At the conclusion of Georgia Southern's season-opening victory over South Carolina State on Sept. 1, Eagle head coach Chad Lunsford said that winning was the most important thing and that the team would make improvements from there.
Lunsford and the Eagles lived up to that promise in a 34-13 victory over Massachusetts on Saturday at Paulson Stadium, laying to rest the bad memories of a 55-20 loss to the Minutemen last season.
The win was, once again, the most important part of the night, but the best news for Eagle fans watching the game was that Georgia Southern appeared to make some big strides towards becoming a consistent threat to win each week.
The opener was a 'vanilla win', even by the Eagles' admission, but Saturday's victory showed more of the hallmarks of a good team that took care of business.
Senior running back Wesley Fields burst onto the scene in 2015. Even as a freshman in a veteran backfield, Fields performed well enough to become a consistent contributor to the bowl-winning squad.
Fields figured to become a huge cog in the Eagles’ option offense throughout his career, but his stats suffered in lockstep with the regression of the GS attack over the last two seasons. So it was a banner night for Fields on Saturday as he pounded out 144 yards against UMass.
“Of course it felt good to have a good night,” Fields said. “But this season isn’t just for me. All of the guys who have been through the last couple of seasons have been working to make sure this is a good one for us.”
KEYS TO VICTORY
Among the items that GS coach Chad Lunsford and his staff call for each game is for the Eagles to dominate the ground game, win the turnover battle and win the fourth quarter.
Georgia Southern easily won the ground battle, outgaining UMass 334-107. The Eagles forced the game’s first turnover in the third quarter, but gave it right back with a fumble of their own (their first turnover of the season) just a few plays later.
The Eagles ultimately clinched the turnover scoreboard when Benz Josue notched his first career interception in the fourth quarter and Monteo Garrett scored the only points of the final period to fill out Lunsford’s personal wish list.
JUST FOR KICKS
All eyes have been on a Georgia Southern defense that has been stout and an offense that seems to be regaining the form of years past, but the special teams have been just as impressive.
Placekicker Tyler Bass connected on both of his field goal attempts Saturday, hitting from 41 yards out in the second quarter before launching a career-best 50-yarder in the third quarter.
“I have no doubts about Tyler Bass,” Lunsford said. “The only reason we called a timeout (before the 50-yarder) was because we only had 10 men on the field.”
As consistent as Bass has been in putting points on the board, he is just as effective at tasking opposing offenses with plenty of ground to cover. Five of his kickoffs went for touchbacks. He did have one go out of bounds inside the 1-yard line for a penalty that was nearly a sixth touchback. The only attempted return by UMass was corralled by the Eagles’ kick coverage team at the UMass 18.
Every option offense pays lip service to its passing game. But while the Eagles know that their bread and butter lies in racking up rushing yardage, they are also aware that a passing game is necessary to pick up the run game on bad days and deal big blows on good days.
The latter scenario was in full effect Saturday night.
The running game was finding lanes from the get-go and, by the second quarter, it was evident that UMass was calling defenses that respected the run much more than in their win over Georgia Southern last season.
Eagle offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse picked perfect spots to let Shai Werts throw downfield and the quarterback delivered with 154 yards and a pair of touchdowns that keyed the Eagle win.