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A return to traditions at Georgia Southern
Coach Chris Hatcher chalked up victory No. 1 in his debut as Georgia Southern football coach in the Eagles' 45-21 comeback win over West Georgia on Saturday. - photo by Photo by Pat Donahue

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Jayson Foster goes deep to connect with Mike McIntosh on an 81-yard touchdown pass.

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Lamar Lewis and T.J. Watkins pay honor to the bronze bust of the late Erk Russell.

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From the yellow school buses to the gray facemasks to the players singing “The Valley Song,” tradition made a triumphant return to Georgia Southern University’s Paulson Stadium on Saturday night.

Before the eighth-largest crowd in the stadium’s history, the Eagles did what they have done so many times there before — fell behind early, roar back in the second half and literally run an opponent into the ground. In the first game of the Chris Hatcher era, the Eagles scored 35 unanswered points after halftime and rolled up 477 yards rushing in a 45-21 win over Division II West Georgia.

“It just came down to who wanted it more,” Hatcher said. “It was a good way to start off. It was a good way for our guys to get a taste of what it feels like to win again.”

But the memories of last season, when the Eagles fell to Central Connecticut State in the opener and finished with five consecutive losses, were hard to shake after West Georgia dominated the opening 30 minutes, taking a 21-10 lead as the Eagles turned the ball over twice and could only get a field goal after recovering a blocked punt at the Wolves’ 4-yard line. West Georgia’s last visit to Paulson, in 1994, was a 15-14 West Georgia win.

“In the first half, we came out a little slow,” said senior quarterback Jayson Foster, tabbed as the starter Thursday. “We didn’t feel they stopped us.”

Said safety Chris Covington, GSU’s leading rusher a year ago: “There was nothing wrong with the gameplan. We just had to come out and play.”

So at halftime, the Eagles didn’t think they needed to change anything they were doing. They just needed to do it better.

“I didn’t know what to expect from our guys,” Hatcher said. “I thought we had a chance to put the game away early on. We just kind of floundered around. We didn’t have that killer instinct. We didn’t tackle well. We were trying to knock people out instead of wrapping them up.

“It was a great team effort in the second half.”

Hatcher parlayed a wide open offense into 76 wins and a Division II national championship at Valdosta State in seven seasons. In his inaugural game as the Eagles head coach, Southern reverted to the tried and true method that has brought six national championships to Paulson — the run.

Foster showed what he can do with the ball in his hands on every snap. He had rushing touchdowns of 54, 56 and 74 yards and added an 81-yard touchdown strike to Mike McIntosh for good measure.

In all, the rocket from Canton ran for 231 yards and threw for 124 more.

“He has a good command of what we want him to do,” Hatcher said. “He’s a great leader. He’s a special talent.”

Freshman Zeke Rozier has been heralded as the top recruit of Hatcher’s first signing class and he showed why. He powered his way through the Wolves’ defense for a 41-yard TD run that put GSU in front for good and added a 1-yard plunge later. His debut overshadowed a 150-yard day by junior Lamar Lewis.

“I was numb,” the former Bleckley County High star said of his first touchdown. “I had a hole a bus could have drove through.”

There were some new wrinkles to Georgia Southern’s fabric of lore Saturday, some of which may not get repeated. One, the rubbing of the bronze bust of the late Erk Russell in the west endzone, will be the Eagles’ version of Howard’s Rock at Clemson or Notre Dame’s “Play Like a Champion” sign.

Hatcher even resorted to one of the old Eagles coach’s tricks, headbutting the bust in tribute.

Another — Coach Hatcher driving one of the two yellow buses to the field from the Eagles — isn’t likely to become a habit.

“I heard so much about the buses, I figured, heck, I might as well be the one to drive it in on opening day,” he said.

The packed house and the rowdy fans were welcome sights and sounds to Hatcher and his staff, many of whom followed him from Valdosta State.

“This is what we worked for through our whole coaching careers, to get an opportunity to coach at a place like Georgia Southern,” he said.