Georgia Southern and Eastern Michigan meet on Saturday in the Camellia Bowl
All four of the matchups in the Camellia Bowl’s history in Montgomery have been decided by five points or less, so it’s no surprise another tight game seems to be in order when Eastern Michigan and Georgia Southern meet this Saturday. Eastern Michigan arrives in Alabama on a three-game winning streak, which helped the program reach its second bowl in three years. Georgia Southern capped a strong debut by new coach Chad Lunsford with a win over Georgia State (35-14) in the finale to finish 9-3 in 2018.
As mentioned above, Lunsford had a standout debut in his first season on the sidelines in Statesboro. Georgia Southern improved its win total by seven games from 2017, beat Sun Belt champion Appalachian State (34-14) and its three defeats came to Troy, ULM and Clemson – a combined 28-9. Additionally, the Eagles from the Sun Belt returned their rushing attack to one of the best in college football. With a win, Lunsford’s team would reach 10 victories for the first time since 2012.
Eastern Michigan is one of the toughest jobs in college football, but coach Chris Creighton is turning this program into an annual contender for bowl games and winning records. After a 3-21 start to his tenure, Creighton has guided the Eagles to a 19-18 mark over the last three years. Additionally, Eastern Michigan earned its first bowl bid since 1987 following the 2016 season with a trip to the Bahamas Bowl. The program has just three bowl appearances at the FBS level and two have come under Creighton’s direction. The Eagles knocked off Purdue (20-19) in Week 2 and lost in overtime to MAC champion Northern Illinois in late September. Of Eastern Michigan’s five losses, four came by seven points or less.
This is the first meeting on the gridiron between Georgia Southern and Eastern Michigan.
Camellia Bowl: Georgia Southern (9-3) vs. Eastern Michigan (7-5)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 15 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Georgia Southern -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Georgia Southern’s Rushing Attack
As mentioned above, Lunsford’s promotion to head coach, along with the arrival of coordinator Bob DeBesse helped Georgia Southern return its ground game to one of the best in college football. After leading the nation in rushing offense in 2015, the Eagles slipped to 29th in ’16 and 24th in ’17. This year’s group enters the bowl season ranked ninth in college football by averaging 260.8 yards a contest.
A handful of players are expected to see carries for Georgia Southern on Saturday night, starting with Wesley Fields (959 yards), Monteo Garrett (478) and Wesley Kennedy (395) at the running back position. Quarterback Shai Werts will also see a heavy workload, as the sophomore ranked second on the team with 822 yards and first in rushing scores (13). This offense is tied for 17th nationally with 14 rushes of 30 or more yards and ranks 18th in yards per carry (5.35). Gaining yardage on first and second downs will be critical for Werts and Fields on Saturday. Georgia Southern is only converting 39.3 percent of its third-down attempts and faces an Eastern Michigan defense that ranked fifth in the MAC in third-down defense.
When Georgia Southern has the ball, can Eastern Michigan consistently get enough stops against the ground game to win? The good news for Creighton: The Eagles have already played one option team (Army) and surrendered less than 180 yards on the ground in each of their last three contests. The bad news: Eastern Michigan is giving up 4.4 yards per rush and allowed 192.9 yards a game this season. Additionally, five opponents eclipsed more than 200 yards on the ground against this defense, including Army (289). Linebacker Kyle Rachwal (115), linemen Maxx Crosby (18 TFL) and Jeremiah Harris (7.5 TFL) and safety Brody Hoying (11 TFL) are four standouts for Creighton’s defense that will need to have a huge game on Saturday night.
Will Georgia Southern establish the run early and stay in third-and-short situations all night? Or will Eastern Michigan win on early downs, forcing Werts to throw more than Lunsford and this offense would prefer?
2. Eastern Michigan’s Offense
Eastern Michigan’s offense enters Saturday’s game ranked sixth in the MAC in scoring (27.5 points per game). Creighton’s group has been better through the air (228.6 ypg) than on the ground (149.4), but this unit is averaging a solid 5.5 yards per play this season.
The strength of this unit resides at quarterback with Iowa graduate transfer Tyler Wiegers and backup Mike Glass III. Wiegers has passed for 1,887 yards and 11 touchdowns to just three picks. He’s also connected on 64.8 percent of his throws over 12 contests. Glass has attempted only 92 passes but has posted solid numbers in limited time (820 yards and six passing scores). However, Glass’ biggest asset is his mobility. The junior ranks second on the team with 391 yards and paces the ground game with six rushing scores. Converted running back Blake Banham leads the offense with 54 catches for 714 yards, with Arthur Jackson III (43), Mathew Sexton (36) and Line Latu (22) rounding out the secondary options.
Getting consistent production out of the ground game has been an issue for the Eagles this season. Shaq Vann (590 yards) is the team’s leading rusher, with Ian Eriksen and Willie Parker also chipping in as reserves. However, Creighton’s offense is only averaging 3.8 yards per rush
While Eastern Michigan doesn’t rank among the best nationally in scoring offense, this unit has generated 17 plays of 40 yards or more this season. How will Creighton’s offense attack Georgia Southern’s defense? Eastern Michigan doesn’t run the ball particularly well, but Wiegers has been steady through the air, and this offense has been excellent at limiting turnovers and mistakes.
Just like the offense, Georgia Southern’s defense has also shown marked improvement in 2018. The Eagles are only giving up 21.6 points a game, rank third in the Sun Belt versus the run and limit offenses to 5.4 yards per play. Lunsford’s group is also adept at limiting big plays (just 11 of 40 yards or more allowed in 2018) and has allowed only three opponents to eclipse 30 or more points. The strength of this unit is with a secondary that features standout cornerbacks Kindle Vildor and Monquavion Brinson.
3. The Turnover Battle
This area might decide who wins on Saturday night. Georgia Southern leads the nation with a plus-22 turnover margin, while Eastern Michigan checks in 10th nationally with a plus-10 ratio. Georgia Southern has lost the fewest turnovers (five) of any team in college football, and Eastern Michigan isn’t far behind with 10. Additionally, both teams excel at generating takeaways. Georgia Southern has forced 27, and Eastern Michigan has recorded 24 through 12 contests.
Can Georgia Southern continue to play mistake-free ball and test an Eastern Michigan run defense giving up nearly 200 rushing yards a game? Or can Creighton’s team continue to do what has worked all year? Eastern Michigan may not score a ton of points, but Creighton’s team doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and simply finds a way to hang around in every game. The team that ends up with a couple of takeaways is likely to come out on top on Saturday night.
The Camellia Bowl in Montgomery hasn’t been around long but it has produced four entertaining and close matchups. Since its inception in 2014, none of the four matchups in this bowl have been decided by more than five points. Needless to say, another tight matchup should be anticipated on Saturday. Eastern Michigan’s defense has to find a way to slow down Georgia Southern’s ground game, forcing Werts to take to the air to win. On the flipside, Eastern Michigan needs to stay out of long-distance situations with an offense that ranks near the bottom of the MAC in third-down conversions. Eastern Michigan finds a way to keep this one close into the fourth quarter, but Georgia Southern’s offense puts together a couple of late drives to secure the victory.