WHO: No. 25 Samford Bulldogs (4-0, 2-0 SoCon) at No. 9 Georgia Southern Eagles (2-1, 1-1 SoCon)
WHEN: Sept. 29, 2012, 6:00 p.m.
WHERE: Statesboro, GA, Allen E. Paulson Stadium
Since joining the SoCon in 2008, one of the teams that the Samford Bulldogs have had the most success against are the Georgia Southern Eagles, having won three of four matchups between the two and having never lost to Georgia Southern in Paulson Stadium since joining the conference.
The Eagles are coming off a hard-fought 26-23 win over the Elon Phoenix on Sept. 22, while Samford also had a close call with a 25-21 win against the Western Carolina Catamounts in Week 4. With the win, the Bulldogs continued their strong start to the 2012 season, their best since the 1995 season.
Saturday's meeting between the Eagles and Bulldogs will mark the seventh all-time clash between the two teams, with Georgia Southern holding a narrow 4-3 series edge on the strength of last season's 31-17 win in Birmingham.
Samford last made the trek to Statesboro in 2010, claiming a 20-14 win on that occasion, also posting a 28-10 win over the Eagles in Statesboro in 2008, in what was the Bulldogs' first trip to the "Prettiest Little Stadium in America." The Eagles have won 18 straight games inside the friendly confines since that 2010 loss to the Bulldogs.
Coming into Saturday evening's contest, Samford has posted one of the most balanced offenses in the Southern Conference, averaging 171.5 YPG on the ground and 213.0 YPG through the air this season. In total, the Bulldogs are averaging 384.5 YPG to rank 50th in FCS, also ranking 29th nationally in scoring offense (31.7 PPG).
Samford has had a new leader under center this season, and with the graduation of Dustin Taliaferro, not many knew what to expect from the Bulldogs for the quarterback position this season.
Memphis transfer Andy Summerlin (89-of-129 passing, 817 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs/13 rush att, 45 yds, 1 TD) has been the leader of what has been an extremely efficient passing attack for Samford this season. Summerlin has shown the poise and savvy of a veteran quarterback, one polished enough to show that he has played in the upper echelon of Division I college football.
Summerlin certainly has a wide receiving corps that is as talented as any you will find in the FCS, led by preseason First-Team All-SoCon selection Kelsey Pope (20 rec, 204 yds, 1 TD, 10.2 YPR/2 rush att, 11 yds). Pope has 1,248 receiving yards and seven TD catches in his career.
He teams with Chris Cephus (14 rec, 195 yds, 13.9 YPR) and another veteran, Riley Hawkins (12 rec, 157 yds, 3 TDs, 13.1 YPR), to give Samford its talented litany of receiving options.
While the Bulldogs' receiving threats are among the best in FCS, running back Fabian Truss (69 rush att, 448 yds, 7 TDs, 6.5 YPC/12 rec, 75 yds, 6.2 YPR) is quickly becoming one of the most individual offensive threats in the nation.
He has been the key cog in the Samford offense in his second season as a starter for the Bulldogs. He is coming off quite a performance in their win over Western Carolina last week, rushing for 180 yards and a pair of scores.
Truss is also one of the most dangerous return men in the SoCon, and he will be the focal point of the Samford offense on Saturday, not only in the ground game, but also as a return threat. As a kick return threat this season, he has truly been a weapon, leading the nation with an average of 34.8 YPR this season. Truss also has one kick return for a score this season, as he was able to take a kick back 97 yards for a score in the 44-23 win over the Gardner-Webb Runnin' Bulldogs in Week 3.
Samford's offensive line has been strong this season. The unit, which returned four starters coming into the campaign, is anchored by center Ryan Dudchok and right guard Jacob Kirschenbaum.
Georgia Southern brings a defense into Saturday's matchup that has played very well through the first three games of the 2012 season. The Eagles come into Saturday's showdown ranking seventh in the nation in total defense (263.3 YPG), 13th in scoring defense (15.3 PPG), 22nd in rush defense (107.6 YPG) and 20th in pass defense (155.7 YPG).
It all starts up front for the Eagles, who bring an athletic, physical front four into Saturday's contest. That unit is led by preseason First-Team All-America selection and Buck Buchanan Award Watch list member Brent Russell (11 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 blkd kick) at nose tackle.
Russell is a tremendous presence along the defensive line for the Eagles, and his 22.5 career sacks rank him second in the Eagles' all-time ledger in that category. He needs just two more sacks to set a new school-career mark, as he would pass former Eagle Edward Thomas' career total of 24 sacks.
Teaming with Russell at defensive tackle on Saturday will be junior Blake Riley (6 tackles), who plays a bit in the shadow of Russell, but he is a solid pillar in the teeth of that GSU defense. Both Riley and Russell have made life exceptionally difficult for opponents trying to find running room in the middle.
