STATESBORO -- Willie Fritz has never coached against The Citadel, but he’s aware of how the Bulldogs have been a thorn in the side of Georgia Southern through the years.
And, the Eagles’ head coach is also aware of how FCS schools have pulled off upsets or near misses this season. His former team, Sam Houston State, for example, pushed Texas Tech to the limit before losing 59-45. Jacksonville State took Auburn to overtime last weekend, and Portland State beat Washington State a couple of weeks ago.
Georgia Southern (1-1) holds a dominating 18-5 advantage in the series, but in the past eight meetings, only one game has been decided by more than seven points. Five have been by four or fewer.
So there’s little chance the Eagles will be looking past the Bulldogs (2-0) when the two former Southern Conference rivals meet at 6 p.m. on Saturday at Paulson Stadium.
“The last four times we’ve faced them, we lost one, and the other three were close,” Fritz said. “We’ve got guys who have played against them, and they know how good they are.”
The two teams last met two years ago at Paulson when the Eagles pulled out a 28-21 win. The year before -- a season in which Georgia Southern won its final Southern Conference title -- the Bulldogs claimed a 14-12 victory. They did not play last year following the Eagles’ move to the Sun Belt Conference.
The Bulldogs are an improving football program under second-year head coach Mike Houston, as they have opened this season with wins over Davidson (69-0) and Western Carolina (28-10). The Citadel has won three straight and four of its past six dating back to last season.
The win over Western Carolina raised some eyebrows, as the Catamounts were one of the favorites to win the Southern Conference this year. It marks the first time The Citadel has been 2-0 since 2012, and it comes on the heels of a 0-3 start a year ago.
“It was a huge win,” said Houston of the win over the Catamounts. “I kept talking about the improvement our team has made over last year and how hard we worked over the spring and summer. I think our defense played very well against Western Carolina. To get that win was very pleasing.
“Georgia Southern is an FBS team with 85 scholarships, they’ve got double our athletic budget, but it’s also a team several of these guys have played against and several of them have experienced a win against. It’s a game where they’re not going to be uncomfortable going down there and playing in that stadium.”
Georgia Southern is coming off an impressive 43-17 win over a shell-shocked Western Michigan team which just the week before had played No. 4 Michigan State tough before dropping a 37-24 decision.
Led by Matt Breida’s 176 yards and four touchdowns on only 11 carries, the Eagles rushed for 413 yards against the Broncos and will face a Bulldogs defense that has given up only 204 yards in two games while running for an FCS-high 438 yards per game. The Eagles are sixth nationally in rushing at 304 yards per game.
Georgia Southern will have two key players back on the field, as starting quarterback Kevin Ellison returns after a two-game suspension by the NCAA related to academics. Place-kicker Younghoe Koo will also be active after being suspended last week following an arrest by campus police on suspicion of DUI. Alex Hanks filled in and had 11 points on two field goals and five extra points.
“We’ll make that decision on Saturday,” Fritz said when asked who would be the Eagles’ starting quarterback. “They’ll both play.”
Favian Upshaw, who was Ellison’s backup last year, started against West Virginia and Western Michigan. While his game against the Mountaineers drew less than rave reviews, he was much sharper against the Broncos.
“The game at West Virginia was his first start since high school,” Fritz said. “He played much better against Western Michigan. His decision making was better.”
Upshaw had 64 yards on 16 carries at West Virginia and had 103 on the same number of attempts against the Broncos. For the season, Breida leads the Eagles in rushing with 246 yards on 28 attempts.
While both teams feature strong running games, there isn’t much of a passing game so far on either side. Upshaw has completed 3-of-17 passes for 31 yards, while the Bulldogs are 8-for-11 for 172 yards.
Bulldogs quarterback Dominique Allen, who played high school football at Richmond Hill and is one of 19 Georgians on the Bulldogs roster, has run for 180 yards and is one of four players with more than 100 yards rushing. Evan McField leads The Citadel with 192 yards on 35 attempts.