The Georgia Southern Eagles will have to rely on the kindness of enemies to secure another outright Southern Conference championship.
A win Saturday over rival Appalachian State would have given the Eagles the league title outright and with it, a berth in the Football Championship Series playoffs. But in a 31-28 loss to the Mountaineers, the Eagles let the No. 1 ranking and a conference championship slip away.
"It’s heartbreaking," said Eagles coach Jeff Monken. ‘We start the day with an opportunity to be conference champions, and now we have to fight next weekend just to have a chance to make the playoffs."
But the Eagles also were their own worst enemy at times as well — two personal foul penalties on the Eagles’ final punt of the day set up the Mountaineers in GSU territory for the game-winning score.
"The bottom line is you’ve got to make plays," Monken said. "We didn’t make plays we needed to win the football game, and they did. I’m really disappointed we didn’t play better. I thought our guys played hard. But we didn’t execute like we needed to. It’s a tough pill to swallow."
After rolling up 21 points and 382 yards in the first half alone, the Eagles were limited to 170 yards of offense and seven points in the second half. Fullback William Banks, pressed into a starter’s role from the third-string after concussions felled Dominique Swope and Robert Brown, had 103 yards and three scores in the first half alone. He required an IV at halftime and finished with 129 yards.
"It was a big game with a lot at stake," said quarterback Jerick McKinnon, who ran for 121 yards and threw for 106. "The first half went really well for us. App State’s defense has great athletes and they’re well-coached, and in the second half, they stopped us from making plays.
"Big players make big plays in big games. We just have to try our best to fight back."
Georgia Southern may not have gotten the benefit of the doubt from the officials in Saturday’s game, as the Eagles were victims of at least two calls that could have been ruled otherwise.
Sean Price turned a short pass into a 56-yard touchdown, breaking two tackles en route to the end zone. Replays showed he appeared to step out-of-bounds about halfway through his scoring jaunt, but the call was not reversed.
"That’s something we can’t control," quarterback Ezayi Youyoute said of the calls. "We just have to play our game."
The Eagles had back-to-back sacks of Mountaineers quarterback Jamal Jackson to push App State to just across its own goal line. The Eagles thought they had had Jackson tackled for a safety but officials placed the ball inside the 1-yard line.
On the next snap, Jackson retreated to the back of the end zone and heaved a pass down the sideline. Price caught it and turned it into a 67-yard gain. That possession ended in a missed field goal but flipped the field on the Eagles.
"We did a poor job tackling on defense," Monken said. "We had a third and forever on the 1-inch line and watch the pump fake and let them beat us over the top."
But two penalties on a punt return set the stage for the ultimate score. Monken lobbied but to no avail that John Stevenson had the right to hit returner Bobo Beathard, and another personal foul call after the play moved the ball to the Eagles 34.
Three plays later, Jackson, who had 383 yards and three touchdowns through the air, hit Tony Washington for the game-winning 23-yard TD pass.
Another 15-yard penalty doomed the Eagles’ final possession and its last chance to escape with a win. On fourth-and-4 at the Mountaineers 22, Trey Butler took an option pitch for a first down. But Jonathan Bryant, who finished with 69 yards rushing and 67 yards receiving, was called for an offensive face mask.
It led to a fourth-and-16, and McKinnon, under heavy pressure, had his desperation fling land in the hands of App State defensive back Troy Sanders.
Darrieon Robinson took an option pitch 16 yards on the first play of the last drive. But Monken believes with better blocking on the edge, that rush could have been for six points.
"Our blocking on the perimeter was the worst I’ve seen," he said. "There were a penalties and foolish penalties. Besides those, we didn’t play a very good football game. We didn’t block on the perimeter. Credit goes to them — they beat the blocks. We weren’t getting any movement on their defensive tackles. That’s frustrating."
The Eagles’ miscues were not limited to penalties and turnovers. Freshman kicker Alex Hanks missed field goals of 26, 24 and 26 yards against Appalachian State. His first try, from 26 yards out, glanced off the upright. His next, just before the end of the first half, was blocked.
It wasn’t much of a block, Monken groused, since it hit an App State defender in the chest.
For the year, the Eagles are just 7-of-16 on field goal tries and have missed five of their last six.
"We can’t make a kick," Monken lamented.
The Eagles have Howard from the MEAC and Georgia, ranked No. 5 in the BCS standings, left. There are no more SoCon games for them. App State still has Furman left to round out its league schedule and four teams now have two losses each. Georgia Southern has beaten two of the others — Wofford and Chattanooga, who play each other this weekend.
But the Eagles need App State to suffer another loss in order to claim the league title outright.
"We have to leave this in the past," defensive back Deion Stanley said of the loss to App.