ATHENS — Georgia Southern’s formula for success almost worked again.
The Eagles ran and ran and ran – and played solid defense – but UGA came away with a 23-17 overtime victory on Saturday.
The nation’s top rushing attack often turned to the option to rush for 233 yards — 145 less than its average — against a UGA defense that entered the game 36th in the FBS against the run at 139.6 yards a game.
“Some drives we looked real good,” said quarterback Favian Upshaw, who led the Eagles with 67 yards rushing. “The read-zone option looked real good against those guys. They’re just so fast, so physical. We did what we wanted to do on offense. We just came up short.”
Georgia Southern’s near upset came almost exactly two years after its 26-20 upset of Florida at The Swamp on Nov. 23, 2013.
Much has changed since that day.
Coach Jeff Monken left for Army a month after that victory and was replaced by Willie Fritz, who stayed true to Georgia Southern’s run-oriented roots.
And the Eagles moved from their long-time FCS home to the FBS, where they now reside in the Sun Belt Conference.
Georgia Southern entered averaging 378.9 yards rushing a game, No. 1 in the FCS.
Its ability to run the ball received unexpected recognition last week from Alabama coach Nick Saban, when he used some juicy language to describe how the Eagles ran for 302 yards in a November 2011 game that Alabama won 45-21.
Kevin Ellison, who ran for 115 yards to engineer the upset at Florida, is still at Georgia Southern, but he splits time with Upshaw at quarterback. Ellison was injured against UGA, so Upshaw was on the field in overtime, when the Bulldogs stopped running back L.A. Ramsby on fourth down.
“There were some tough yards,” Ramsby said. We got them when we needed them, except at the end. They made a big stop. It happens like that sometimes.”
The Eagles effectively used the read-zone option, mixed with quarterback keepers, on its two scoring drives. Upshaw said UGA was too fast and shut down the quarterback speed options.
“We came really close on a bunch of runs,” Fritz said. “There were about five or six run plays where we just didn’t quite hit it. It would have been a really big rip.”
They didn’t show option early and UGA forced punts on their first two possessions. The Bulldogs held them to 4 yards on the first six plays.
Georgia Southern quickly found success with deception and the option.
Upshaw found space around the left end on a 48-yard keeper to UGA’s 9-yard line. The Bulldogs stiffened and forced a field goal attempt that was wide right.
More option and quarterback runs ensued, which resulted in Georgia Southern driving for its only score of the first half.
Ellison ran on five of Georgia Southern’s first seven plays on its next drive.
Ellison ran for 20 yards on a keeper and made a late pitch to running back Matt Breida for a 23-yard gain to UGA’s 1. Ramsby scored the Eagles’ lone offensive touchdown on the next play.
“It was one of those games where we had some opportunities and just didn’t get it done,” Fritz said.