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GSU Eagles growing pains remain sharp
josh rowe 2
Georgia Southern linebacker Josh Rowe (10) brings down Samford quarterback Dustin Taliaferro during the Eagles’ 20-13 loss to the Bulldogs. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

STATESBORO—When it comes to putting a finger on Georgia Southern’s woes, head football coach Jeff Monken may need a few extra hands.

The Eagles offense was shut down, gaining just 174 yards. Georgia Southern also managed only 122 yards rushing. Samford running back Chris Evans ran for 170 yards and had 188 yards of total offense, outgaining Georgia Southern by himself.

“I’m really disappointed. I can’t describe to you how disappointed I am,” Monken said. “You’ve got to be able to do something, and we just weren’t doing anything very well.

“I wish I could put my finger on something and say here’s the problem. I don’t have enough fingers to plug all the holes. We’ve got some places where we’re getting outexecuted sometimes.”

The Eagles, 4-4 on the season and 2-3 in the Southern Conference, had just seven plays of 10 yards or longer and none over 20 yards.

Georgia Southern also lost the turnover battle. The Eagles lost one of four fumbles, and Sean Thompson had an interception, plucking the ball out of the air after Shaw’s pass to Darrieon Robinson caromed off his pads and hands.

The interception led to Evans’ second TD of the day, and a Lee Banks fumble at the Eagles 38-yard line set up Cameron Yaw’s 46-yard field goal just before halftime.

“We can’t turn the ball over,” Monken said. “We’re not good enough to turn the ball over and give them a short field.”

The week before, the Eagles forced nine turnovers in posting a 20-0 victory over The Citadel. They didn’t force any against Samford.

Freshman Jerick McKinnon got his first start at quarterback and led the Eagles on a 12-play, 69-yard drive on their first series, capping it with a 1-yard sneak and 6-0 lead. McKinnon was 2-of-2 passing for 17 yards, the first two completions of his career, and ran for 39 yards.

“We felt Jerick could give us a chance to win,” Shaw said. “He did an outstanding job. That’s not easy to do as a true freshman. I’ve had to do that. He stepped up and made some plays.”

Shaw got his first start two years ago at Georgia Tech, taking over for an injured Josh Nesbitt and leading the Yellow Jackets to a victory over Duke. Nesbitt, as fate would have it, had a front row seat right behind the Eagles bench for Saturday’s game.

But the Eagles managed just 19 yards of offense for the rest of the first half. After netting 18 yards in the first two possessions of the second half, Monken turned to regular starter Jaybo Shaw to direct the offense. Shaw finished the game 3-of-9 passing for 35 yards and scored on an 11-yard run. That score came after Laron Scott’s 74-yard kickoff return and brought the Eagles to within a touchdown with 6:09 to play in the game.

How much Shaw was going to play Saturday was unknown, as Monken wanted to give his banged-up and more experienced quarterback a rest.

“Jaybo’s in need of some rest. He still is. We hoped we could run the football with Jerick that we could give Jaybo the rest that he needed. We knew he’d be ready to play and if we absolutely needed a spark we would bring him in, as healthy and as full-speed as he could be today.”

Southern had two more chances in the final 4 minutes, but turned the ball over on downs each time. Shaw barely missed connecting with an open Mitch Williford down the sideline on the Eagles’ penultimate snap of the game.

“We’ve got to play better and coach better,” Monken said. “And as poorly as we played at times and as frustrating as it was, we hit the kid with the wheel route, he’s walking into the end zone. I thought at halftime, as poorly as we played on offense, I fully expected us to put some drives together and get some points.”

Said Shaw: “We just didn’t execute at times.”

There were bright spots. After Samford drove 98 yards to take a 7-6 lead on Evans’ first touchdown, the Bulldogs managed just three first downs for the remainder of the first half. Scott also had kickoff returns of 56 and 25 yards. Charlie Edwards averaged 42.5 yards on his six punts, half of which were downed inside the Bulldogs 10.

“He’s our best offensive player right now,” Monken said. “He gains 50 yards for us every time. He’s playing as well at his position as you could ask a guy to play.”

Said defensive tackle Brent Russell: “Special teams play was amazing.”

In the wake of the Eagles’ loss to Samford, the first-year Eagles coach affirmed his belief that what he’s putting in place is the right system for his team.

It is the same system that led Southern to six national championships and five straight Southern Conference titles. The Eagles entered the game against Samford with the fourth-best rushing offense among Football Championship Subdivision schools and the No. 22 scoring offense.

Samford, which has beaten GSU each of its first three years in the SoCon, also has more than two dozen players who are either juniors or seniors on their two-deep.

“I believe in what we’re doing. I think it’s the right offense,” Monken said. “We’ve just got to mature. I’ve been proud of their effort. They’re going to keep fighting, and they’re going to try to keep winning. I like our team; I think our team’s a bunch of fighters. We’ve got some areas we need to improve, but they do fight.”