Back Statesboro Showcase

Statesboro Showcase

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
Follow us at Twitter.com/SouthernPigskin.  Become a fan at the SouthernPigskin.com Facebook Page

Even for a regular season game in September, Georgia Southern vs Arkansas State awaits as a big-time clash.

I do think the progress of the team is right where it needs to be right now. Obviously it's a big game for us and an opportunity to go make a statement.
~Chad Lunsford

Ahead of Georgia Southern's key Sun Belt showdown with traditional league power Arkansas State, the spotlight is back on Statesboro. Chad Lunsford's Eagles are 2-1, their lone loss coming at Clemson, and have the look of conference contender. Amidst all of the facility upgrades, there is a throwback feel around Georgia Southern. As the Eagles work towards even more new signage, it was against their very next opponent that they earned one of their very first rings.

A generation ago, Georgia Southern defeated Arkansas State for the program's second 1-AA national championship; this weekend, a win for the Eagles could help usher in a new level's new era.

Arkansas State is a fitting opponent for the bright lights of Saturday night. The Red Wolves have largely dominated the Sun Belt in recent years, winning a share of the league crown in 2016 and claiming outright conference titles in 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2015. Seven seasons running, Arkansas State has made a bowl game. Blake Anderson's Red Wolves have defeated Georgia Southern in both of their Sun Belt pairings, including 43-25 in Paulson Stadium last fall. Dating back to that game, Arkansas State has gone 8-3 in the regular season, losing to just Alabama and two league foes a total of eight points.

"With Arkansas State, they're the favorites in the conference and I believe they've won five out of the last seven conference championships and all the bowl games they've gone to," Lunsford acknowledged. "This is a great measuring stick game for us to show if we belong in the Sun Belt with the 2018 season."

For days now, the anticipation has been building. Georgia Southern's revamped football team has a chance to open league play with a game-changing statement. The Eagles won't face a conference team on the road that currently has a winning overall record until mid-November. With heavyweights Appalachian State and Troy both coming to town, an early triumph could position Georgia Southern favorably for a late run. Remember, someone will host the inaugural Sun Belt Conference Championship Game the first weekend of December. 

Lunsford has been traveling the campus to rally support. The energy, and the elbow-drops, have followed.

"I think there is a lot of excitement for this game and it sounds like we have a lot of people coming on Saturday and, here's the thing, everyone is starting to take notice of what Georgia Southern football is starting to do," Lunsford explained. "Getting out on campus is something that is important to me and the program, because we do want the fans and the students to be a part of everything."

Success starts at home, a notion Lunsford understands and continues to embrace. Already, Georgia Southern has won its last three games in Statesboro by a combined score of 123-19 under Lunsford. Most recently, the Eagles beat a UMass team 34-13, dramatically reversing the outcome of an outing they lost 55-20 on the road this past year. The growing expectation is that this weekend's Paulson Stadium crowd will be one of the most highly-attended Georgia Southern games in some time.

Per Voice of the Eagles Danny Reed, since 2010, Georgia Southern is 16-3 when home attendance has reached at least 20,000.

"When we were a 2-10 football team, there was probably a lot of trying to figure out what Georgia Southern football was going to look like, so I can understand if there was a lot of hesitancy," Lunsford shared. "What I think our guys have done a good job of is showing identity, being blue-collar and disciplined, especially in those first two games. What I think that did, it started generating more excitement. With our schedule, we have a lot of front end home games and that allowed us to get out in front of our fans and show our product."

What Lunsford has done and is doing is more than just stir the echoes in Statesboro. Most outlets now project the Eagles, after merely two wins a season ago, as a postseason team. Many consider Georgia Southern the favorite against Arkansas State. Impressively, the Eagles are currently the least-penalized team in all of college football. The nation is noticing the progress.       

"Chad was able to create his culture earlier than some first time coaches who might be hired after the first of the year. He started that foundation and he's got players believing in him," Sun Belt Commissioner Karl Benson nodded. "Georgia Southern's fan base is very passionate and very demanding. He won them over last year and he's off to a start now. I think there is a lot of momentum. The Georgia Southern fans, with the long, storied, rich history, they don't like to lose. I'm sure that Statesboro is going to be an electric spot come Saturday." 

Georgia Southern has worked hard in getting to this point. After playing at Clemson, in a game where the Eagles trailed just 24-7 midway through the fourth quarter, the team benefited from a bye last weekend. From two wins to start the year to the learning experience against the Tigers, Lunsford has been mostly pleased with Georgia Southern's overall development. There is still more room for growth, however. Both sentiments will be tested against Arkansas State.      

"I think we've seen improvement each week," Lunsford stated. "Clemson was a different animal for us, but I do think there's been progress in all three phases as we've gone along. Even though the score and the game didn't go as we had wanted it to against Clemson, there were a lot of things we could take away from that game in a positive way, but also a lot of things we can learn from. I do think the progress of the team is right where it needs to be right now. Obviously it's a big game for us and an opportunity to go make a statement."

At 3-1, Arkansas State will bring a high-powered offense to Statesboro. Quarterback Justice Hansen leads a unit averaging 466.3 yards per game, even after having played Alabama. The Red Wolves have a multi-faceted attack, one that has scored 104 points in their three games outside of facing the Crimson Tide. Hansen, now in his third season at Arkansas State, has scored 75 total touchdowns and counting. The former Oklahoma signal caller already holds a number of Sun Belt records. 

Hansen and company will be a good challenge for Georgia Southern's talented defense, currently ranked second in the league. From defensive linemen like Logan Hunt to defensive backs like Monquavion Brinson, the Eagles will need to be at their absolute best. Containing Hansen has to be considered a leading priority. 

"He is obviously a really good passer, but if you watch him I think he does a really good job with his feet also, so I think it's very important that we obviously get pressure on him, make him feel uncomfortable, but also understand that when we get that pressure on him to make sure we are bringing it from all angles," Lunsford detailed.

While there are a number of game keys, simply being able to handle the moment may be the most important one. Against a talented opponent on a big stage, Georgia Southern's focus and resolve will be tested. The Eagles will look to feed off of the home crowd, all while staying true to the fundamentals that have made them so successful to date.

For Georgia Southern, poise will need to be on display as much as playmaking.   

"Don't get too high, don't get too low. What has got us here is being blue collar, being disciplined, working on our plan to win, taking care of the football, making sure that we are changing field position on special teams, making sure we eliminate our pre-and-post snap penalties, finish a game. All the stuff that we talk about, we just can't lose sight of that," Lunsford added. "We'll feed off the energy, because that energy will be directed towards us, but we're not going to let it consume us. We're going to control what we can control."

Even for a regular season game in September, Georgia Southern vs Arkansas State awaits as a big-time clash. The home team will be ready.

"This is another great opportunity and I think, from the way it looks, we'll have a great crowd," Lunsford concluded. "For an opponent, it's always a tough place to play when Eagle Nation turns out in Paulson."

Soon, two major players will take to the stage once again.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports