ATLANTA — While most of the football aficionados in Georgia are wondering why Nick Chubb didn’t get the ball when the Bulldogs absolutely, positively had to get 1 yard against Vanderbilt, the state’s option-esque programs waged a quiet encounter in the capital city.
Paul Johnson, the grandmaster of the triple-option offense, got the better of his old program’s transitioning variation again as Georgia Tech didn’t have to sweat out the waning seconds of a 35-24 win over Georgia Southern. While there was nothing major at stake in a midseason non-conference matchup, it was a critical victory nonetheless for the Yellow Jackets to snap a three-game losing streak.
And it was a tough pill to swallow for Georgia Southern, on a three-game slide of its own and not accepting of any kind of moral victory in its quest to finally beat a major in-state opponent.
What drew me to Bobby Dodd Stadium on Saturday, however, wasn’t a clash of two unique offenses or bragging rights but a slew of familiar faces on defense.
At every moment on Saturday, somebody from Thomson or Washington County was playing defense. Much of the day, Georgia Southern deployed three local defenders at once.
A.J. Gray is a staple at safety for the Yellow Jackets, and the talented sophomore’s afternoon consisted of making seven tackles including one goal-line stop and a team-high three for losses. The former Washington County quarterback also officially ended any potential late drama by recovering an onsides kick.
After the game and during several intervals in between, Gray was reunited with his old Golden Hawks teammate Logan Hunt, who has already made himself an indispensable sophomore starter as defensive end for Georgia Southern.
“It’s a blessing to play at this level and have that opportunity,” said Hunt, who posed for a picture with Gray after the game.
Opposite Hunt at the other end of the Eagles’ line is former Thomson star Bernard Dawson, a senior who has been a fixture as starting edge lineman for three seasons. Dawson’s old Bulldogs classmate William Bussey Jr. roams around at linebacker for Southern as well. Back on signing day in 2013, Dawson and Bussey opted to join teammate Chris Jordan and sign with the Eagles with the intent of putting their stamp on the program.
“I like the fact that I’ve been playing with these guys since we all were young, going all the way back to third grade,” Dawson said four years ago when he changed his mind and decided to go to Georgia Southern. “It feels good to be successful in high school with my friends and take it to the next level and get better. Georgia Southern is a great program with a tremendous amount of history and they’re always going to be winning.”
It came as no surprise to any of them that four guys who met in a battle of Region 3-AAA unbeatens back in 2012 would end up on the field together again in a Division I game.
“Everybody knows we’ve got some pretty good players coming from the CSRA,” said Bussey, rattling off all of the Thomson and Washington County names who proliferated the field Saturday. “It’s nice to see people from our area come out doing what they love doing.”
Said Dawson: “I remember the rivalry between Thomson and WACO and this shows the talent those schools are able to produce. ... It builds a brotherhood.”
Gray, as is often his custom, got to play a starring role on Saturday. He and fellow Yellow Jackets safety Corey Griffin were unleashed more aggressively to disrupt the Eagles offense and did just that with a combined 17 tackles including six for loss.
“They let us play man coverage like we wanted to play inside; that allowed us to play more loose,” Gray said. “Some plays (Griffin) was rolled down in the box and some plays I was rolled down in the box. That’s kind of our game because we can play fast and not worry about the same thing over and over.”
Georgia Southern had to fight from behind from the start as two long scoring plays – a 58-yard option run by Justin Thomas and a 65-yard pass from Thomas to Clinton Lynch – got the Eagles’ defense off on the wrong foot.
But, Georgia Southern shut the Yellow Jackets out for two quarters and came a couple of frustrating third-down conversions in the fourth quarter from giving the Eagles a chance to pull off what everyone outside of Statesboro, Ga., would have considered an upset.
“We stoned them for a couple quarters but we couldn’t get off the field on third down and that hurt us,” said Dawson, who along with Bussey registered one tackle while Hunt accounted for four.
Saturday’s game was the last chance for Dawson and Bussey to win against Georgia or Georgia Tech, and it stung to leave without having crossed off that item. They did get to experience beating Florida a few years ago and have another major shot to shock doubters at Ole Miss in three weeks.
While the Eagles (3-3) left Grant Field without the historic win it hoped for, the effort wasn’t without positives as they still seek a Sun Belt title and bowl berth.
“We were able to come out and show that we could play after getting down, and that’s a good sign for the rest of our Sun Belt play,” Dawson said. “The motto here at Georgia Southern is we expect to win every game. It doesn’t matter who or when we play, we expect to win that game.”