ATHENS — The Georgia Southern Eagles have come a long way since their days of enduring double-digit losses to the Georgia Bulldogs.
The Eagles pushed their in-state rivals to the brink Saturday night, but Georgia prevailed — as it has all six times in the series — sneaking away with a 23-17 overtime victory at Sanford Stadium.
The teams were knotted up at 7-7 after the first half and regulation ended in a 17-17 draw. When the Eagles (7-3) weren’t able to put up points on their overtime possession, the Bulldogs (8-3) were able to pull off the win.
“I’m really proud of our guys,” GSU coach Willie Fritz said. “I thought we really competed. Unfortunately, things didn’t go our way. We had lots of opportunities but just didn’t get it done.”
With the loss, Georgia Southern suffered its third near-miss in an upset bid of a “Power 5” opponent since moving up to the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks last season. In 2014, the Eagles had fourth-quarter leads on both Georgia Tech and North Carolina State of the Atlantic Coast Conference before falling in the final minutes each game. The “Power 5” conferences are the Atlantic Coast, Southeastern, Big 12, Big 10 and Pac-12.
The Eagles now go back into Sun Belt play Saturday when they host South Alabama at 2 p.m.
Against Georgia, two losses on running plays led to a wild scramble by Favian Upshaw that came up just short of the first-down marker on the Eagles’ first possession of overtime. Georgia Southern elected to go for it on fourth and 1, but L.A. Ramsby was stopped cold on a direct snap run.
One play later, Georgia running back Sony Michel burst through the middle on a 25-yard touchdown run to clinch the win for the Bulldogs.
“It’s something we’ve done. I’m pretty aggressive,” Fritz said of the decision not to kick in overtime. “We just didn’t block it. Obviously, if I could change it I would, but you can’t do that.”
In the end, the UGA defense proved to be just a bit too strong for the Eagles’ formidable run game. Georgia Southern gained 233 yards on the ground, but leading rusher Matt Breida was limited to just 66 yards, and solid run defense early in possessions constantly left GSU needing big yardage to move the chains.
Georgia Southern took its first second-half lead in the series history early in the third quarter when Ironhead Gallon forced a fumble from Isaiah McKenzie. Caleb Williams pounced on the ball, running 65 yards untouched for a 14-7 lead.
“We started a little slow and got behind, but then we played pretty good,” GSU safety Matt Dobson said. “One or two plays you look back on, and if we make those, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
The Eagle defense continued to make life tough for the Bulldog attack, but disaster struck late in the third quarter. After forcing a three-and-out from the UGA offense, Derek Keaton couldn’t handle the ensuing Brice Ramsey punt, and the Bulldogs fell on the muffed kick at the GSU 29.
Latching onto prosperity, Georgia drove into the Eagle red zone and Greyson Lambert (16 of 25, 183 yards, TD) found Terry Godwin on a 12-yard touchdown to even the game at 14-14.
As the game dragged into the fourth quarter, the special teams remained in the spotlight.
Georgia Southern was able to sustain a 13-play, 44-yard drive that reached the Georgia 31. The Eagles initially left the offense on the field for fourth down, but sent Younghoe Koo in following a timeout. Koo split the uprights from 48 yards out to regain a 17-14 advantage for the Eagles.
The Bulldogs tore down the field on their next drive, but stalled just outside of the GSU red zone. Morgan stepped onto the field and connected on a 43-yard field goal to knot things up with 6:06 to play.
Over the final minutes of regulation, it was Georgia Southern that had the best chance to pull out a win. The Eagles gained possession at their own 37 with 2:48 to play and got solid runs by Breida and Ramsby to cross midfield. The Eagles clawed their way to the UGA 40 with 42 seconds left, but elected not to try a 57-yard field goal and instead punted the ball back to Georgia, which ran off the rest of regulation time.
“We really just wanted to get that one for the seniors,” Upshaw said. “Just being so close you can almost taste it and then not being able to get it done for those guys — that’s what hurts the most.”
In the early minutes of the game, overtime didn’t seem as though it would come into play.
Georgia went straight to work on its first series of the game. The Bulldogs ripped off six consecutive plays of 5 or more yards and — just as the Eagles stacked the box to defend against an inside run — a speed sweep around the left end gave Isaiah McKenzie clearance for a 23-yard touchdown scamper.
The Eagles’ first possession provided no similar luck. Georgia Southern managed just a yard on two runs before losing 3 on a third-down pass and punting away. The Eagle defense held on its second try, but UGA downed a punt inside the GSU 1, and the Eagles again went three-and-out.
The Bulldogs held all the momentum and looked to be moving in for a big early lead before Darius White tracked down UGA receiver Malcolm Mitchell on a pass reception at the GSU 10, forcing a fumble and falling on it to keep the early score at 7-0.
Upshaw finally sparked the Eagle offense on the first play of the second quarter, sprinting 48 yards down the left sideline to the UGA 9. But the drive came up empty, as the offense was pushed back and Koo missed a 31-yard field-goal attempt.
Georgia drove back down the field before Marshall Morgan missed a field goal of his own, misfiring from 48 yards.
In the end, the Eagles got exactly what they wanted — to be in the game until the end. Now, it’s just a matter of getting the “Power 5” win that still eludes them.
“They’re very disappointed,” Fritz said of the team. “They came in here with the intentions of winning, and we felt like we could. We just didn’t quite get it done.”