STATESBORO, Ga. — Georgia Southern did not play one of its better games this season Saturday. Fortunately for the Eagles, neither did Western Carolina.
The Eagles closed out the home portion of their schedule with a 36-19 win over the Catamounts.
Georgia Southern finishes with road games at Elon and Florida.
It was homecoming and Senior Day at Paulson Stadium, and 16 seniors said goodbye as Georgia Southern moved within one win of clinching a winning season. It was the Eagles’ 19th consecutive victory over Western Carolina in the Southern Conference.
The Eagles are leaving the SoCon for the Sun Belt Conference next year and this was the final meeting scheduled between the two schools. Georgia Southern pushed its lead in the series to 22-2, with Western Carolina’s wins coming in 1941 and 1994.
The Eagles (5-4, 3-4) lost four of five fumbles, both season highs, but their defense helped make up for it with four interceptions, also a season high. Georgia Southern entered the game with six interceptions on the season, and ranked eighth in the conference in pass defense.
“It wasn’t easy, but I’m proud of our team for finding a way to win,” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. “We took advantage of turnovers in the first half, which we haven’t been doing this year.”
Western Carolina came into the game with expectations of giving the reeling Eagles, who had lost back-to-back games, and three of their past four, a test.
In their last game two weeks ago, the Catamounts beat Elon 27-24 in overtime to snap a 26-game losing streak in conference play, and coach Mark Spier thought his team might be seeing some light at the end of the tunnel.
“This was a very disappointing loss,” Spier said. “Defensively at times we played good and got them where we wanted them, but they capitalized on our mistakes. You’ll never stop that offense but to create five fumbles … I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a game where we created five fumbles and lost.
“We had absolutely poor quarterback play. We did not do a good job preparing our offense. The defense played well enough for us to win, but offensively we were just poor. We’ve got to find a quarterback that gives us a chance to win.”
Western Carolina quarterbacks Troy Mitchell and Eddie Sullivan combined to complete only 18 of 40 passes for 158 yards. Mitchell struggled as he was 12 for 23 for 94 yards with three picks.
Georgia Southern had 345 yards rushing. Former Augusta Christian standout William Banks had 86 yards on the ground.
Kevin Ellison added 83, and Jerick McKinnon 68. The Eagles were 2-for-4 passing for 26 yards.
On a day in which it wore jerseys and helmets designed to look like those worn prior to World War II, Georgia Southern wasted no time in getting on the board.
On the first play of the game Lavelle Westbrooks intercepted Mitchell at the 33-yard line, and the Eagles quickly took advantage. Westbrooks had an interception later in the game, and Matt Dobson also had two.
On first down, the Catamounts were called for pass interference and then McKinnon ran 18 yards around the right side for the first of his two touchdowns on the day.
Western Carolina showed its mettle by taking the ensuing kickoff and marching 75 yards. However, the Eagles blocked the extra point, a play that proved to be costly as Deion Stanley suffered a knee injury on the scramble for the football.
“It looks pretty bad,” Monken said after the game. “We’ll get it checked out, but it doesn’t look good.”
Stanley, a junior defensive back from Twiggs County, leads the Eagles with three interceptions, and is one of their leading tacklers. His injury is a continuation of the series of season-ending injuries to key players.
On its next possession, Georgia Southern drove to the Catamount 23 where Banks fumbled. After holding Western Carolina to a three-and-out the Eagles drove 55 yards on 11 plays, scoring on the first play of the second quarter.
Da’Quan Heard, a redshirt freshman tight end, got the touchdown on a 19-yard pass from McKinnon. It was the first catch of Heard’s career.
The Eagles generated some breathing room with 5:33 left in the half when McKinnon scored on a 36-yard run. It was McKinnon’s 41st career touchdown, tying him with Tracy Ham for seventh place on the career list.
Western Carolina had to go only 10 yards for its first touchdown of the second half when Tray Butler fumbled a punt, the first of two punts he booted.
Mitchell’s 2-yard pass to Karnorris Benson made it 21-13, but Georgia Southern responded with a 69-yard drive capped by Nardo Govan’s 2-yard run. With 6:23 to play Ellison made it 35-13 with a 1-yard run one play after he had dashed 40 yards.