CLOSE CALLSThe Citadel has lost five straight to Georgia Southern by an average of 7.2 points:Year Score2007 GSU, 21-172008 GSU, 44-41 (3 OT)2009 GSU, 13-62010 GSU, 20-02011 GSU, 14-12

On paper, Georgia Southern vs. The Citadel seems an annual mismatch, a perennial national championship contender against a team fighting to escape the lower division of Southern Conference football.

On the field, however, Eagles vs. Bulldogs has developed in recent years into a real struggle that’s usually decided in the final minutes. Georgia Southern has won the last five games by an average of just 7.2 points, and that includes a 20-0 game in 2010 in which the Bulldogs fumbled nine times. Other scores include a 44-41 triple-overtime game in 2008 and last year’s 14-12 fray in Statesboro, when the Bulldogs missed a wind-blown field goal at the buzzer.

Over the same period, by way of contrast, The Citadel has lost five games to another SoCon power, Appalachian State, by an average of 15.2 points, and five straight to nemesis Wofford by an unsightly 25.2 points per game.

What is it, then, about Georgia Southern?

“It’s because of their tradition,” said Citadel senior safety Austin Boyle, whose team hosts the FCS third-ranked Eagles on Saturday at Johnson Hagood Stadium. “They are nationally ranked every year, they’ve won (six) national championships, so everyone is excited to play them.

“If you can’t get excited to play Georgia Southern, you are playing the wrong sport.”

Both teams have been back in the flexbone triple-option for three years, the Eagles returning to their traditional offense under coach Jeff Monken, who is 22-8 at GSU.

“We know it’s going to be an extremely physical game when we play them,” Citadel tackle Neal Strange said. “We go in knowing that Georgia Southern knows what we are going to do, and we know what they are doing. It just comes down to who executes the best.”

Citadel coach Kevin Higgins, whose team opened the season with a 49-14 win over Charleston Southern, will be happy if the Bulldogs can again get to the fourth quarter with a chance to win Saturday.

Georgia Southern racked up 557 yards, all on the ground, in a 58-0 rout of Jacksonville.

“They probably could have scored close to 100 if they wanted to,” Higgins said. “They are an explosive, explosive team. And their defense is as good as any I’ve seen from any team in the Southern Conference.”

The Eagles’ new quarterback, Ezayi Youyoute, went 79 yards for a TD on GSU’s second play, and finished with 164 yards and three TDs. Last year’s backup QB, Jerick McKinnon, is playing slotback and ran for 71 yards and a TD on 11 carries. Fullback Dominique Swope had 104 yards and three TDs on 13 tries.

GSU did not complete a pass, going 0 of 8 with two interceptions, both by backup QBs.

The key to turning a close game into a win will be turnovers, Higgins said.

“We have to get some extra possessions in this game to win the game,” he said. “That has to take place. Interceptions, balls on the ground, special teams making plays. We have to find two or three more possessions to give ourselves a shot.”

Notes

Citadel defensive end Chris Billingslea was named SoCon defensive player of the week with eight tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two pass breakups vs. CSU ... Slotback Dalton Trevino (knee) is questionable for GSU … Safety Julian Baxter is battling an ankle injury, and freshman Nick Willis will likely make his second start vs. GSU.