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Eagles eye closing season with win
Last home loss has them seeing red as they turn attention to Purple Paladins
11.11 GSU-Samford 1
Senior wide receiver Raja Andrews hauls in a 20-yard touchdown pass from Antonio Henton in Georgia Southern's 27-17 loss to Samford. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

It wasn't that long ago - like, last week - that the Georgia Southern Eagles had aspirations of returning to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.

Now, after failing to capitalize on their opportunities early in a 27-17 loss last Saturday to Samford, the Eagles (5-5) can only set their sights on avoid a losing season for the second time in three campaigns.

The loss to Samford also brought Southern's six-game home schedule to close. The Eagles - who once had a 39-game home winning streak and another run of 38 consecutive wins at Paulson Stadium - went 2-4 at home this season and 0-4 against Southern Conference foes.

For Georgia Southern's seniors, who had more coaching changes (3) than playoff games (1), losing the final home game of their careers and losing out on the playoffs was beyond bitter. The weight of a losing home record brought the normally resilient senior linebacker Chris Covington to the verge of tears.

"I never thought that was a possibility," he said of the Eagles' home mark for 2008. "It's a huge disappointment to myself. There's a winning legacy here. You're not supposed to lose here. I apologize to our fans."

Said coach Chris Hatcher: "I feel bad for those guys. Our seniors played hard. ... It was an embarrassing defeat. It's probably one of the most disappointing defeats I've had.

In its first three home losses, the Eagles fell to the teams ranked as high No. 2, No.3 and No. 4 in the country by a combined total of four points. In the disastrous 2006 season, when Georgia Southern went 3-8, the Eagles were 2-5 at Paulson Stadium. Prior to 2006, the Eagles had never won fewer than three games in a season at home and they have never won fewer than four in a season with an overall winning record.

"We have a very great team," said senior wide receiver Michael McIntosh. "We play with a lot of pride. We want to play our best at home. I never expected to go this way. That record, to me, is unthinkable."

Said senior defensive end Larry Beard: "It's never easy to lose at home. For it to be homecoming and your last home game at Paulson Stadium, it's hard.

Against Samford, the Eagles recovered a fumble on a kickoff at the Bulldogs 26, right after Antonio Henton's 20-yard pass to Raja Andrews put GSU up 10-0. They lost 17 yards and were forced to punt.

They took over at the Samford 35 when Bob Hooper's punt attempt caromed off the backside of one of his blockers. But three plays produced 0 yards, and the Eagles punted back to Samford.

In between those missed opportunities, Leander Barney bobbled a pitch at the Bulldogs 5-yard line and Samford recovered, snuffing out another potential scoring chance.

"Offensively, it was a very poor performance, and I take full responsibility for that," Hatcher said. "We had our opportunities to blow the game wide open and didn't do it. Sooner or later, you give the other team enough opportunities, they're going to make a play."

And Samford followed the time-honored gameplan to beat a Georgia Southern team. Bulldogs quarterback Dustin Taliaferro was 14-of-17 passing for 166 yards and two touchdowns while running back Chris Evans, the SoCon's leading rusher, ran for 125 of his 142 yards in the second half.

But the Eagles defense held Samford to 12 first downs, and the Bulldogs were only 5 of 14 on third-down conversions.

"Our defense has been maligned all season," Hatcher said. "But the last three games, they've played well enough for us to win. Offensively, it seems like we're going backwards and I don't know that answer (why). But we'll find it."

Georgia Southern's final game of the year means more than just being able to finish above .500 with a win. It's also against Furman, perhaps GSU's most bitter rival in the Southern Conference.

"They hate us. We hate them," Covington said. "We know it's our last game now. We'll go out next week and give (our fans) something to remember us by."

"It's not going to be hard to get up for Furman," Beard said.