Following a 44-0 setback in Saturday’s season opener at West Virginia, the Georgia Southern Eagles are in the unfamiliar position of trying to regroup and rebound after a lopsided loss.
The Eagles’ pride might still be a bit scuffed up, and starting quarterback Kevin Ellison remains under an academic suspension. To top things off, a very challenging Western Michigan squad is set to roll into Statesboro this weekend for Georgia Southern’s home opener.
The Broncos are also coming off of a season-opening defeat, but showed plenty of talent in a 37-24 loss against No. 5 Michigan State. Western Michigan is a far cry from the all-but-guaranteed win over Savannah State in the 2014 home opener for the Eagles.
If Georgia Southern wants to avoid its first 0-2 start since the 1994 campaign, a few things have to get back in order:
Jump-start the offense
Georgia Southern’s trademark option running attack faced all sorts of problems when it lined up against a big and very fast West Virginia defense. The Eagles rushed for just 195 yards — nearly 200 below their 2014 average — and never looked comfortable in executing their game plan.
And for all the hopes of increasing the pass game’s effectiveness this season, the Eagles completed twice as many throws to West Virginia defensive backs (four) as they did to their own receivers.
“We’re going to continue to do what we do,” GSU coach Willie Fritz said. “We just have to do it better. West Virginia needs a lot of credit for playing very well, but there are definitely areas where we need to improve before next week.”
The Broncos won’t match the speed of the Mountaineers’ defense, but they make up a solid unit, and anything less than a fundamentally sound effort by the Eagles’ offense could easily lead to more struggles.
The Eagle defense was able to defend a short field a few times against West Virginia and kept the game within reach into the second half while hoping that the offense would come around. Georgia Southern looked strong against the run and got pressure on quarterback Skyler Howard several times but was victimized on a handful of deep balls.
Western Michigan likely took note of that fact and has the tools to continue to test the Eagle secondary. Broncos quarterback Zach Terrell threw for 365 yards and a pair of touchdowns, while both Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman topped 100 receiving yards against Michigan State.
Here before you know it
The West Virginia defense made no secret of the fact that it had been doing its homework on the Eagles throughout the offseason. The Mountaineers cut into summer workouts in order to get in more film study, and it paid off as they were often in the perfect place to stop the Eagles’ offense.
Western Michigan doesn’t have quite the same luxury. The coaching staff in Kalamazoo spent the summer well aware of its date in Statesboro, but also had Michigan State to prepare for last week.
“We’ve spent numerous days working on the option in the preseason,” WMU coach P.J. Fleck said. “It’s definitely a challenge and something that we need to be ready for.”
No panic on the horizon
Despite what turned out to be a pretty ugly score, Fritz sounded optimistic during his Sun Belt teleconference call Monday morning.
And with the vast majority of the season still lying ahead, he sees no reason to panic. A date with Western Michigan offers a chance for the Eagles to get things back on track, and all goals for defending their conference championship and making their first ever bowl game are unaffected by anything that happened in West Virginia.
“We had a tough night against a team that I think is going to have an excellent year,” Fritz said. “But there are no wholesale changes in store. We just have to improve and get ready for our next game.”