Game 12 Preview: Georgia Southern
It’s that time of the year again. Leaves are changing, Christmas music is playing in stores and the annual State/Southern game is nigh. The Panthers (7-4, 4-3 in Sun Belt) and the Eagles (6-5, 4-3 in Sun Belt) have both had, shall we say, interesting seasons. Georgia State comes into this game hoping to cap off their best regular season in program history after a program-defining win at Tennessee, a few frustrating losses on the road and a record 5-1 home campaign enabled by a high-powered offense. Georgia Southern got off to somewhat of a slow start in 2019 but have managed to find their footing. And in typical Eagle fashion, they rained on Appalachian State’s parade in Boone on Halloween night, knocking the Mountaineers out of the top 25 (temporarily, at least) for the second straight season.
This matchup always inspires message board warfare and fiery trash talk, but this year’s edition won’t just see bragging rights up for grabs. Both teams are qualified for a bowl berth – along with three other Sun Belt teams – but it is possible for Troy and/or ULM to defeat their respective division leaders – App State and Louisiana – this weekend to get to 6 wins (and bowl eligibility). If that unlikely scenario unfolds, there would be six or seven eligible teams for five bowl slots. A Panther victory would mean that the Eagles would fall to 6-6 on the season, which could lead to a nightmare scenario for the folks in Statesboro in a timeline with six or more bowl-eligible Sun Belt teams. And even if this result doesn’t impact either of these teams going to a bowl, the result does likely affect which bowl they do go to. A win could be the difference between a short trip to Montgomery (for the Camellia Bowl) and a long flight to Tucson (for the Arizona Bowl).
But – to quote every college football coach ever – “Let’s focus on Saturday.” To absolutely no one’s surprise, Georgia Southern’s rushing offense is ranked ninth in the FBS averaging 259.9 yards per game. The Eagles are also ranked dead last in passing offense at 130th and 72.7 yards per game. Georgia State comes in flexing slightly more balanced numbers, ranked 11th in rushing at 257.6 yards per game and 91st in passing with 203.5 yards per game. The caveat with these aggregate stats for Georgia State is that, as has been much-discussed, quarterback Dan Ellington is playing through a major knee injury. This isn’t the same offense from earlier in the year. But the Panthers have tapped into a new offensive philosophy, leaning more on an effective quick passing game to set up the run – given Ellington’s limitations in the run game – and found success in last week’s win over South Alabama.
Georgia Southern, though, is a better team than South Alabama. The Eagles enter this game as the Sun Belt’s top rushing defense and will want to replicate App State’s smothering defense against the Panthers’ run attack. Georgia State has previously run the ball down the throat of the top Sun Belt rushing defense (See: Georgia State vs Troy) but – as alluded to earlier – this is not the same Panther offense. Offensive coordinator Brad Glenn will still look to get the ground game going but he will have to rely on play-action and short passes where the defenders ain’t to allow those holes to open up. If Georgia State can’t find the passing rhythm they had last week against South Alabama, the Eagles can stack the box and feast on the running backs up the middle. WR Sam Pinckney’s continued absence could be a factor in this game, as Southern boasts one of the best cornerback duos in the conference in seniors Monquavion Brinson and Kindle Vildor. Cornelius McCoy will draw tough coverage no matter which of these two he’s lined up against, so it may be up to the slot receivers and tight ends in the middle to find space and make plays.
Many questions have been asked of the Georgia State defense in the tenure of defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua, but the unit has enjoyed moderate-to-good success defending against option offenses. Limiting the big plays is a big key to stopping an option offense and the Panthers largely did so in their 28-21 win over triple-option team Army in October. The defense is down several key impact players but don’t count the young guns out. The underclassmen have been making waves, with multiple freshmen and sophomores – the likes of Hardrick Willis, Zach Dixon and Chris Bacon – putting up impressive performances of late. Georgia Southern’s offense hinges on a duo of running backs in Wesley Kennedy III and J.D. King as well as quarterback Shai Werts, these three combining for 18 of the Eagles’ 23 touchdowns on the season. Containing these offensive threats will be a steep challenge for the Georgia State defense, but it’s a defensive unit that is coming off their best performance in weeks and confidence could be a key coming into this game.
Can this new-life 2019 Georgia State team continue to hone their offensive rhythm with an injured-but-determined Dan Ellington at the helm and hold it together on defense? Or will the explosiveness of Kennedy and Werts net the Eagles their first home win in this rivalry? Rivalry games are where college football’s best moments often happen. Georgia State will need to be focused and efficient to ensure that this game’s best moments don’t end up on Georgia Southern’s highlight reel. Kickoff in Statesboro is 6PM, with the game being broadcast on ESPN+.