With no titles or trophies to play for in this season of transition for Georgia Southern, Eagles football coach Jeff Monken was not shy about setting goals for his team.
Who: The Citadel (2-4, 2-2) at Georgia Southern (3-2, 1-2)
When: 1 p.m. Saturday
Where: Paulson Stadium, Statesboro, Ga.
“We have yet to go 8-0 in the Southern Conference,” Monken said before the season. “That’s been one of our goals. It would be hard to argue we’re not Southern Conference champions if we go 8-0 in the league.”
And in an open letter to GSU fans, Monken wrote, “This senior class has the goal of winning another Southern Conference championship, whether anyone else will recognize it or not. To go 8-0 in the SoCon would make a statement about this football team and this program.”
The idea of an undefeated final tour through the SoCon didn’t make it past Georgia Southern’s league opener, a 30-20 loss to Wofford. And heading into today’s game against The Citadel, the Eagles are 3-2 overall and 1-2 in the SoCon, including a 44-34 loss at Samford last week.
What’s gone wrong at Georgia Southern, which has won or shared 10 SoCon titles and six FCS national championships and will leave the SoCon to play at the FBS level in the Sun Belt Conference?
“We are flat struggling right now with injuries,” said Monken, whose team is ineligible for the SoCon championship and FCS playoffs this season due to the FBS move. “We are so banged up and beat up. I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced a season like this with so many guys hurt.”
Monken said “20 scholarship players” missed last week’s game at Samford with injuries.
“That really depletes your reserves,” he said. “A lot of guys are starting and playing significant snaps that have never played and don’t play a lot.”
No position illustrates Monken’s frustration more than the situation at fullback, typically the leading rusher in the triple option offense. Two players who have rushed for 1,000 yards in past seasons, Robert Brown and Dominique Swope, are out for the season. Brown hasn’t played at all and Swope played in just two games before undergoing shoulder surgery. Reserves such as James Dean and Ean Davis also are out for the season, and redshirt senior William Banks — the No. 2 rusher behind quarterback Jerick McKinnon — also has been slowed by injury.
“It’s frustrating, but there’s not a lot we can do about it except get guys ready to play,” Monken said. “But it sure makes it difficult.”
All of that explains why McKinnon, a senior who rushed for 1,817 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, has lined up at QB, slotback, B-back, receiver and kick returner this season. And it explains why redshirt freshman Kevin Ellison has been getting a lot of snaps at quarterback.
Last week at Samford, McKinnon rushed 33 times for 181 yards and two touchdowns, while Ellison hit 7 of 7 passes for 140 yards and two more scores.
“I’m not going to say publicly just exactly who is playing and who is not,” Monken said. “That only helps opponents get prepared. But it’s either play Jerick all the time at quarterback and sit Kevin on the bench, or have both those guys in the game at the same time and getting some pretty good athletes in there.”
Citadel coach Kevin Higgins is well aware that slowing McKinnon and Ellison is the key to the Bulldogs defeating GSU two years in a row for the first time in school history.
“Anytime McKinnon touches the football, he’s got a chance to break it,” Higgins said. “When he gets the ball in his hands, he’s scary. And the emergence of Ellison gives them so much more flexibility. For us to have a chance, we’ve got to slow them down.”
The last two games between the teams have been decided by two points each, and six of the last seven by less than a touchdown. Last season, a 37-yard field goal by Thomas Warren with 35 seconds left gave The Citadel a 23-21 victory at Johnson Hagood Stadium.
Though GSU is leaving the SoCon next year, this not the final meeting between the Bulldogs and Eagles. The teams will play again in 2015 in Statesboro in a non-conference game. The Citadel will earn a fee of $175,000 for that game.
The Citadel’s Eric Goins, averaging 42.5 yards per punt this season, will return to starting punter duties this week. Freshman Will Vanvick made his first start at punter last week against App State, averaging 28.8 yards on four kicks.
For The Citadel this season, the success of the offense has been all about quarterback Ben Dupree. In the four games in which the Bulldogs have scored 28 or more points, Dupree has averaged 126 yards and 2.5 touchdowns on 20 carries. In the two games the Bulldogs have scored fewer than 17 points, he’s averaged 8 yards and no touchdowns on 8.5 carries. The Citadel is 2-2 in the former, 0-2 in the latter.
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc