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GSU more than worthy enough for WVU

MORGANTOWN – A pushover? Far from it. A cakewalk? More like marching on egg shells.

West Virginia’s season-opening game against Georgia Southern doesn’t have the pizzazz of last year’s Kickoff Classic game against Alabama, but the Eagles present an interesting challenge to the Mountaineers, even greater than that from the Crimson Tide.

Alabama has 15 claimed national titles in its storied history, while Georgia Southern has six at the Football Championship Series level – the most at that level, ahead of Youngstown State and North Dakota State.

No longer members of the FCS, Georgia Southern won the Sun Belt Conference in its first year in the league, winning all eight games against league foes in 2014. A year ago, the Eagles led Atlantic Coast Conference teams Georgia Tech and North Carolina State late, but fell to the Yellow Jackets, 42-38 and the Wolfpack, 24-23.

“They were a couple of seconds away from winning two games last year,” said WVU receivers coach Lonnie Galloway.

For 48 minutes in 2013, the Eagles beat Florida. In that season-ending contest at Gainesville’s famed “Swamp,” Georgia Southern rallied for 19 second half points to put away the Gators, 26-20.

Galloway, a Western Carolina graduate, played against Georgia Southern in the early-1990s, when the Eagles were in the midst of building their dynasty. They won FCS championships in 1985, 1986, 1989, 1990, 1999 and 2000.

“I got to play against them in college and coached against them when I was at Appalachian State (from 2005-2007),” Galloway said. “The tradition has been built there. They’re not going to come in here intimidated. They’ve played in big games before, so this is nothing new to them.”

Before Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen began his college coaching career as an assistant at Valdosta State in 1993, the Division II Blazers played Georgia Southern, losing 24-13.

“It was before I got there,” Holgorsen said, “but the game was still a topic of conversation with the coaches. I had heard a lot about them and knew a lot about them. I understand their tradition very well. The days of Erk Russell and all their national championships, it goes without saying that they’re a powerhouse across the coaching fraternity.”

Russell was appointed head coach of the newly-formed Georgia Southern football team in 1981. The school first fielded a program in 1924, but it folded in 1941. Four decades later, Russell made his mark and won three national championships at the helm.

No player or coach fully realize what challenge the Eagles can truly bring like WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. As a player at Glenville State College in 1994, Gibson’s Pioneers went on the road to Statesboro, Ga. to take on the Eagles.

Georgia Southern prevailed over the, at the time, No. 2 ranked NAIA team in Glenville State, 66-13.

“Part of the reason these guys concern me so much is what happened in that game more than 20 years ago,” Gibson said. “I’ve seen what they’re capable of.”

Currently, they’re sound on both sides of the ball. The defense limited opponents to 23.4 points per game a year ago and the unit recovered seven fumbles. The Eagles averaged 381.1 rushing yards per game in 2014 – the most in Football Bowl Subdivision in their first year at the higher level.

“They’re so tricky running the option,” said WVU junior safety Jarrod Harper. “You don’t know if they’re going to run it or pitch it. We need to know where we fit on defense so we’re in the right position to stop them. They have athletes and that’s not surprising because they are a great program.”

When push comes to shove, the Mountaineers will have the backing of 60,000 blue and gold-clad fans. Ready or not, it’s a night game in Morgantown.

“Nothing better than that,” Harper said. “The atmosphere is going to be wild. The fans are going to be just as amped up as we are to be playing football again.”

Later in the season, Georgia Southern takes on another “Power 5” program in Georgia. The Mountaineers and Bulldogs, alike, are aware of what the no longer lowly Eagles bring to the table.

(Peaslee, a Weirton resident, is a sports writer for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times. He can be contacted at mpeaslee@heraldstaronline.com and followed on Twitter at @thempeas)