STATESBORO — A young Georgia Southern football team is having to grow up awfully fast.
A week after a 45-21 loss at the hands of the then top-ranked Georgia Bulldogs in Athens, the Eagles put more than two dozen freshmen into the game against the Austin Peay Governors.
The kids, in fact, may eventually be all right after they pulled out a 34-20 win over Austin Peay in the home opener at Paulson Stadium on Saturday night.
The Eagles (1-1) committed three turnovers, missed an extra point, missed a field goal, had a dazzling punt return for a touchdown called back and fumbled away a fake punt on a fourth-down attempt. But they forced three Governors fumbles and turned two of them into crucial fourth-quarter touchdowns, erasing a 20-13 Austin Peay lead.
“We came out very flat. I don’t know why,” said GSU coach Chris Hatcher. “We’re still learning a lot about the way our team plays. We found some things out about some guys we didn’t know. Some of the guys didn’t respond as well to adversity as some of the other guys.
“But we made some huge strides in the fourth quarter. We found a way to win. When you’ve got a bunch of young pups, that says a lot for them.”
Antonio Henton, the former Georgia high school player of the year at Peach County who came to GSU via Ohio State, led four of the Eagles’ five touchdown drives. He quarterbacked the final three scoring marches and took every snap for the final two quarters.
Henton ran nine times for 103 yards and two TDs. He was 10-of-16 passing for 68 yards for a touchdown and an interception. Lee Chapple, a redshirt freshman, was 3-of-6 for 21 yards and was sacked twice. Chapple led an eight-play, 46-yard drive that put GSU in front 13-0 with less than 6 minutes to go in the first half.
“We seemed to be in better rhythm with Henton in the game,” Hatcher said. “I thought both of them played well at times. I told Lee after the game, next week may be your week. When you’ve got two starters, that’s the way it goes. You go with the hot hand.”
But a personal foul helped the Governors out of a deep hole on their next possession and they eventually drove 87 yards to cut the lead to 13-6.
Then after Covington, a senior safety and the upback in the punt formation, fumbled away the snap on a fake punt attempt on fourth-and-1 at the GSU 42. That led to the tying touchdown just before halftime.
And after Austin Peay scored on its opening drive of the second half, the Governors had a 20-13 lead, having scored three TDs in a span of 6:46 of the game clock. Even Hatcher admitted GSU’s fortunes were grim following fumbles on successive plays — one from Henton and another from freshman running back Adam Urbano.
Through three quarters, Southern’s offense had been held to 233 yards and 11 first downs.
“We knew Austin Peay’s defense was good,” Henton said. “We didn’t know how good it was. We had to keep fighting and fighting and fighting.”
“We knew we had to make plays on defense to get the offense rolling,” senior defensive end Larry Beard said. “We knew our offense was going to click and find that groove.”
The Eagle defense, though, stiffened on a fourth-down play, one of three such stops they made on the night. Then they cranked up the turnover machine, forcing and recovering two fumbles in a span of three plays and coming up with another fourth-down stop, all leading to GSU touchdowns.
“A couple of turnovers will spark anybody,” Covington said.
Said Hatcher: “We made a lot of mistakes. Fortunately, our defense really settled in and made some big plays and our offense was able to capitalize.”
The Eagles played nearly 30 freshmen against Georgia and there were almost three dozen Eagles suiting up for a home game for the first time, including transfers. At least for the next three weeks, they can do their growing up in the cozy confines of Paulson Stadium.
“I like our team,” Hatcher said. “I don’t know what the season is going to entail. But I like our guys and I like the way they fought, especially in the fourth quarter. We have to keep getting better.
“Like I told ya’ll from day one, this season is going to be a wild ride.”