STATESBORO — Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts made a perfectly timed pitch to Monteo Garrett, and 74 yards later the Eagles knew what it felt like to have a lead for the first time in 2017.
But they’re still searching for that feeling of a first win.
For one half of football, the Eagles went toe-to-toe Wednesday night with Arkansas State and looked to have found their swagger on offense.
Georgia Southern scored 17 points, rushed for 216 yards and had 11 rushes of 7 yards or more in the first half — the vast majority of it coming in the second quarter.
The Eagles trailed 22-17 at half time, but Arkansas State put its foot on the gas, scoring two touchdowns within the first four minutes of the third quarter, pulling away for a 43-25 win to spoil the Eagles home opener.
After Garrett recorded Georgia Southern’s longest play from scrimmage this season and gave GS a 10-9 lead, the Eagles didn’t hold the lead for long.
Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen, who threw four interceptions on the night, threw into triple coverage but somehow got the ball to his receiver, Christian Booker. GS corner back Kindle Vildor also put two hands on the football and fell to the ground with Booker. Replay showed Booker never lost control of the ball as he fell to the ground, but officials gave Vildor the interception, and Georgia Southern had the ball back.
But the Eagles sputtered again on offense, and Werts was sacked on third-and-seven, and ASU defensive end Caleb Caston forced a fumble that was recovered by teammate Hunter Moreton.
With a first-and-10 on the GS 25, ASU running back Warren Wand found the seam on the right side and ran into the end zone untouched. Sawyer Williams missed a second straight extra point, and the Red Wolves led 15-10.
Georgia Southern finally capitalized on Hansen’s third pick of the half. He overthrew his intended target on a quick hitch, and the ball went straight to Eagles cornerback Monquavion Brinson. GS took over at the 20-yard line, and Wesley Fields punched it in for his first touchdown of the season on an 8-yard option pitch.
With 1:03 remaining in the second quarter, it looked like Georgia Southern would have the lead at halftime.
It took just 43 seconds for that to change. Chris Murray caught his second long touchdown pass of the night, a 59-yarder in which he ran down the seam uncovered.
It took just 45 seconds of the third quarter for the Red Wolves to find the end zone again. Hansen threw a corner fade to tight end Blake Mack, who caught the ball in between two defenders and got his feet down in the end zone for the score.
On the next Georgia Southern possession, Werts underthrew a downfield receiver by 10 yards, and the pass was intercepted by Michael Johnson. The Red Wolves struck again quickly with a three-play drive ending in a 12-yard touchdown run by Wand, giving ASU its third touchdown in less than four minutes of game time.
Werts connected with receiver Obe Fortune on a 50-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 36-25 with 11:08 left in the game, but the Eagles turned the ball over on downs on their next possession. Hansen iced the game with his fourth touchdown of the night, a 37-yarder to Omar Bayless, who caught the ball one-handed despite being interfered with.
Georgia Southern put up nearly 500 yards of offense, while the defense struggled throughout the game. The secondary, predicted to be Georgia Southern’s strength coming into the season, was repeatedly beat in man coverage and yielded 316 yards through the air.
In the week leading up to the game, Georgia Southern head coach Tyson Summers talked about the importance of starting strong and winning the first quarter. The Eagles gained just one first down on four possessions in the first frame and started three and out on their first three drives. They had an opportunity to jump ahead when Chris DeLaRosa intercepted Hansen at the GS 39-yard line, but the offense couldn’t do anything, and there appeared to be a miscommunication on a third-down option play between Werts and Campbell.
Werts ran for 112 yards on 29 carries and was 10 of 18 passing for 160 yards and a touchdown. Fields carried 17 times for 72 yards and a score.