The two starting defensive ends for the Eagles on Saturday are quick and athletic: Josh Gebhardt (9 tackles, 3.0 TFL) and Dion DuBose (11 tackles) are veteran, athletic defensive ends who have gotten solid pressure from the edge this season.
Another factor along the GSU defensive line on Saturday could be Javon Mention (6 tackles, 3.0 sacks, 1 FR), who should also see extensive action at defensive end on Saturday. He leads all Eagles with three sacks in the entire campaign.
The three starters at linebacker for the Eagles will be Kyle Oehlbeck (7 tackles), John Stevenson (23 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 PBUs, 1 FF) and Antwione Williams (4 tackles, 1 PBU). The trio has been solid this season, particularly veteran Stevenson, who is slated to start at weakside linebacker for the Eagles on Saturday. Stevenson comes into Saturday's contest averaging 7.7 tackles per game.
Georgia Southern's secondary is talented, but young. The graduation of LaRon Scott has been a bit hard to compensate for, but with each game, new starter Valdon Cooper (4 tackles, 2 INTs, 1 TD) seems to see improvement.
Cooper has excellent speed and athleticism on the outside and now just needs experience. He certainly got his season off to a strong start after returning an INT 60 yards for a score in the season-opening win over the Jacksonville Tigers.
Set to join Cooper as a starter at cornerback on Saturday night will be junior Lavelle Westbrooks (9 tackles, 1 INT), who is in his second season as a full-time starter in the GSU secondary. Westbrooks is a physical athletic cornerback and will likely draw the assignment of trying to slow Samford's Kelsey Pope on Saturday night, which is obviously easier said than done.
The two starting safeties for the Eagles heading into Saturday night's contest will be a pair of veterans: J.J.Wilcox (16 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR, 1 PBU) and Darius Eubanks (16 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FR).
Wilcox, who was on the offensive side of the ball the previous two seasons, has been a breath of fresh air on the defensive side of the ball in 2012. He is one of the top athletes on the team with his ability to make plays against the opposing passing attacks this season.
Eubanks has been a tremendous pillar of the GSU defense over the past few seasons, and has been able to overcome injuries earlier in his career to become an All-SoCon caliber safety.
Samford brings a defense into Saturday evening's contest that ranks 36th in the nation in total defense (333.2 YPG), ties for 21st in scoring defense (17.7 PPG), 26th in rushing defense (112.2 YPG) and 68th in pass defense (221.0 YPG).
Samford had one of the most inexperienced defensive lines in the Southern Conference and FCS coming into the season, anchored by the lone veteran, senior defensive tackle Nicholas Williams (12 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 PBU). Williams has made it tough for teams to find much daylight running the ball in the middle this season, and will team with nose guard Jerry Mathis (15 tackles, 4.5 TFK , 1.5 sacks, 3 PBUs) on the defensive interior.
Teaming up at the two defensive end positions for Saturday night's contest for the Bulldogs will be Calvin Ruff (9 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 QBHs) and Aaron Bethune (9 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 3 PBUs, 3 QBHs).
Many wondered how the Bulldogs would effectively replace defensive end Austin Hayes and effectively generate pressure with its front four coming into the season. The Bulldogs have not only been able to do that with Ruff and Bethune, they have also been able to disrupt passing games, with Bethune and Mathis having a combined six PBUs this season.
Samford has a trio of the most experienced linebackers in the league, and it's a unit that does not make many mistakes. Keith Shoulders (28 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU) and Darion Sutton (36 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1.0 sack, 2 PBUs) are All-SoCon-caliber linebackers, starting at middle and weakside linebacker, respectively.
Durrell Hill (26 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1.0 sack, 1 PBU) is another player that has been solid at linebacker this season, and he will start at the strong side linebacker post on Saturday night.
Shoulders is coming off one of the best performances of his career, posting 12 stops in the 25-21 road win over Western Carolina. He also had a strong performance in the season opener against Furman, posting eight stops and a pair of tackles-for-loss in the 24-21 triumph.
The secondary is also a strength for the Bulldogs, and a lot of that has to do with veteran Alvin Hayes II (26 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 2 INTs). Despite losing Corey White to graduation and the NFL, the Bulldogs have looked even better in the secondary than they did last year through the early portion of the 2012 schedule.
Hines was a preseason All-SoCon selection and is a hard-hitting safety. He has certainly lived up to his billing as one of the best safeties in the SoCon with a couple of INTs through the first four games.
Hines will team with Jaquiski Tartt (39 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 5 PBUs, 2 INTs, 1 FR), arguably the SoCon's top safety over the first four weeks the 2012 season. Tartt comes into the contest leading the Bulldogs in tackles and ranks fourth overall in the league in tackles.
