Chris Hatcher wanted to restore Georgia Southern’s winning football tradition when he was named head coach in January. Maybe he didn’t figure on it being this exciting.
When Jesse Hartley’s 54-yard field goal attempt finally tumbled through the uprights Saturday afternoon at Paulson Stadium on the final play of the game, the now 21st-ranked Georgia Southern Eagles had survived for a 41-38 win over South Dakota State and had surpassed their win total from 2006’s disastrous campaign.
“You’re coming off a season like last year, you’re trying to build some confidence in your team and to be able to do it like we did it is a good sign for your football team,” Hatcher said.
Said sophomore safety Chris Rogers: “(In) trying to get things turned around, we’re on the right track.”
Like many notable and dramatic Eagles’ victories before at Paulson Stadium — game-saving fumbles in the playoffs against Eastern Kentucky and Idaho, late interceptions against Furman, etc. — Georgia Southern dodged a bullet before coming up with the game-winning plays.
The Jackrabbits’ Parker Douglass had been 12-of-12 on field goals this season, but he missed a 37-yarder with 2:23 to play in the game.
“When he did that, I knew I was going to have a shot. I’m so grateful for this opportunity,” Hartley said.
Hatcher was proven to be prescient, since he discussed Douglass’ streak at Thursday’s practice.
“He was due to miss one,” he said.
Less than two minutes later, Carson Hill stepped in front of Ryan Berry’s pass to Chris Doblar. Two plays later, Hartley was summoned for his decisive kick.
“Coach asked me, ‘Jesse, can you kick it that far,’” Hartley said. “I said, ‘Yes, sir.’”
The Eagles had two defensive touchdowns, with Rogers and defensive end Larry Beard each running back a fumble for a touchdown. All six turnovers in the game resulted in touchdowns, either by return or on the ensuing possession.
Quarterback Jayson Foster, the nation’s fourth-leading rusher, was held to 92 yards rushing, the first time all year he has not hit the 100-yard mark. But he threw for a career single-game best 225 yards, connecting on 23-of-31 passes.
He was 6-of-6 in the first quarter and was 14-of-16 at halftime as the Eagles took a 31-7 lead.
From there, though, the Eagles went three-and-out in three of four possessions to start the second half. The other ended in Tyler Koch’s 71-yard interception return for a touchdown. The Eagles were outgained 266-164 in the second half.
“They started clicking, and we weren’t making plays,” said Irving Campbell, who had a career-high seven catches for 122 yards and a touchdown.
Said Hatcher: “They just whipped us in the second half. Sometimes that happens. They’re one of the best teams we’ve played all season.”
Kyle Minett’s 7-yard touchdown run and the extra point forged a 38-38 tie with 6:28 to play after the Jackrabbits were on the verge of being run out of Paulson Stadium.
“We probably shouldn’t have been in that position,” Hartley said. “We’ve got great leadership on this team and the seniors got together and got everybody up.”
After Hill’s interception, the Eagles ran two plays to get to the SDSU 37 and had 7 seconds left and one timeout. Hatcher, who ordinarily doesn’t want to try field goals from beyond 45 yards unless it’s an end-of-game situation, had no doubt he wanted to end the game right then and there.
“Coach tells us, ‘Expect to win, find a way and have fun, and we did all of those things today,” Hartley said.
The Jackrabbits (2-4) had lost to three ranked teams —Western Illinois, Youngstown State and Northern Iowa — to open their season. The Eagles have yet to play a ranked team, but the remainder of their Southern Conference schedule begins next week with Elon. There are road games at Appalachian State and Wofford, both ranked in the top 10, looming.
“People were saying before that game that South Dakota State was going to be our biggest contest,” Hill said. “This gives us a lot of momentum.”
Georgia Southern may hit the road hurting. Fullbacks Dusty Reddick and Sean Gray were hurt in the game and Michael McIntosh also left the game.
“We’re going to have make a lot of personnel decisions,” Hatcher said. “We may need only one bus to go up to Elon.”
The first-year Eagles coach said he spends some time by himself in the locker room before each game.
“I ask myself, ‘Why the heck do I do this? I put myself through this torture. There’ll be 20,000 fans out there, questioning every move I make,’” he said. “But we do it because of what happened at the end of the game, for the excitement and the thrill of victory.”
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