STATESBORO—After having momentum snatched away by a touchdown kickoff return, the Georgia Southern Eagles made sure to reclaim their grip on the edge in their clash with Furman.
The Eagles, ranked No. 1 among all Football Championship Subdivision teams, did so as stellar defensive tackles Brent Russell and Roderick Tinsley bulled their way through the Paladins line and swatted away the extra point try. Senior cornerback Laron Scott scooped it up and darted the length of the field for the two-point defensive conversion, turning a potential tie into a three-point Georgia Southern lead.
From there, the Eagles (6-0 overall, 5-0 Southern Conference) rarely looked back and walloping their most bitter rival 50-20 Saturday at Paulson Stadium.
"That return was huge," Eagles coach Jeff Monken said.
Scott credited Russell and Tinsley for overpowering their way through the Paladins protection to get a hand on Ray Early’s kick.
And once he collected the loose ball, there was no doubt in Scott’s mind what was going to happen.
"If I pick it up and there’s grass in front of me, and my teammates are running with me, it’s definite score in my mind," he said. "Once I got going, I saw a teammate to the right of me and I knew it was green."
Russell agreed the blocked PAT was "a gamechanger" and also knew once his teammate broke into the clear, it was going to be more points for Southern.
"I don’t think anyone can catch Laron," he said.
Scott also swatted away Early’s 41-yard field goal attempt in the second quarter with the Eagles leading 23-13. He credited Southern’s interior duo for clearing the way for his field goal block.
"You can always count on Brent Russell and Roderick Tinsley in the middle to go double team somebody," he said. "It’s tough to stop those guys. It all comes from in the middle. Those guys get the hard pressure, making those guys on the edge lean hard and giving me enough room to try to come off the edge."
The Eagles blocked two kicks in a game for the first time since last year’s win over Coastal Carolina, including blocking a point after for a two-point defensive conversion.
Sederrik Cunningham’s 96-yard kickoff return was the first allowed by the Eagles since South Carolina State’s Lennel Elmore did it in last year’s first-round FCS playoff game, and Monken called the play "terribly frustrating."
Yet Saturday turned out to be a better day for the Eagles special teams.
"I thought our special teams played better," he said. "Having two blocked kicks was huge. Two blocked kicks in the same football game is rare and one of them was a three-point swing. It was a big play in the game. It kind of swung momentum right back to us."
Senior placekicker Adrian Mora also etched his name in the national record books with his 127th consecutive successful PAT. He added two more extra points to stretch his streak to 129.
Monken, who stands atop an ice chest to address the team in the lockerroom after games, told Mora to take his perch, and his teammates serenaded him with a soccer chant.
"There are few very times you are around the best at what you do," Monken said. "He is beloved by his teammates. He is the poster child for humility."
To that end, Mora said he couldn’t keep the streak without punter/holder Charlie Edwards, long snapper Carter Jones and his protection up front.
"It was very special but not only for me but for all the people who have been vital in this process," said Mora. "It’s been Carter Jones and Charlie Edwards. I know I hammer it all the time, but it’s just so important for them to contribute. It was a very special moment to have the announcer recognize the moment."
Mora, who played in eight games as a freshman, has been the Eagles’ full-time place kicker since 2009. Monken said his record is also a tribute to those teams.
"We’re really, really proud of him to set that record," he said. "That group of three guys, and the guys protecting them, I’m really proud of them. This is a record for all those teams."
Monken had no second thoughts about sending Mora to try a 49-yard field goal on the Eagles’ first possession of the second half. His kick, the second-longest of his career, boosted Southern’s lead to 29-13.
"We had the wind at our back. That kid hasn’t missed a kick all year. Why not send him out there?" Monken said.
Said Mora: "Forty-nine yards, it’s a little far away. But with the great fans out there, it just boosted my adrenalin."
Already a graduate of Georgia Southern, Mora is working on his MBA at GSU.
"He is a good player," Monken said. "He’s as good as anybody we have on our team playing our position. We’ve got some guys who are pretty good at their position; he’s as good as anybody is at their position."