ELON, N.C. — Just a few weeks ago, with all the injuries Georgia Southern’s football team had suffered through this season, its chances of another winning season looked pretty slim.
Thanks to its underclassmen, the Eagles now have a two-game winning streak after beating Elon 38-20 on Saturday night at Rhodes Stadium in its final Southern Conference game.
Georgia Southern wrapped up a 20-year run in the Southern Conference by beating the Phoenix (2-9, 1-6) for the fourth consecutive year.
“It wasn’t pretty all the time,” Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken said. “We gave up a couple big plays, but held them to field goals. Then we got it going on offense, and were able to come away with a win.
“This being our last Southern Conference game, we wanted to leave an impression ... and the guys did a nice job of doing that.”
Redshirt freshman Kevin Ellison ran for a career-best 163 yards and two touchdowns, and freshman running back Irving Huggins added three short touchdown runs for Georgia Southern (6-4, 4-4).
“We had 52 scholarship players on this trip, and 19 of them were freshmen,” Monken said.
“The chances of a freshman getting in there and making a play were pretty good. But it’s good for our future. They’re getting some valuable experience.”
The victory assures the Eagles of their fourth consecutive .500-plus season, no matter how next week’s season finale at Florida turns out.
The list of Eagles players that have gone down to injuries before and during the season is a long one – among the key players are All-American back Dominique Swope (shoulder), 1,000-yard rusher Robert Brown (back and concussion), fullbacks James Dean (elbow) and William Banks (concussion), defensive end John Mention (shoulder), and linebackers Patrick Flowe (knee) and Antwione Williams (tricep).
The latest to go on the IR was senior quarterback Jerick McKinnon, the team’s leading rusher and scorer (991 yards, 11 TDs), who has struggled with ankle problems this season. He reinjured the ankle in last week’s win over Western Carolina, and was held out of Saturday’s game.
However, the Eagles’ underclassmen came up with career bests against Elon.
Ellison, McKinnon’s replacement, surpassed his career high of 135 yards, set in a win over The Citadel four weeks ago. He also put up his first two-TD game, scoring on runs of 53 (a career best) and 14 yards, and added a 56-yard run in the second quarter that set up Young Koo’s 49-yard field goal and a 17-6 halftime lead.
“Going through this whole season, we knew we were going to be a young unit in a lot of positions,” said Ellison, who also threw for 104 yards, completing 5 of 11 passes. “When it became our chance, we had to go in there and play hard.”
Huggins, making just his fourth game appearance, had three 2-yard scoring runs – his first career mult-touchdown game – and finished with 67 yards rushing. And sophomore back Nardo Govan added 84 rushing yards, including a career-best 49-yard run early in the second quarter.
“This was a big win right here,” Huggins said. “This’ll give us some momentum for next year (when Georgia Southern moves to the Sun Belt).”
However, the Eagles needed a little momentum boost from their defense, which held Elon to field goals of 44 and 24 yards on its first two possessions – the second of which was stopped at the 7-yard line – and a 6-0 Phoenix lead. But Ellison’s 53-yard TD run on Georgia Southern’s third possession began a 31-point scoring run that put the Eagles firmly in control.