Anyone who stepped on the field at Carter-Finley Stadium on Saturday could feel the intense heat of the air over Raleigh. The Georgia Southern football team undoubtedly was in the hot seat, both literally and figuratively.
The gridiron was neatly placed in the center of the newly renovated stadium, playing as a stage for over 50,000 fans dressed in red, packed into the stadium to watch the North Carolina State Wolfpack as 20.5 point favorites open their season with a bang. In the sea of red was a slice of blue in the corner of the field, packed tightly with Statesboro’s faithful who traveled the six hours because they knew, 20.5 points or not, their Eagles had a chance.
During pregame warm ups senior Eagle linebacker Edwin Jackson shook hands with Head Coach Willie Fritz, both of them nodding knowingly of the challenge that lie ahead. After breaking more than a sweat in warm ups, both teams took to the field, the Wolfpack band blaring in the background. The Eagles prepared to field the kick and over the roar of the home crowd and their band the Georgia Southern slice of blue could be heard with their chant “One more time!”
Sophomore quarterback Kevin Ellison took the field as the starter for the Eagles, and was flanked by sophomore running back Matthew Brieda in the shotgun. After three unsuccessful option plays, Wolfpack fans nodded, this was how the game was supposed to go. NC State now had the ball and was prepared to march down the field.
The Eagle defense had different plans. Anchored by Jackson, the defense held NC State’s massive offensive line to a three and out, and a punt. The young Eagle offense took the field again, Brieda sitting comfortably in the backfield. Ellison took the snap and handed off to Brieda who tore through the line, and a hush fell upon the home crowd as he scampered 61 yards for the first touchdown run of his college career.
Wolfpack fans were barely quelled when their offense was held outside the red zone and forced to accept a field goal, 7-3 Eagles. To end the quarter junior Eagle punter Ryan Nowicki had his first 50+ yard punt of the night, downing it inside the one yard line. After forcing another three and out, the Eagle offense could not convert themselves and had to punt the ball back to NC State.
Redshirt Junior Jacoby Brissett playing in his first game since he was a Florida Gator, 651 days prior, rolled right and threw up a desperate pass that was pulled away by junior Eagle corner Caleb Williams and returned to the fifteen yard line. The drive ended in a 32 yard field goal by junior kicker Alex Hanks.
Once they got the ball again, the Eagles look liked a seasoned FBS offense. They lined up with Ellison at quarterback, a back on each side, and a tight end lined up behind the tackle. They drove the triple option out of this offense, and hurried to the line after each snap, wearing down the defensive line.
Ellison took the snap, looking to cool for the over 100* heat index, and fired a pass over the middle of the end zone to senior receiver Kentrellis Showers, who dove up into to the air, lost his helmet, but secured the pass, increasing the Eagles’ lead.
Both teams ran out of the tunnel in the second half, looking to prove the two-a-days in the sweltering heat had conditioned them well. The Wolfpack’s first drive was ended after a 12 yard sack and a penalty. On this drive Jackson registered his tenth tackle of the day.
Ellison kept up his fire running and passing the ball from the first half, breaking off chunks of yards and hitting senior receiver Zach Walker on a 50 yard bomb that set up a field goal from the Eagles. The next drive he hooked up on a 30-yarder. The home offense managed to fit a score in to make it closer, 20-10.
This drive was to be the nail in the coffin for the Wolfpack. The Eagles looked sharp and efficient as they marched down to the one yard line. Ellison stepped under center for the first time that night, looked to his left and right and snapped the ball to dive in and secure the victory. A scrum ensued, resulting in a NC State defensive lineman emerging with the ball.
The Wolfpack knew this was their only chance to stay in the game. They drove the ball 99 yards while three Eagle players went down with cramps from the intense heat, a score made it 20-17 the Eagles on top. The Eagles had to score now to prevent momentum from the Wolfpack.
Ellison showed he had more left in him and opened the drive with a 52 yard run to put the Eagles in field goal range with 5:43 left in the game. Ellison fell on his shoulder during the run and had to be replaced by sophomore quarterback Favian Upshaw. Despite good effort the Eagles found themselves at fourth and one. Coach Fritz had a decision to make, kick a field goal and go up 23-17, expecting his defense to keep the Wolfpack out of the endzone, or go for the first down, and being able to run out the clock with his offense.
These decision are easily made sitting comfortably from home, but Fritz took a timeout to consider it. He watched and left the offense out on the field as if they would go for it, but sent out the kicking unit instead and Hanks kicked his third field goal of the day, 23-17.
Despite the unbelievable display of talent and effort from the Eagles all game, the Wolfpack saw their opportunity and took it. They pulled off chunks of yards, and forced another Eagle timeout to regroup. Brissett then rocketed a 35 yard pass into the endzone, the extra point put the home team up 24-23.
As the final pass attempt hit the ground and the Eagles knew the game was over, they jogged off the field, disappointed in not coming away with the win. The home crowd erupted as if they had won the national championship and the Eagles watched and went to the locker room.
The Eagles made a statement on Saturday. They are prepared for the FBS and the rest of the teams on the schedule should take notice. With hopes of a conference championship on the line, the Eagles must continue to show the exemplary efforts of Saturday moving forward.
“It was a great game for them, but there are no such things as moral victories in this game,” Head Coach Willie Fritz said.