ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia Southern clinched a spot in the playoffs.
The Eagles were in no mood to celebrate.
Jerick McKinnon scored two touchdowns and Georgia Southern was in position for a shocking halftime lead on No. 5 Georgia. But the Bulldogs turned the momentum and took control from there, romping to a 45-14 victory on Saturday.
“We came here to win,” said Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken, whose team had already claimed a share of the Southern Conference championship. “We had some chances.”
While things didn’t work out between the hedges, the Eagles (8-3) got some good news on the out-of-town scoreboard. The Citadel defeated Furman 42-20, handing Georgia Southern their league’s automatic berth into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.
The Eagles hope to benefit from playing a major-college powerhouse right before the postseason.
“We’re disappointed to lose, but we played a great team,” running back Dominique Swope said. “We will take this as a lesson leading into the playoffs.”
Aaron Murray threw four touchdown passes for the Bulldogs (10-1), and Todd Gurley became only the second true freshman in school history to rush for 1,000 yards.
Georgia Southern squandered a chance to be ahead at the half when a potential first-and-goal was ruined by a penalty. That was all the edge Murray needed as Georgia reached 10 wins for the eighth time in Mark Richt’s dozen seasons as coach.
Murray completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to Malcolm Mitchell with just 4 seconds left in the first half, sending Georgia to the locker room with a 17-7 lead. In the third quarter, Murray hooked up with Chris Conley on a pair of scoring passes, sandwiched around a 43-yarder to Tavarres King.
“We had some good matchups. We had some coverages we didn’t exploit,” Murray said. “We were finally able to do that and make some big plays.”
Georgia’s defense got a chance to work against the run-oriented option, the same scheme they’ll see next week in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech. Then it’s on to the Southeastern Conference championship game for a likely meeting with No. 4 Alabama, and a possible shot at sneaking into the national championship race if the Bulldogs can win out.
“We obviously have goals and aspirations,” Murray said. “Let’s just see what happens. We need some help and we need to win, but we can’t worry about who else is playing and who else needs to lose. We’ve got to do our thing and make sure we win our games.”
Georgia Southern dropped to 0-20 against Football Bowl Subdivision teams, with five of those losses to Georgia. Still, the Eagles picked up a nice paycheck ($475,000) for making a quick bus ride from Statesboro.
Gurley scored Georgia’s first touchdown on a 1-yard plunge. In the second quarter, he got to 1,000 yards on a 5-yard gain, joining Herschel Walker in 1980 as the school’s only first-year players to reach that mark. Knowshon Moreno was a redshirt freshman when he rushed for more than 1,000 in 2007.
“I know I have it, but it doesn’t feel like it,” Gurley said. “There’s still a lot of football to be played. I just feel like these are accomplishments you look back at when you leave, 10 or 15 years from now. It’s good, but I still have lot of work to do.”
Georgia Southern’s first-half showing caused some nervous groans in the predominantly red-clad crowd. But the Eagles were totally overwhelmed over the final two quarters.
Murray went to Conley for a 13-yard touchdown that stretched the lead to 24-7. After going deep to King, Murray swung a short pass to Conley, who took it 33 yards for the score that sent many of the fans heading for the exits.
Before sitting out most of the fourth quarter, Murray put up his third four-TD game of the season and seventh of his career. He finished 18 of 28 for 330 yards.
As expected, Georgia marched right down the field on its first possession. It got tougher from there.
The Bulldogs were in position to extend the lead on a 51-yard field goal. But Marshall Morgan’s kick came up well short of the goalposts – so much so that Darreion Robinson, younger brother of Atlanta Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson, was able to catch the ball in the back of the end zone. He suddenly sprinted out and might’ve scored if not for a saving tackle by Morgan along the sideline at the Georgia 41.
McKinnon fumbled away that chance, losing the ball when he tried to pull back from throwing, but the Bulldogs fumbled it right back when Rhett McGowan took a big hit over the middle. The Eagles strung together a tedious drive for the tying TD, running it 10 straight times before McKinnon’s 1-yard sneak.
The Eagles quarterback finished with 109 yards rushing, also scoring on a 23-yard run in the fourth quarter.
After Morgan’s 37-yard field goal made it 10-7, Georgia Southern was driving for the lead as the first half ticked down.
On fourth-and-1 at the Georgia 7, the Eagles appeared to pick up the first down on Swope’s 2-yard run. But guard Trevor McBurnett was called for a chop block, going at the legs of a Georgia lineman while he was being blocked by another Georgia Southern player. After the 15-yard penalty was stepped off, the Eagles attempted a tying field goal. Alex Hanks was wide right with a 39-yard attempt.
“It was a big penalty,” McKinnon said. “But those things happen when you run this type of offense.”
Instead of being ahead or at least tied at halftime, the Eagles wound up 10 behind when Murray found Mitchell in the left corner of the end zone in the closing seconds.
That essentially snuffed out any hope Georgia Southern had of pulling off the upset.