Saturday’s 35-32 loss to Minnesota was particularly difficult for Eagle fans to swallow. Georgia Southern’s history vs. Power 5 schools has been a bitter one to say the least. It’s been close call after close call ever since the rebirth of the program in 1982. There was the 1988 showdown with No. 6 Florida State where the Eagles took a 10-7 lead early in the 4th quarter, only to lose 28-10. There’s also the 1991 matchup with Auburn where a Tim Stowers led Georgia Southern squad led the Tigers 17-3 at half, but then fell apart in the 2nd half and lost 32-17. Or the 48-41 thriller in 1999 against Oregon State where Adrian Peterson ran for 172 yards and 2 touchdowns.
For years Eagle Nation has been asking itself, “What could have been?” When our arch-rival Appalachian State Mountaineers pulled off the upset of the century over the Michigan Wolverines in 2007, it was like rubbing salt in an open wound. By that time the Mountaineers had already beaten Wake Forest seven times and South Carolina once. Georgia Southern had yet to get one P5 scalp.
That’s why 2013’s victory over Florida is so vital to Georgia Southern’s psyche. We finally got one. It was validation on a national level. Validation that six FCS national titles somehow never gave us. It was Georgia Southern’s walk-off home run in FCS. A message was sent to the Sun Belt Conference that the Eagles were coming and you ain’t seen nothing yet.
Despite Jeff Monken leaving to take a job at Army, Willie Fritz picked up the baton and ran with it. Georgia Southern entered its inaugural season in FBS in 2014 with a bang. There was the 24-23 loss to the Jacoby Brissett led NC State Wolfpack in Week 1. Then two weeks later, the Eagles gave their old coach, Paul Johnson, all he could handle in a 42-38 loss at the flats of Georgia Tech. Since then it’s been one narrow loss after another to P5 foes.
There was the 2015 loss to UGA in overtime, 23-17.
Then the 2016 37-27 loss to Ole Miss.
Then Saturday, Georgia Southern leading Minnesota 32-28 with 13 seconds left in the game, only to let it slip away.
It’s maddening. I get it. I was ready to punch a hole in the wall after the game. GSUfans.com was not a fun place to be Saturday night.
But after a deep vodka induced slumber, I was able to gain some perspective. Three games in, we’re already at the quarter mark of the regular season, heading into the first bye week of the season. On the other side of that bye week is 2018 Sun Belt West Champs Louisiana. Let’s look at what’s going right, and what’s going wrong thus far.
- The Eagles are improving week to week. Hard to get much worse than the 55-3 annihilation vs. LSU week 1, so admittedly it is a low baseline. But since then Georgia Southern posted a sloppy 26-18 win over a good FCS team in Maine. Then nearly beat a Minnesota team that won 7 games last year. A 1-2 record is what most people expected from the Eagles by this point in the season.
- Justin Tomlin has done a superb job filling in for injured Shai Werts. Against Maine, he ran for 132 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries, including a 45-yard touchdown run in the 2nd quarter that drew comparisons to Favian Upshaw. His 2nd career start was on the road in Big Ten land, and Tomlin did not look scared at all. Tomlin passes the eyeball test; he’s smooth and poised. Eagles fans have caught a glimpse of what life after Shai Werts will look like and it ain’t bad. At the very worst, Eagle fans can rest assured that they have a good backup QB, something that is necessary for this offense. At best, he’s played himself into a Favian Upshaw type role where he plays a series or two each game.
- If you take out the LSU loss, the defense and special teams have played well. The defense was on the field for nearly 38 minutes vs. Minnesota including almost the entire 2nd half and did a superb keeping the Eagles in the game. The 77-yard blocked kick return for by Monquavion Brinson and the 44-yard sack-fumble return for a touchdown was all the scoring the Eagles could muster in the 2nd half. The front seven has been particularly impressive. The Eagles rank 25th in rushing defense and 41st in TFL. Highly-touted recruit Quin Williams had somewhat of a breakout game vs. Minnesota, tallying two sacks. Rashard Byrd had possibly the best game of his career Saturday.
- The offense has been disappointing. It ranks dead last 130th in total offense, 109th in scoring offense, 105th in time of possession, 127th in 1st down offense, and 129th in 3rd down conversion rate. No matter which way you cut it, it’s terrible. The offense was on the field for only nine plays in the 2nd half vs. Minnesota and gained a total of 3 net yards and lost a fumble. If the offense could have strung together just one decent 5+ minute drive, Georgia Southern might have one that game. The defense was gassed at the end of the game, and it showed on that final drive. That is simply unacceptable. Even in the game against Maine, the offense was able to tally 458 total yards but only came away with 26 points to show for it, repeatedly stalling out in the red zone. Sure Shai Werts and Wesley Kennedy are out, but it’s not like there isn’t talent and experience at the skill positions. Is it playcalling? Is it the offensive line? Whatever the problem is, it needs to be addressed quickly. Louisiana is 4th in total offense and averaging 46.7 points per game. If the Eagles can’t figure out how to score points, it could turn ugly fast.
- The secondary needs to step it up. Not many cornerback tandems were as highly touted as Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson coming into the season. But so far, the results have not been there. GS ranks 124th in passing yards allowed and 106th in team passing efficiency defense. Is all of this Vildor and Brinson’s fault? Of course not. Replacing two starting safeties certainly plays a significant factor. But if this duo wants to one day play in the NFL, they need to start playing like it.
- Mental errors plain and simple. Last year the Eagles led the nation in turnover margin at +22, this year they rank 82nd at -1. In 2018, Georgia Southern was 28th in penalties per game (4.9); this year, they are 98th (7.5). There were two separate occasions in the Minnesota game that they were flagged for twelve men on the field. There was a sideline infraction that cost the Eagles a decent shot at a 2-point conversion after the Brinson touchdown. On Minnesota’s final drive they had a 3rd & 30 at their 5-yard line that they were able to convert for a 1st down. Against Maine, there were seven fumbles! By the grace of God, six of them were recovered by the Eagles but what are the chances of that happening again? Since Chad Lunsford was promoted to Head Coach of Georgia Southern, one thing you could hang your hat on was that they wouldn’t beat themselves. So far this season that has not been the case. What has changed? It’s not as if we’re playing with a roster of underclassmen; this is an experienced group. It’s unlike a Lunsford coached team to be this careless. It is fixable, and it has to be fixed before we enter conference play, or the Cajuns, Trojans, Mountaineers, and Red Wolves will eat us alive.