last year the Georgia Southern football team jumped out to a surprising 5-3 start under first year head coach Clay Helton. One victory away from becoming bowl eligible the Eagles went on a three-game losing skid and needed a victory in their last game against Appalachian State to go bowling. They were able to pull off an exciting 51-48 win in Paulson Stadium in what was regarded by most to be a successful debut for the new coach and staff. 

This season has been eerily similar. The Eagles actually did a little better out of the gate going 6-2 and becoming bowl eligible in week eight with an impressive 44-27 win over Georgia State. Since then, things have regressed starting with a 45-24 loss at Texas State. That was followed by a 38-33 defeat to a four-win Marshall team and most recently a 20-17 loss at home against previously four-win Old Dominion. 

There hasn’t been a constant in all three games, but rather a combination or errors that have hurt the Eagles. Against Texas State the running game was solid, but the passing game struggled as quarterback Davis Brin threw for a season-low 195 yards with one touchdown and one interception. The defense allowed Bobcat quarterback T.J. Finley to pass for over 300 yards and three touchdowns, and he rushed for two more scores.  

Marshall came in struggling on offense and put up 38 points against the Eagles including running the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. Freshman quarterback Cole Pennigton completed 15-20 passes for over 200 yards and running back Ali Rasheen had 165-yards rushing and three touchdowns. The Eagle offense struggled in the red-zone, and while Brin had 300 yards passing, the Eagles only mustered 77 total yards rushing. 

Senior night Saturday against Old Dominion saw the Eagles come out flat on offense. Special teams allowed a blocked punt and the defense played one of their better games, but had a huge error at the worst possible time. With the Monarchs facing a possible 50-yard field goal the Eagles missed a tackle and allowed quarterback Grant Wilson to streak downfield untouched where he slid down at the five-yard line. They were then able to kick the game winning field goal as time expired. The offense scored only two touchdowns and had to settle for a field goal on first and goal from the nine-yard line. 

Helton feels the Eagles are improved from a year ago but knows in order to compete on a weekly basis in a tough league, the Eagles need to be more consistent ant in all three phases of the game. 

“When we have looked our best, we have played well on offense, defense and special teams,” Helton said. “Over the last three weeks we have taken turns with each unit having good and bad games. When you hit November, you know it’s going to be close games because we could have 10 teams in the Sun Belt bowl eligible. When we play well in all three phases, we are a really good football team, when we don’t we allow teams to be in the game and in the last three weeks they have won the game late.” 

To put the brakes on and end the skid the Eagles will have to win against a team with a lot of momentum in the 7-4 Mountaineers of Appalachian State. While Georgia Southern is on a losing streak the Mountaineers come in having won their last four games including an impressive 26-23 overtime victory of previously unbeaten and No. 18 ranked James Madison.  

The good thing for Helton is there isn’t much motivation needed when the Eagles are playing the Mountaineers during hate week.

“Our guys walked in here on Sunday and you could already see the determination on their faces,” Helton said. “Any time you go into a rivalry week it is exciting for the fan base, your alumni group, the students and of course your team. I got the opportunity to witness this rivalry first hand last year and see the passion involved. It is different than last year as both teams are already bowl eligible but are now looking for even better post-season opportunities.” 

The Mountaineers average 34 points per game and are led by quarterback Joey Aguilar who has thrown for 2,975 yards and 29 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. He has also rushed for 350 yards and a pair of scores. Leading the rushing attack is Nate Noel with 787 yards and five touchdowns. Kaedin Robinson is the leading receiver with 609 yards and eight touchdowns. The App. State defense is giving up over 26 points per game but has limited their last three opponents to an average of just over 15 points per game. 

“Shawn Clark does a great job over there,” Helton said. “He is a former offensive line coach by trade and you can see the balance he brings the offense. Their offensive line is one of their strengths. I think the quarterback is playing at an extremely high level especially here in late November. They have tremendous balance and I think that is why they are one of the best offenses because of the way they can run and pass.” 

The rivalry between Georgia Southern and App. State is so fierce that it is rare that coaches from one team end up on the other. That is not the case this year as four current App. State coaches have Eagle ties including defensive coordinator Scot Sloan, defensive line coach Victor Cabral, linebackers coach Travis Cunningham and director of athletic performance Matt Greenhalgh. 

“In the game of football, you end up with so many relationships,” said Eagle linebacker Marques Watson-Trent. “Coach Cunningham was a big part of me starting my career here and helped me tremendously. It’s fun to play against coach Cabral, coach Sloan and coach Greenhalgh. They are guys who recruited me in and it’ll be fun to see them. It will be even better to beat them though.” 

The Eagles have struggled on the road this year where they are 1-4. They have also had a hard time winning in Boone where they are just 5-14-1. The Mountaineers are 4-1 at home this year as well. 

“We all know what this game means to our community and for the history of Georgia Southern football,” said receiver Derwin Burgess Jr. “This is actually my first time being able to play against App. State so it’ll be emotional for me but I will be locked in. We know they will be even more motivated as we kept them from being bowl eligible last year but we just have to make sure we are focused and make the plays when they are called.” 

Georgia Southern and Appalachian State are set for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff Saturday at Kidd Brewer Stadium.