STATESBORO, Ga. — Even after Akeem Garnett scooped up Georgia Southern’s third fumble and dashed 36 yards for an improbable go-ahead touchdown with less than eight minutes to play, there was no rush to confidence on The Citadel sideline.
“No,” Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Miller said when asked if he thought The Citadel had the game won after Garnett’s play with 7:57 left.
And GSU’s game-winning march did seem inevitable after the way the Eagles had dominated throughout. Quarterback Kevin Ellison capped an 11-play, 86-yard drive with a 4-yard TD run with 1:59 left, and Georgia Southern held on for a 28-21 win before 16,128 fans at Paulson Stadium.
In the last meeting between the schools as Southern Conference football rivals — GSU (4-2, 2-2) heads to the FBS and the Sun Belt Conference next year — the Eagles’ duo of Ellison and senior Jerick McKinnon was too much for The Citadel’s defense to handle.
McKinnon, a 5-9, 215-pound senior who has played quarterback for most of his career, was switched to fullback in the Eagles’ triple option attack after a string of injuries at that position.
All he did Saturday was carry 32 times for 198 yards and two scores. Ellison, a redshirt freshman, added 135 yards and a TD on 23 carries, and hit 7 of 10 passes for 138 yards. The duo accounted for 343 of the Eagles’ 498 yards, and all of the 86 yards on GSU’s game-winning drive.
“We knew they’d both be in the lineup,” said Citadel coach Kevin Higgins, whose team dropped to 2-5 overall and 2-3 in the SoCon. “McKinnon has tremendous speed; we don’t have anybody as fast as that guy. He took a pounding in there and kept going and found a way to make some big plays.”
The Bulldogs got an early 73-yard TD run from starting quarterback Ben Dupree for a 7-0 lead. But the offense sputtered after that, going three-and-out on the next three drives, forced to punt six straight times. The Citadel finished with 166 rushing yards (99 by Dupree) and 272 total yards, their second-lowest total of the season.
Backup QB Miller, who didn’t make his first appearance until the Bulldogs trailed by 20-7 late in the third quarter, finished 7 of 15 for 85 yards, with two would-be interceptions dropped by the Eagles.
But Miller’s 32-yard pass to Brandon Eakins set up Terrance Martin for a 13-yard TD run that cut a 20-7 GSU lead to 20-14 with 9:46 left.
“Every game, you can look back and think about, who can help us the most,” Higgins said of his quarterbacks. “The thing about Ben is that when he has the ball in his hands, there’s always a chance he can break a 70-yarder. We just don’t know when that’s going to happen. Aaron throws it a little better down the field, so it’s a matter of trying to get the right tempo and matchup with those guys.”
Garnett’s scoop-and-score came on Ellison’s third fumble of the game, and put the Bulldogs up by 21-20 with 7:57 left.
“I had a similar opportunity last week (against Appalachian State), but I got tackled,” Garnett said. “When the ball popped up loose, my only thought was to pick it up and run as fast as you can to the end zone.”
The Citadel had one more chance after GSU scored and went up 28-21 on McKinnon’s 2-point pass to Bryant.
And on fourth-and-15 from the GSU 48 in the final 30 seconds, Eagles cornerback Tay Hicklin slipped and fell while covering Citadel receiver Jorian Jordan.
That left Jordan wide open for a TD, but Miller’s deep pass was thrown too far inside for the freshman to make a play on the ball. Higgins said the receiver was supposed to bend the route to the inside, but Miller took the blame.
“It was a missed communication between us,” Miller said. “I made a bad throw. I’ll go back and look at it, and I’ll hit it next time.”
GSU led by 13-7 at the half, but left at least 11 points on the field with a blocked extra point (by Derek Douglas), a botched field goal and a fumble by Ellison on fourth and goal at The Citadel 2.
“There were lots of things that didn’t go our way, we have a lot of guys out, but we were able to overcome it,” GSU coach Jeff Monken said. “We had a lot of guys who stepped up today.”
At 2-5, the Bulldogs have lost four games by a total of 18 points. They now must win out to achieve a second straight winning record and third in Higgins’ ninth year — and that includes a Nov. 23 game at Clemson. The Citadel is off next week before an Oct. 23 game at Chattanooga.
“We’ve got to get our legs back under our guys,” Higgins said. “We’ve been going hard since Aug. 4, and this is a late open date for us. Furman got a jump on us with a bye week, and this is an opportunity for us to get a jump on Chattanooga.
“We’ll continue to look at what we’re doing, but there’s no magical formula. It’s blocking and tackling.”
Linebackers James Riley and Carl Robinson each had 10 tackles for the Bulldogs, while tackles Derek Douglas and Cam Mobley had eight each. Tackle Mitchell Jeter had two of the Dogs’ six tackles for loss, and defensive end Mark Thomas had the lone sack.
Punter Eric Goins returned to his starting spot and averaged 38 yards on seven kicks, putting two out inside the GSU 20.
Led by linebacker Kyle Oehlbeck (nine tackles, two for loss), the GSU defense held Citadel fullback Darien Robinson to 18 yards on seven carries, with a long gain of just five yards. Aside from Dupree’s 73-yard run, The Citadel had 93 yards on 24 carries, an average of 3.8 per carry.
Though Georgia Southern heads for the Sun Belt next year, the Eagles and Bulldogs will meet again as non-conference foes in 2015 in Statesboro. The Citadel will earn $175,000 for the trip.
Follow Jeff Hartsell on Twitter @jeff_fromthepc