By choice or by force, a young Georgia Southern football team is growing up.
The Eagles (2-1) will open the Southern Conference portion of its schedule Saturday against Elon. The Eagles again had to rally for a victory, staging a miraculous finish to knock off Northeastern 34-27 in overtime at Paulson Stadium last Saturday night, with several of its young players stepping up and a handful of veterans coming through.
For the 16th-ranked Eagles, it was their first overtime victory since beating Northeastern four years ago and it was the first OT win for coach Chris Hatcher after losing his first five tries in extra sessions. GSU’s last overtime loss came in a 36-33 defeat last year at the hands of Elon (2-1), which enters Saturday night’s game ranked 17th.
“We kept overcoming adversity, and that’s a sign of a good football team,” he said. “I was very excited we were able to win the game in overtime and get that monkey off my back.
“We found a way to get it done, and that’s what I’m most proud about.”
The Eagles, who scored three fourth-quarter touchdowns in a 34-20 win over Austin Peay the week before, trailed 24-14 at the half and were down 27-21 with 3:04 to go. Senior Tim Camp’s dramatic 65-yard touchdown reception, the first of his career and his second TD of the game, tied the game at 27-27.
But the precocious kids — and there are more of them than there are grizzled veterans on Hatcher’s roster — had their moments, too. Antonio Henton, a sophomore, was 16-of-27 for 298 yards and a touchdown passing and added three rushing scores, including the game-winning 25-yarder on the second play of overtime.
Of the eight Eagles with rushing attempts against Northeastern, six are in their first year in the Eagles program and another, Zeke Rozier, missed the last eight games of the 2007 season. Henton and redshirt freshman Lee Chapple completed passes to eight different receivers — five are newcomers to the team.
True freshman Leander Barney — seen as the closest thing to 2007 Payton Award winner Jayson Foster in the most recent signing class — had three receptions for 61 yards against the Huskies.
The Eagles turned the ball over three times, committed what could have been a killer personal foul in Huskies’ territory in the third quarter and converted just two of 10 third downs. It’s all part of the growing pains, but Hatcher would rather have that ache subside sooner rather than later.
“I shoot you straight all the time. I told you it was going to be a wild ride this season,” he said. “You got so many young players, but our defense stepped up in the second half. I was proud of them, because the other team had their way with us in the first half. Offensively, we’ve got to get more consistency and put the nail in the coffin when the time comes.”
The Phoenix, led by quarterback Scott Riddle, are averaging 291.7 yards per game through the air and are scoring at a clip of 35.3 points per game. GSU’s defense, meanwhile, is last in the league, having allowed more than 426 yards per game, and the Eagles have yet to record an interception through three games. Elon’s Terrell Hudgins also tops the SoCon in receptions with 27.
Though Northeastern and Austin Peay aren’t the caliber of Georgia, the older Eagles are beginning to appreciate how the younger ones aren’t folding when their fortunes turn sour as they have in the last two weeks.
“They’re definitely getting a baptism of fire,” senior safety Chris Covington said. “Games like this will mature someone really quickly. You’ll learn to play 60 minutes of football.”
Added Raja Andrews, who had seven catches for 123 yards in his first game back from a suspension: “These young guys are eager to win. Late in the game, these guys go to another level. Our opponents have to know we’re going to play all 60 minutes. They are young but they are so eager to learn, so eager to win.”
A year ago, the Eagles lost four games by a grand total of 20 points. The overtime loss at Elon also prevented Georgia Southern from claiming the Southern Conference title and an automatic playoff bid.
“Each week, we’ve been tested, and we’ve come through,” Camp said. “We know we have a championship caliber team. That was the worst feeling of all. We don’t want that feeling ever again. That’s another thing we want to pass on to these young kids, to be that close and to not to make it. Hopefully, this year, we’ll get the job done.”
In five of its seven wins last year, the Eagles trailed or were tied in the fourth quarter. They have scored seven touchdowns after the third quarter in the first three games of 2008. To Hatcher, it’s reminiscent of some of his stellar teams at Valdosta State.
“I think they’re starting to grow up and more importantly, they’re starting to believe,” he said. “When you get a bunch of boys to believe you’re going to win no matter what the circumstances are, good things are going to happen to you.
“I hope we blow some folks out, but we may not be good enough to do that. But we’ve got a good enough team and if we limit the turnovers and limit the crazy mistakes we seem to make in crucial situations, we really have a chance to have a special year.”
• Notes: Kickoffs haven’t been a problem for the Eagles this year. Senior Patrick Bolen, a South Effingham alum, had three touchbacks out of five kickoffs last week. He averaged 65 yards per kickoff against Austin Peay two weeks ago.