STATESBORO — Nothing eases the growing pains for a young football team like a dominating victory.
A week after enduring one of the most lopsided defeats since the program was restarted, the Georgia Southern Eagles put themselves back on the right path with an overwhelming 27-3 victory over Western Carolina on Saturday.
“We’re a young team. I know everybody hates to hear that, but it’s the truth,” said Eagles coach Chris Hatcher after his team improved to 2-1 on the season and 1-0 in the Southern Conference. “For a young group to bounce back after a tough defeat and play like they did, I’m proud of them.”
And it won’t take long for the young Eagles to have their learning curve made sharper and steeper. Georgia Southern plays on the road for each of the next three weeks, visiting SoCon foes Elon and Wofford — both in the top 20 among FCS teams — and finishing the trek with a game at No. 22-ranked North Carolina. The Eagles take on the No. 13-ranked Phoenix on Saturday.
Georgia Southern’s dominance of the lowly Catamounts was borne out in the statistics. The Eagles ran 84 plays — 42 passes and 42 rushes, a rare blend for the now pass-heavy offense — outgained Western Carolina 461-194, had 24 first downs to the Catamounts’ seven and held the ball for 39:39.
In a crushing 44-6 defeat at No. 18-ranked South Dakota State, the Eagles were held to a paltry 11 yards rushing and gave up nine sacks. They were held without a touchdown for the first time in 14 years.
“We got embarrassed last week,” said Eagles quarterback Lee Chapple. “For this team to come back and play like we did, those consistent drives show a mature team.”
Against the Jackrabbits, Georgia Southern finished with 54 passing attempts and only had 21 rushes — including the nine sacks.
That wasn’t going to happen again, if the Eagles coaches had any say about it.
“Our goal was to take some pressure off Lee Chapple, use our big offensive line and run the football, keep our defense off the field,” Hatcher said. “We were able to do that. He’s had two games where we put him in some pretty bad situations. We made a conscious effort this week to run it right at them.”
Two of Southern’s touchdown drives against the Catamounts were longer than 80 yards.
“For us to be able to be successful offensively, we have to be able to execute long drives. If we can improve in that area, we have a chance to be a pretty good offensive unit,” Hatcher said.
Derek Heyden’s forced fumble and Darrell Pasco’s leaping first-quarter interception in the end zone turned aside Western Carolina’s most promising scoring threats. The defense also held the Catamounts to minus-12 yards rushing, not an all-time low (minus-19 by Elon in 2007) but a welcome total nonetheless.
“We were one step ahead of them,” Hatcher said. “I thought it was a dominating performance.”
Southern had no such problem running the football. Adam Urbano and Darreion Robinson combined for 154 yards on 32 carries.
“We knew after last week, we needed to be a little more balanced,” Urbano said. “It was a good gameplan.”
Chapple, who was not sacked against WCU, completed passes to eight different receivers, and 10 Eagles had receptions in the win.
Of the starting 11 on offense, three are seniors. The rest are freshmen and sophomores. And all three seniors — center Trey Dunmon, guard Jonathan Loving and tackle Cole Fountain — are on the offensive line.
“They played outstanding. The line played incredible,” Chapple said. “You can’t say enough about that. It makes life easier.”
Said Hatcher: “They mashed them all night long. We challenged those guys, and they responded well. Our plan was to run the ball and get it out of Chapple’s hands very quickly so he didn’t take the beating he took last week.”
Not that there weren’t still signs of a young team, though. They committed eight penalties, including a false start on fourth-and-1 that led to a field goal attempt the Catamounts eventually blocked. Another false start at the Western Carolina 7 put the Eagles at third-and-10, and a holding call negated a gain that would have put GSU inside the WCU 15. That drive ended in a fourth-down incompletion.
“We still have got a long ways to go,” Urbano said. “We keep shooting ourselves in the foot. We have to get rid of stupid penalties.”
Cornerback Darrell Pasco, one of seven seniors on the defense’s two-deep, said Saturday night’s win says a lot for the young team and how they shook off the disaster in South Dakota.
“I think this is telling them, ‘we need you to grow up,’” he said. “We’re playing a lot of freshmen on both sides of the ball. I think we feel much, much, much, much, much better by performing like we should have against South Dakota (State).”
And the Eagles — who had more passing attempts than rushing attempts last year, an anomaly for a team that has led the nation in rushing eight times in the last 20 years — may be running more in the future.
“You could say I was hard-headed early in the year,” Hatcher said. “I really didn’t know what we were going to do well. We may be a better running football team. If that’s the case, we’ll get a little better at it each week.
“You can’t see it all the time, but the foundation is really coming together. Eventually, you’ll see the results of that labor.”