Jerick McKinnon isn’t ready just yet to proclaim Georgia Southern as the team to beat in the Southern Conference.
McKinnon and the Eagles, though, have staked a claim to the top of the league standings and to one of the top spots in the national Football Championship Subdivision polls.
Georgia Southern, now ranked No.3 in FCS, brings a 4-1 SoCon mark and a 5-1 overall record into Saturday’s matchup with Furman.
“I wouldn’t say we’ve established ourselves as the best in the conference,” said the junior quarterback.
The Eagles have a half-game lead on Appalachian State and Wofford, but with last Saturday’s 17-9 win over the Terriers, Georgia Southern also owns the tiebreaker against Wofford.
Chattanooga is 2-1 in the league, and the Eagles still have to play both App State and Chattanooga.
“We’re still in the running for the SoCon,” said sophomore fullback Dominque Swope, who scored both GSU touchdowns against Wofford.
Swope bulled his way to a game-high 137 yards against Wofford, accumulating 90 yards in the second half. He ran six times for 64 yards on the Eagles’ final touchdown drive of the night, a nine-play, 84-yard march that extended Georgia Southern’s lead to 17-6 midway through the fourth quarter.
“Every time he touches the ball, he’s a workhorse,” McKinnon said.
Southern’s rushing offense carried the load — accounting for all 52 plays and 279 yards — against Wofford. And the defense and special teams held up its end, too.
The Terriers’ rushing attack, No. 1 in FCS, had been averaging nearly 450 yards per game. Georgia Southern held them to less than half of that.
“Our defense played a fantastic football game,” said Eagles coach Jeff Monken. “ I can’t say enough about the effort. They just lined up and played with tremendous effort. It was fun to watch them play. It was as good a defensive effort as I’ve seen in a long time.”
Southern also held Wofford out of the end zone, the first time the Terriers did not score a touchdown in nearly three years. And early in the game, it appeared as if Wofford would pick up an easy TD.
Swope’s fumble put the Terriers at the Eagles 28. A penalty on a field goal attempt gave Wofford a first down. A pass interference call in the end zone wiped out an interception and set up Wofford at the GSU 2. But the Eagles held again and forced a field goal try.
“There were things in the game they could have gotten their daubers down,” Monken said. “But they kept fighting.”
Said defensive tackle Brent Russell: “We focus on facing adversity. We showed we don’t let things get to us. We just get our cleats in the ground and play.”
The Eagles’ defense is the second-best in FCS, allowing a paltry 266.5 yards of offense a game.
“I give a lot of credit to our defense,” Swope said. “They had plenty of chances to score, and our defense held its ground. This is one of the best defenses we’ve had.”
The nation’s second-most proficient rushing offense belongs to Georgia Southern, at 408 yards per game. But even McKinnon admits there is sufficient room for improvement.
“I feel we have yet to play the best game we’re capable of playing,” he said. “We have a lot to work on.”
But beating Wofford — and breaking a streak where the visiting team had won in the series dating back to 2004 — puts the Eagles in control of their own destiny.
“Coach stressed to us the opportunities this game opened up to us,” McKinnon said.
Monken, though, isn’t looking that far down the road, especially with road trips to Furman and Chattanooga in the offing before the Eagles close the SoCon schedule at home against Appalachian on Nov. 3.
“It’s still a wide-open race,” he said. “There’s still a lot of football left. We have to continue to push and get better and every time you win, it makes the next game bigger.”