STATESBORO, Ga. — Georgia Southern doesn’t know how to win.
That’s how interim head coach Chad Lunsford summed up what transpired in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s 21-17 loss to rival Georgia State at Paulson Stadium.
“They’re trying, they’re playing their butts off, but we don’t know how to win and we’ve got to figure out how to win,” Lunsford said after the defeat.
Clinging to a 17-14 lead with a defense playing its best game of the season, the Eagles’ first victory of 2017 was snatched away when running back Wesley Fields fumbled an option pitch, and the Panthers recovered at the GS 36-yard line.
The defense had previously forced a three-and-out, an interception and a missed field goal from the Panthers, but the offense gave Georgia State (5-3, 4-1 Sun Belt) one too many chances.
Panthers quarterback Conner Maning threw underneath to Glenn Smith for a gain of 16 yards, then found Penny Hart — the Sun Belt’s leading receiver averaging 97.9 yards per game and seven touchdowns — in the corner of the end zone for a 9-yard score. Hart was covered tightly, but the ball was thrown only where he could get it, and he managed to get a foot down in the end zone before being pushed out of bounds. That put GSU up by four with 2:31 left to play.
The fumble that set up the game-winning touchdown was Fields’ second of the game, and slotback Myles Campbell fumbled on the first play of the game, and it was returned for a touchdown by GSU’s Chandon Sullivan.
“Biggest thing you take from it is we have to hold on to the football,” Lunsford said. “Ball security. Ball security. Ball security. We take care of the ball, we win the ball game. Defense played a really good game, but when it comes down to it, you put the ball on the ground, hard to win.”
The Eagles (0-8, 0-4 Sun Belt) mounted a late drive when quarterback Shai Werts tried to hit Malik Henry in the end zone, resulting in a pass interference that gave the Eagles the ball at the Panthers’ 26 with 28 seconds remaining.
Werts completed a pass to Darion Anderson for 11 yards, but as the quarterback was getting set to spike the ball and kill the clock, offensive lineman Ryan Northrup was called for a false start with 15 seconds to play. The Eagles had to burn their last timeout to avoid a 10-second run-off along with the penalty. The game ended when Werts was flushed from the pocket and brought down well short of the goal line.
“We work on it every week,” Lunsford said about his team’s clock management on the final drive. “We’re constantly talking about timeouts, constantly talking about when to clock the ball, what we do when we get a first down.”
But the coach pointed back at everything that happened leading up to that drive as to why the Eagles are still winless. Georgia Southern hasn’t been in a situation this season when they’ve had to protect a fourth-quarter lead, and the Eagles avoided that situation entirely, Lunsford said.
“There’s a lot of things you’re going to see in this game where we could’ve put the game away early,” he said. “We haven’t been in those situations a lot this year, and we can learn from it, but we’re going to see a lot of things right here where we could’ve won this football game.”
Standing out in his mind was Campbell’s fumble on the opening play of the game that put Georgia Southern in a 7-0 hole just 14 seconds into the game.
“Three turnovers, it cost us,” Campbell said. “I’m part of the blame for that, and I’ve got to take responsibility for it and just get better. (The tackler) just knocked it out, and I didn’t keep it. I didn’t do what I was supposed to do.”
Georgia Southern won’t have much time to dwell on the loss as it is slated to face its other rival, Appalachian State, on Thursday night in Boone, N.C.
Sitting at 0-8, Lunsford was asked during his postgame press conference about what is left to play for the rest of the season.
A winning season and a bowl game are off the table, but his young players can start learning how to win, he said.
“It’s been about sending our seniors out with that winning feeling, and the other goal is for our seniors to pass it on to the young guys how to win,” he said. “We’re learning how to win, so when it comes next year, that’s what happens.”
GST—Sullivan 28 fumble return (Bra.Wright kick), 14:43
GSO—M.Campbell 12 pass from S.Werts (Bass kick), 6:40
GSO—FG Bass 48, :15
GSO—S.Werts 5 run (Bass kick), 1:37
GST—R.Carter 4 pass from Manning (Bra.Wright kick), :27
GST—Hart 9 pass from Manning (Bra.Wright kick), 2:31
Time of Possession|26:27|33:33
RUSHING—Georgia St., G.Smith 11-49, Neal 4-11, Winchester 1-4, (Team) 1-(minus 2), Manning 7-(minus 13). Georgia Southern, S.Werts 15-63, Fields 14-57, M.Garrett 6-31, Ramsby 8-23, W.Kennedy 2-10, M.Campbell 1-6, K.Brown 3-5, Henry 1-2.
PASSING—Georgia St., Manning 22-37-1-319. Georgia Southern, S.Werts 22-28-0-147.
RECEIVING-Georgia St., Hart 8-191, G.Smith 8-57, R.Carter 4-42, Gentry 1-16, T.Jones 1-13. Georgia Southern, Henry 8-47, M.Campbell 6-30, Fortune 4-44, Fields 2-6, D.Anderson 1-11, Glenn 1-9.
MISSED FIELD GOALS—Georgia St., Bra.Wright 32, Bra.Wright 53.