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Georgia Southern is Back

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Paulson rocked like it was 2014, the defense dominated, and the offense forced their opponents into submission. It’s been a while, but the Eagles are officially a championship caliber team once again.

A historic rivalry no doubt, Georgia Southern-App State, really since their simultaneous jumps to the FBS, has lacked any stakes beyond the emotional sort.

In fact, over the past handful of years, it had even grown a bit lopsided as the Eagles struggles to find consistency after winning the league in year one.

Chad Lunsford’s group, coming into this one, knew that things would be different this time around. Obviously, even the most optimistic member of Eagle Nation couldn’t have projected the eventual 34-14 outcome, but a casual observer could acknowledge that the result of this contest would have sweeping implications within the Sun Belt, as well as nationally.

“Like Coach Lunsford told us in practice, it makes this game even more special when both teams are good,” quarterback Shai Werts recalled.

“That’s a great team,” standout kicker Tyler Bass continued, “and we have a rivalry that goes way back before I was even born. We try to treat every game the same, but with App we knew it was going be a little more than that.

The festivities sort of got started a good 45 minutes or so before the ball was even kicked off for the first time. Two separate pregame skirmishes perfectly encompassed the atmosphere around the stadium.

“You could see in the pregame with everybody out there chirping, we knew what was going to happen. We were coming in there 6-1, they were coming in 5-1 with a close loss to Penn State and were in the top 25,” cornerback Kindle Vildor relayed. “People get to talking, looking, everything. We don’t like them, they don’t like us, so you know how it goes.”

“I appreciate Eagle Nation coming out and making the atmosphere electric,” Lunsford announced to begin his postgame press conference.

In an unfortunate turn of circumstance, App State’s blossoming young signal caller, Zac Thomas, was forced to leave the game for good, early in the first quarter.

“I don’t know if we changed a whole lot,” explained Lunsford, “but obviously they were a little more limited in what they were able to do when they lost their starter.”

After that it appeared that the game could turn into more of a defensive and special teams battle for field position.

“Hats off to the defense. They held it down early, and once we got going, we got going,” Werts nodded.

And got going they did. The Mountaineers, who entered the contest ranked 6th in the entire country in run defense S&P+, held the home team scoreless through the first frame of action. From the outside looking in, there were no real signs of the gashing that was to come. Yet, for one reason another, internally, there seemed to be a universally held belief that it was just a matter of time.

“We knew early on that we could move around a little bit. I knew eventually that we would get going,” Werts confirmed.

Lunsford echoed Werts’ sentiments, stating, “I said it was going to be like running into a brick wall over and over again, but at some point that thing was going to break. It did. It was just great to see it unfold the way we said it would.”

The ball carriers certainly deserve their fair share of the credit for ultimately busting the dam, but all were quick to credit their offensive line that seems to be hitting its stride, and has emerged as one of the league’s better groups.

Senior running back Wesley Fields said, “I just kept telling the offensive line to keep grinding, keep pushing. I knew they were going to get the job done.”

“We knew it was going to be like running into a brick wall over and over again,” Lunsford grinned, “but at some point that thing was going to break. It did. It was just great to see it unfold the way we said it would.

“Anytime you put in a new offense, you’ve got to jell. I think that’s what is starting to happen with the offensive line. They’re starting to do a great job. We knew how good App State’s defense was, and we knew that we just had to keep working, keep working, keep working, and things would work out.”

It was, to be sure, a team win, with every position group contributing within each facet of the game. That said, if the offensive line wasn’t the most impressive unit on the field, it had to have been the defense, and the secondary, in particular. App State had thrown just four interceptions the entire season, prior to this game. Suffice it to say, that number is now doubled.

“I feel like the way me and Monquavion prepare, we’re the best cornerbacks in the Sun Belt,” Vildor confidently offered.

They sure looked like it on Thursday.

Aside from individual performances, though, or even the big picture implications of this outcome, at the end of the day, it always means more to beat an archrival.

“Earlier this week at practice, I asked everybody, players and coaches, to raise their hand if they had ever beaten App State. It was probably just about six or seven of us. That was it. For the seniors to be able to get this, I know it was very special for them. This is a moment they’ll be able to remember for the rest of their lives,” smiled Lunsford.

Emotional, Fields summated, “You’ve got a big rivalry. You’ve got a top 25 team. Everytime we play, you know they’re going to give us their all. We played our best and came out on top.”

As far as what this means going forward, Lunsford simply concluded, “We have to understand where we’re at. We put ourselves in the driver’s seat, but it still has to be one game at a time.

“I think this game tells people that we’re for real.”

Indeed.

It’s neither his nor his players’ jobs to look ahead. However, a likely favorite in every remaining game on their schedule, especially with Troy’s apparent regression since losing their starting quarterback, coupled with a notably weaker West division, Georgia Southern must be considered the front runner to win the the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Championship, at this point.

And, beyond that, if they take care of business down the stretch, a potential New Year’s six bid is on the table. That would probably require some help from a few of the other top G5 squads, but it’s not out of the question.

Regardless, the Sun Belt is now officially Georgia Southern’s for the taking, and having just turned the bully into the bullied, their greatest obstacle sits in the rearview.

Paulson rocked like it was 2014, the defense dominated, and the offense forced their opponents into submission. It’s been a while, but the Eagles are officially a championship caliber team once again.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP