STATESBORO, Ga. — The Georgia Southern football team found a place to escape from the path of Hurricane Irma.
With mandatory evacuation orders in Chatham County from Gov. Nathan Deal set for today, the Eagles will play what was their scheduled home opener against New Hampshire at UAB’s Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala. Kickoff is set for 4 p.m. Eastern time, and the game will still be shown on ESPN3 and on the radio on the Georgia Southern Sports Network.
Irma’s timing will result in one less home game for the Eagles, giving them just four games at Paulson Stadium for 2017. Their official home opener won’t come until Oct. 4, a showdown with Sun Belt foe Arkansas State. The Eagles are off next week before hitting the road for a Sept. 23 contest against Indiana.
But it was clear that athletic director Tom Kleinlein was determined to make sure the game against New Hampshire i was played.
“We began watching that story several days ago as the rest of the country did,” Kleinlein told ESPN Coastal in a radio interview on Thursday. “When evacuations started in Florida, we really began to look at that thing. I got on the phone with the athletic director of New Hampshire and started to talk about scenarios. We’ve had experience in the past, very recent past around here. If this thing starts to threaten the coast of Georgia, we’ll probably be in an evacuation situation. We started having a conversation saying, ‘hey, we probably need to start looking at the possibility of relocating the football game.’”
The Eagles were dominated and overmatched by No. 13 Auburn last week in their season opener, a 41-7 beatdown in which they gained just 78 yards of total offense.
But the Eagles have a young team learning a new offense, meaning FCS New Hampshire should provide a better barometer for Georgia Southern.
The Wildcats, however, are ranked 12th in the FCS, and aren’t that far removed from Georgia Southern, which was an FCS program four years ago. Under head coach Sean McDonnell, New Hampshire has made the playoffs 13 straight years. The two programs last met in 2004, and the Wildcats came away with a 27-23 first-round playoff win in Statesboro.
“They’ve been in situations like this,” GS head coach Tyson Summers said Monday, before the announcement that the game would be moved to Birmingham. “This will not be a new environment for them. They’ve played at San Diego State, at San Jose State and at Toledo the last couple years, so they know exactly what this looks like. Obviously a good football team and a head coach who’s done an outstanding job over his tenure there.
“The head coach is someone who’s been here before, been to Paulson Stadium, and he’s a guy who has chosen to be there a long time and he’s had a lot of success through his career. When you start talking about really good FCS programs like the one New Hampshire has and continues to have and the sustainability they’ve had is really hard to do anywhere.”
What to watch for
Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts was noticeably rattled by a tenacious Auburn defense and a rambunctious crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The redshirt freshman will look to find his groove against New Hampshire, and the offense as a whole will seek to establish its identity.
Summers and Cook talked to members of the media on Monday about finding a balance of helping Werts become comfortable in the offense while not simplifying the scheme too much that it gives the defense the advantage.
“I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination our offense is going to be predictable,” Summers said.
“One of the big pieces I think with Bryan and the offensive staff we were able to bring in here was to bring in some different looks and some different views to things. We’re going to have to continue to look and expand our playbook, different looks we have from a formation standpoint or a motion standpoint to be able to give us a chance to be successful in the future.”