The third-ranked Eagles scored 35 second-half points, including four touchdowns in the final 18 minutes, 29 seconds to beat Furman 38-17.
Georgia Southern (6-1, 5-1 Southern Conference) won its fifth consecutive game and remained atop the league standings.
But it wasn’t as easy as the final score might indicate.
The Eagles trailed 7-3 at halftime and were still behind 10-9 before Jerick McKinnon and Zach Walker teamed on a 75-yard bomb.
Georgia Southern defensive tackle Brent Russell said the team didn’t have a choice but to respond to fiery coach Jeff Monken, who lit into the players at halftime.
“You’re either going to get sparked or get back on the bus,” Russell said.
Whatever was said worked. Georgia Southern outgained Furman 180-22 in the third quarter with a big chunk coming on the touchdown pass. The Eagles entered the game dead last in the FCS with 34.5 passing yards a game, but finished with 165 yards on 10 attempts through the air.
They didn’t attempt a pass in a 17-9 victory over Wofford a week ago.
“We’re going to do whatever we need to to win the football game,” Monken said.
“There’s no plan going in that we’re going to throw it at all, much less this many times. We want to run the ball. But they were doing a good job stopping the run.
The McKinnon-to-Walker bomb and Darreion Robinson’s two-point conversion run gave the Eagles a 17-10 lead.
Johnathan Bryant weaved through Furman’s defense for a 42-yard touchdown to make it 24-10.
Four plays later, a fumble recovery by Dion DuBose and his 44-yard return gave Georgia Southern possession at the Furman 5. Two plays later, Dominique Swope scored from the 4.
“I hate to say it but we came out flat,” Bryant said. “If we had lost to Furman, you know to win the Southern Conference would be a no go.”
Monken wasn’t going to let that happen.
“We got after (the GSU players) at halftime and they deserved it,” Monken said. “They weren’t playing very good and they weren’t as focused and as intense as they needed to be. We had an intense ballgame last week, but you’ve got to come back and do it again.”
With just 20 seconds left to play, Southern punched in another touchdown on a Swope run. Monken decided to go for a two-point conversion and finished the scoring with another Swope run.
Some Paladins and Eagles exchanged words after the game.
“I know that initially upset coach (Bruce) Fowler and the folks from Furman,” Monken said. “Not at all was that malicious. I didn’t look carefully and see there was 20 seconds to go and try to calculate (the scenario of Furman making a comeback). …
“I would never try to put a black mark on this rivalry by trying to run up the score on anybody.”
Fowler didn’t sound upset after the game.
“It was just a hard-fought game,” Fowler said. “Coach Monken and I coached together as assistants on opposite sides of the ball and I have a tremendous amount of respect for coach Monken and his program.”
Fowler and the Paladins took the early advantage, using a mixture of Jerodis Williams’ inside running and a safe passing attack to take a 7-3 first-half lead.
Williams, a 5-11senior tailback, returned the opening kickoff 41 yards and touched the ball 12 of Furman’s 29 plays during the opening 30 minutes.
Williams ran 11 times for 77 yards, but his 10-yard catch of a screen pass began a seven-play, 55-yard drive that resulted in Ernie Cain’s 2-yard touchdown run with one minute and 50 seconds left in the half.
The run trumped a 32-yard field goal by GSU’s Alex Hanks on the first play of the second quarter.
Both teams had other chances. Paladins kicker Ray Early missed a 37-yard field goal attempt on the opening drive when he hit the left upright.
Southern had a chance to retake the lead in the closing minutes of the second quarter. Monken inserted quarterback Ezayi Youyoute, who completed three passes for 46 yards and ran for another 29 yards, and the Eagles marched from their 20 to the FU 10.
But Youyoute fumbled the snap and Paladin Mitch McGrath recovered at the 8 with 40 seconds left in the half.
“When you get kicked down, you can’t hang your head,” Bryant said. “You have to go back for that next play. We’re learning that and we’re making this a special season.”