The offense Georgia Southern South Alabama will face Saturday in Statesboro will bear little resemblance to the one it has seen since the Eagles joined the Sun Belt Conference in 2014.
Gone is the triple-option offense that the Eagles made famous during their days as an FCS power in the 1980s, and which has largely persisted over the next four decades. First-year coach Clay Helton has installed a big-time passing offense that puts the ball in the air more than 45 times per game and on nearly 60 percent of all offensive snaps.
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“It was easy for all of us to sit there and say, ‘Well, they’re going to go from the triple-option system and go this other way, so it’s going to take them a long time. [to transition] because they don’t have the offensive linemen they need or the threat they need,” South Alabama coach Kane Wommack said. “But that wasn’t the case. However, great coaches find great ways to get the most out of their personnel. Clay has seen a lot of football. He doesn’t have all the pieces to the puzzle across the board, but they will continue to recruit at a high level and improve both their depth and the overall talent of their roster. However, they are using their staff really well at the moment.’
Georgia Southern (5-3, 2-2 Sun Belt Conference) is averaging 338 passing yards per game, nearly 50 yards per game better than anyone else in the conference. That number is tied for fourth nationally with Texas Tech and behind only Washington, Tennessee and Arizona.
Buffalo transfer Kyle Vantrease is the Eagles’ starter, completing 232 of 374 attempts for 2,704 yards and 18 touchdowns in eight games while being sacked just twice. South Alabama (6-2, 3-1) is third in the Sun Belt in total defense and among the nation’s best against the run, but has fallen victim to the passing game at times.
“It’s a huge challenge,” South Alabama defensive coordinator Corey Batoon said. “The quarterback sees the field well. I think he has a good understanding of what he’s trying to do. He gives the ball up very quickly, I think they’re number two in the country in giving up sacks, just two a year. Teams have brought the pressure and he seems to handle all of those situations well. I think he really understands the offense and is in tune with the playmaker.”
Georgia Southern has three players in the Sun Belt top 7 in receptions: Khaleb Hood (53, 2nd), Jeremy Singleton (46th, 4th) and Derwin Burgess (45th, 7th). That depth allowed the Eagles to absorb the loss of versatile Amare Jones, who had 35 receptions and a team-best six touchdowns before suffering a season-ending injury on Oct. 22 vs. James Madison.
However, Georgia Southern can be forced into occasional mistakes. Vantrease’s 12 interceptions are easily the most of any quarterback in the conference.
“They throw a lot, so the ball is going to be in the air a lot,” South Alabama safety Jaden Voisin said. “We’re going to have to take advantage of those opportunities and cause turnovers on defense and get the ball back to our offense.”
Not that Georgia Southern isn’t trying to run the ball. Running back Jalen White has 678 yards and nine touchdowns this season.
However, South Alabama is coming off with perhaps the best defensive game in program history. In Saturday’s 31-3 victory at Arkansas State, the Jaguars limited the Red Wolves to 158 total yards and minus-19 rushing, 11 total tackles for loss and four sacks.
“Our guys played with a lot of passion, energy and effort,” Wommack said. “Our physicality definitely showed, but we were also in the right places time and time again. That’s what makes a great defense, I think, and we’ve been pretty consistent [this season] because we are doing our job and we are in the right position.”
South Alabama has never won at Georgia Southern, going 0-4 and losing by scores of 55-17 in 2015, 52-0 in 2017 and 48-13 in 2018 before going 24-17 in 2020. Jaguars beat Eagles 41 -14 in Mobile last season, their only win in eight total meetings.
This year’s South Alabama team has already clinched bowl eligibility and remains alive for the Sun Belt West Division championship with four games to play. But while playing in the postseason has been a goal for the Jaguars this season, it’s not the only goal.
“We’re happy to be bowl eligible,” safety Yam Banks said, “but we’re still taking it game by game and focusing on what’s in front of us.”
Kickoff for South Alabama-Georgia Southern is scheduled for Saturday at 3:00 PM at Paulson Stadium. The game will be streamed live on ESPN+.