Story and photo courtesy of Georgia Southern Athletics
STATESBORO, Ga. – Jerick McKinnon scored on runs of 41 and 67 yards, and Lavelle Westbrooks returned an interception 72 yards for a touchdown to lead No. 9 Georgia Southern to a 35-16 Southern Conference football victory over No. 25 Samford Saturday night at Paulson Stadium. The victory improved GSU’s home win streak to 13 games.
McKinnon finished the day with 162 yards on 13 carries, the fourth time he has rushed for 100-plus yards in his career. Dominique Swope rushed 21 times for 134 yards and two touchdowns and has now rushed for a score in five consecutive games.
The Eagle defense gave up just seven first downs in the final 36:35 of the contest, and four of those came in the last five minutes of the game with GSU nursing a double-digit cushion. Georgia Southern allowed 16 rushing yards in the second half and finished the game with four sacks and seven tackles for loss.
“I thought our defense played a really solid, good football game and was able to keep them out of the end zone,” said Georgia Southern coach Jeff Monken. “Towards the end of the second quarter, we started defending the pass much better. I thought at the beginning, Samford was able to get too much separation, but we knuckled down and started to play a lot better.”
Andy Summerlin completed 23-of-49 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown for Samford (4-1, 2-1 SoCon), and Kelsey Pope had eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown
McKinnon, who also plays A-back for the Eagles (3-1, 2-1 SoCon), took over the signal-calling duties early in the second quarter after Samford took a 10-7 advantage, its only lead of the game. The junior scored on a 41-yard touchdown run 1:19 later to put the Eagles back on top 14-10.
“We just didn’t feel like Ezayi was getting into a rhythm and put Jerick in there to give him a chance to get some carries,” said Monken. “He did such a nice job so we left him in there. It’s not that we have a lack of confidence in Ezayi, but it’s a team game, and you know when Jerick scored his first touchdown, the first guy to congratulate him was Ezayi.”
McKinnon’s 67-yard touchdown run turned the momentum back in the Eagle’s favor late in the third quarter and helped make up for his own miscue. Leading 21-10, the Eagles had just converted a 4th-and-1 with a 20-yard run from Swope and were looking to add to their lead. But McKinnon fumbled the snap, and Bulldog safety Jaquiski Tartt picked up the ball in a pile of players and came out the other side to scamper 80 yards for a touchdown. Samford went for the two-point conversion, but Summerlin’s pass fell incomplete.
McKinnon made amends on the next play from scrimmage, taking the snap, pivoting to his left and racing to the end zone for a touchdown. Alex Hanks added the PAT, and GSU opened a 28-16 advantage with 5:40 left in the third quarter.
Samford drove down to GSU 6-yard line with the aid of a 32-yard pass from Summerlin to Kelvin Clay, but on 4th-and-1, Darius Eubanks stopped Fabian Truss for no gain to end the threat. Swope put the game away with a 40-yard touchdown run with 1:30 left in the contest.
Westbrooks’ interception return for touchdown was also a big momentum changer in the game. A Trey Wesley interception of a McKinnon pass gave the Bulldogs great field position on the GSU 40-yard line late in the second quarter, but Westbrooks turned the tables for the Eagles.
The junior jumped a route, picked off a Summerlin pass and went 72-yards down the sideline for a touchdown to extend GSU’s lead to 21-10. It was the longest interception return of his career and his second pick this season.
Swope logged three carries for 25 yards to lead the Eagles down the field on their first possession of the game, and the sophomore scored on a 12-yard run to put GSU on the board. Hanks added the extra point to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead 4:35 into the contest.
Samford moved the ball deep into GSU territory late in the first quarter, converting two third downs along the way, but on 3rd-and-2 from the Eagle 3-yard line, John Stevenson and Josh King stopped Fabian Truss for no gain, forcing the Bulldogs to settle for a Cameron Yam 20-yard field goal.
A 41-yard pass from Summerlin to Chris Cephus on 3rd-and-13 from the Samford 45-yard line early in the second quarter helped set up Samford’s first touchdown. On 3rd-and-goal, Summerlin hit Pope in the end zone, giving the Bulldogs a 10-7 lead, their first of the game. The Eagles made the quarterback change on their next possession, going to McKinnon.
The Eagles go on the road to face Western Carolina next Saturday, and kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m.