Lunsford’s New Era now tasked with pulling off perhaps biggest upset in college football history

The Eagles beat South Alabama 52-0 on Senior Day last season. The victory gave GS momentum heading into the offseason. 

McClain Baxley

A year ago this past Sunday, the Georgia Southern Eagles traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, where they were upended by FCS New Hampshire in a performance that foreshadowed how the majority of the season would go—senseless penalties, few points, lazy defense and a loss. The Eagles slowly walked off Legion Field, sullen and defeated.

The Statesboro community and Eagle Nation were embarrassed, disappointed and enraged at how the program was quickly sinking to the bottom of the college football world, of which it once reigned supreme.

Now, a year later, the Eagles have two strong wins, have a new coaching staff and have given the community a resurrected appreciation and belief in this team. They’re gaining national attention and are 2-0 with no conference wins for the first time since 2013.

“It’s awesome,” Head Coach Chad Lunsford said of his team being 2-0. “We talk about it a lot, getting a win, we’re gonna celebrate them. Whether it’s ugly or if they’re great, a perfect game, whatever. We’re going to celebrate them because they’re hard to get. Guys have 365 days a year to put their product on the field 12 times, guaranteed. So anytime we win a football game, we’re going to be excited about it.”

Fortunately for the Eagles, neither of their wins have been ugly. Truthfully, none of the four wins since Lunsford has taken over have been ugly.

There was nothing close in the 52-0 Senior Day victory over South Alabama. The win in Louisiana was one-sided until the Ragin’ Cajuns scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to make it a 10-point victory for the Eagles. And the two wins this year have been by a comfortable margin.

If the Eagles want to pick up a win on the road against the No. 2 team in the country Saturday, it’s going to have to be ugly. And that’s the GS way.

From the program’s beginning, the GS football team has had to grind harder than others and work for its rewards. On Saturday, the Eagles face the biggest test they’ve faced since Erk Russell was forced to upstart a program on his own.

Clemson has the top defensive line in the nation and two former 5-star quarterbacks. The Tigers have made the College Football Playoff the past three seasons and won the national championship just two years ago.

But Dabo Swinney, the Tigers’ head coach, is well aware of the Eagles’ past success.

“This is a team that has gone into The Swamp and won,” Swinney said in Tuesday’s press conference. “This is a team that went to Alabama a couple years ago and rushed for 300-something yards. This is a team that went to Georgia in Athens and rushed for about the same.”

Only one of the SEC powerhouses Swinney mentioned were ranked, but GS held their own. In the Alabama game Swinney alluded to, the Eagles put up 302 rushing yards on 39 attempts to score 21 points against the team, who went on to win the national championship.

-Against UGA four years later, Favian Upshaw and Matt Breida led the Eagles in a 233 rushing yard performance to compliment a showing from their defense, which was one play away from beating the Bulldogs in overtime.

GS has time and time again shown they can hang with the big dogs, or in this case cats. And like in the games against the Crimson Tide, Gators and Bulldogs, the Eagles will once again have to rely on great defensive play and unpredictable offense to compete against the Tigers.

Fitting the script and hype from last season and preseason, the GS defense has lived up to all expectations. It began up front against South Carolina State, where the fiery offense was put to a halt and were unable to score until late in the third quarter.

It was a brick wall from the defensive line. A brick wall that flew around and was everywhere defensive coordinator Scot Sloan asked it to be.

The secondary has been just as explosive and lockdown. Through two games junior monquavion Brinson and senior Josh Moon have combined for 26 tackles and the secondary has allowed just 123.5 passing yards per game, which is tenth best in the country.

Perhaps the most impressive stat from the Eagles’ defense has been the amount of touchdowns allowed through the air—zero.

Where the game will be decided is on the GS offensive side of the ball and facing one of the top and most experienced defensive fronts in FBS and maybe of all time. The Tigers have allowed just 94 rushing yards per game while the Eagles have rushed for 326.5 yards per game. The Tigers average 3.5 sacks per game while the Eagles have yet to give up a sack.

Saturday will test a GS offensive line that has three players who have started less than three games going up against a Clemson front four who are all projected first-round draft picks.

Quarterback Shai Werts isn’t worried though, coming off the most eye-popping game of his young GS career.

“It’s a big challenge for us, but we know it’s capable,” Werts said. “The running lane all starts up front.”

In the win over UMass, Werts showcased something that most fans had not seen before—his throwing ability. Going 6-for-9 with two touchdowns and 154 yards hasn’t been something GS fans are accustomed to seeing, but it’s a part of Werts’ arsenal that the Eagles are going to need come Saturday.

The task at hand is one of the biggest the Eagles have ever seen and perhaps will ever see again. It’s possible though. GS will have to continue to buy into what’s happening and relish in Coach Russell’s saying, “runts try harder.”

McClain Baxley, The George-Anne Sports Editor, [email protected]