He has enjoyed some outstanding performances early on this season, posting two INTs in Samford's win over the West Alabama Tigers in Week 2 and a season-high 14 tackles in Week 4's win against Western Carolina.
Rounding out the starters on the defensive side of the ball are redshirt freshman James Bradberry (13 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 2 INTs) and junior Tae Lewis (6 tackles, 1 INT).
Bradberry has done a nice job of replacing White at one of the cornerback positions, but I expect Georgia Southern to test the young corner on Saturday to see if he bites on some of the play-action option-pass-type plays that it has in its repertoire. This can be a nightmare at times for young cornerbacks, and the slightest mistake could spell six points for the Eagles and their speed at wideout and slotback.
Most of Georgia Southern's problems offensively coming into Saturday's contest have come as a result of not being able to hold onto, rather than not being able to effectively move, the ball.
The Eagles enter Saturday's showdown ranking 19th in the nation in total offense (441.3 YPG), 19th in scoring offense (35.0 PPG), second in rushing offense (402.0 YPG) and 121st in passing offense (41.0 YPG).
Leading the Georgia Southern offense this season, which has gone to more multiple looks in the option game, has been talented sophomore quarterback Ezayi Youyoute (9-of-19 passing, 123 yds, 1 TD/48 rush att, 371 yds, 4 TDs, 7.7 YPC). Youyoute has had a lot to take in as far as learning the Flexbone offense, one that is much more diverse than the one Jaybo Shaw took over two years ago after transferring in from Georgia Tech.
The Eagles have shown more shotgun looks in the triple option, similar to what we have seen the Wofford Terriers do in their offense, when they started implementing the shotgun into the Wingbone attack back in 2007.
The Eagles have yet to find the kind of success through the air this season that they had the last two seasons with Shaw, but their passing attack might have started to come to life in Week 4, as Youyoute tossed his first scoring pass of the season in a 38-yard play to Kentrellis Showers (5 rec, 69 yds, 1 TD, 13.8 YPR/1 rush att, 26 yds) in the first quarter that was more Showers running than it was Youyoute passing.
Youyoute is certainly a threat in the open field with awesome speed, eclipsing the century mark in every game so far this season, including rushing for 106 yards on 17 attempts.
One of the biggest weapons on the offensive side of the ball is the explosive Jerick McKinnon (32 rush att, 193 yds, 2 TDs, 6.0 YPC), who has played three different positions on the offensive side this season.
McKinnon could see action under center, as well as the 'A' and 'B' back positions. He saw action at 'B' back for the for the first time in his career in Week 4, and this is yet another wrinkle the Eagles have added to their versatile attack this season.
The starter at 'B' back on Saturday evening will be one of the SoCon's most dangerous runners, preseason All-SoCon selection Dominique Swope (50 rush att, 270 yds, 5 TDs, 5.4 YPC). Swope is a powerful back who can get yards after initial contact, and he also has the speed in the open field to run away from defenders.
Jonathan Bryant (7 rush att, 123 yds, 1 TD, 17.6 YPC/2 rec, 33 yds, 16.5 YPR) and Darreion Robinson (8 rush att, 37 yds, 4.6 YPC) are two veteran options as slotbacks. Both Bryant and Robinson join Showers as the top receiving options coming out of the GSU backfield.
Zach Walker (1 rec, 15 yds) and Mitch Williford are yet a couple more options at wide receiver. Both Williford and Walker are also excellent blockers on the perimeter.
The offensive line has done well, considering it graduated two All-Americans last year. Anchoring the unit this season has been Dorian Byrd at center, who has shown his versatility in moving from left tackle to center to help shore up some of the difficulties in center-quarterback exchange troubles that plagued the Eagles early this season. Byrd leads an offensive front that has helped the Eagles average 6.9 yards per rush and 6.6 yards per play this season.
This game is going to be a war. The one clear advantage Samford has entering the contest is in the kicking game, with one of the best kickers in the nation, Cameron Yaw (4-for-7 on FGs, 15-for-15 on PATs).
Alex Hanks (2-for-3 on FGs) is still adapting to being the full-time kicker for Georgia Southern. It was Hanks' 32-yard kick that won the game against Elon, which had to be a huge morale boost for him after his field goal sailed wide left in the 23-21 loss against the Citadel Bulldogs in Week 2.
Yaw missed two field goals against Western Carolina, but those didn't cost the Bulldogs; his 27-yard field goal in the season-opener against helped the Bulldogs with a 24-21 win over Furman.
When it all comes down to it, however, I look at this Georgia Southern team, and I think it is a team waiting to explode. The Eagles have speed everywhere on the field, and while I think this game will be close for a while, I believe the Eagles will pull away late in the third quarter and show why they were the preseason pick to defend their SoCon crown.
Final Score Prediction: Georgia Southern 35, Samford 24