Football coaches love to say that the only thing worse than losing a game is to let that same loss beat you again the next week.
Georgia Southern’s mind may have moved on from a loss at UL Monroe last week, but it was the exact same miscues and mishaps that Troy used to post a 35-21 victory Saturday afternoon at Paulson Stadium in a game that had crucial ramifications in the race for the Sun Belt’s Eastern division.
Georgia Southern (7-3, 4-2 Sun Belt) raced out to an early 14-0 lead, but the Eagles’ offense was shut down following the initial outburst and Troy (8-2, 6-0) connected on a seemingly unending wave of open passes downfield and over the middle en route to 32 unanswered points in the middle of the game and - at the end of the day - a commanding lead atop the Sun Belt’s East division.
“We’ve done a really good job at home all year, but we didn’t today,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “There’s a lot of negatives for us, but give a lot of credit to [Troy] for playing well. Now it’s back to the drawing board for us to make sure we finish this year off right.”
Eagle quarterback Shai Werts had a season-high 190 yards passing on 14-of-29 passing, but the Georgia Southern offense was limited to just 101 yards on the ground.
Troy quarterback Sawyer Smith conducted an efficient Trojan offense. Smith hit on 21 of his 28 passes for 287 yards and a touchdown while B.J. Smith added 86 rushing yards and found the end zone twice.
Troy’s stout defensive front was able to stifle the Eagles’ inside running game, but Georgia Southern had an early answer to that issue as it took to the air. SHAI Werts recorded a pair of first quarter touchdown passes to Ellis Richardson. With Troy packing the box, Werts flipped it over the line for scoring passes of three and two yards, respectively, for Richardson’s first two receiving touchdowns of the season.
Troy threw its best shot at Georgia Southern late in the second quarter.
An Eagle punt had backed the Trojans up to their own 8 yard line and a tackle for loss had the Trojans at their own 2, but Sawyer Smith connected with Luke Whittemore on consecutive pass plays of 41 and 40 yards to drive deep into Eagle territory. B.J. Smith capped off the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run, giving the Trojans a 17-14 halftime lead.
“They got back into the ballgame, got ahead, and we could never get the momentum back,” Lunsford said.
That proved to be the turning point as the Eagles weren’t able to come out of halftime with any answers.
Troy couldn’t do anything after receiving the second half kickoff, but Tyler Sumpter split the uprights from 42 yards out on its second possession for a 20-14 advantage.
With the Trojan defense keeping the Eagles in check, Sawyer Smith took his offensive unit to work.
The Trojans’ next two possessions were capped off with a 29 yard scoring strike from Sawyer Smith to Whittemore and a 10 yard touchdown run by B.J. Smith, respectively, for a commanding 35-14 lead.
“We’re not playing our best football right now,” Lunsford said. “There are obviously some things that we have to fix. We only made them punt twice the whole game. Against a good football team like Troy, that’s not going to lead to a win.”
With just over 11 minutes to play, the Eagle offense finally got situated. Werts connected with Wesley Fields (138 receiving yards) for a 44 yard gain. Three plays later, Werts burst through the left side of the line and ran through the Troy secondary for an 18-yard touchdown to make it 35-21 and keep the Eagles within striking distance.
On the ensuing Troy drive, the Eagles held on a crucial third down, only to have an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty extend the Trojans’ drive. Troy eventually missed a field goal to keep it a two-possession game, but the damage had been done on the game clock.
Georgia Southern regained possession with just 3:29 to play and when Troy was able to keep Werts’ desperation passes in front of it, the clock bled out and the Eagles were handed their first home loss of the season.
“There are things that we did well,” Lunsford said. “We continued to take care of the ball and our penalties were good aside from [the late unsportsmanlike call]. The bottom line is that we need to get things going more offensively and defensively.”
With the loss, only a mathematical anomaly keeps the Eagles in contention for a berth in the Sun Belt championship game as they would need to win their final two games while getting timely and specific losses from Troy and Appalachian State, as well as a favorable nod from a computer ranking system.
What’s much more concrete is a chance to end the two-game slide next week. Georgia Southern hits the road for the final two games of the regular season, visiting Coastal Carolina next Saturday before finishing up in Atlanta at Georgia State on Nov. 24.