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7 underdog lessons from inside Georgia Southern's trip to West Virginia

SB Nation took an all-access trip to Morgantown with the Eagles, who are clawing to turn their FCS legend into FBS undeniability.

Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The steel doors to the visiting locker room shut about 30 seconds after the P.A. finishes John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." The din outside grows louder from the silence inside, and through a concrete wall you can hear Mountaineers celebrating.

The transition to Sunday's film review and Monday's first practice for Western Michigan can still be won. But the game can't. In the parlance of the locker room, Georgia Southern got its ass dragged.

"Eyes up here, right now. Don’t give me any of that crap right now. Eyes up here," Eagles head coach Willie Fritz says to his team. "There is no blame. There is ... no ... blame. You want someone to blame? Blame me."

A makeshift "Get After Their Asses" sign, a traditional Southern phrase, in the WVU visitors' locker.

For the next 18 hours, Fritz has to make sure what just happened doesn't poison the next seven days. He has to comb through wreckage for positives. What just happened was a season-opening 44-0 loss at West Virginia, the worst loss in the Eagles' young FBS history.

Georgia Southern ran for 195 yards against WVU, just over half of the Eagles' nation-leading average in 2014. The defense was picked on by West Virginia's deep passing, yet managed to hold on for a half before breaking.

The plane will land in Statesboro at 5:30 a.m. Sunday morning. After a self-described "pout," Fritz has to find the teachable moments. This isn't the one-point loss at NC State to open last season. This isn't the bad review call that swung a late loss to Georgia Tech. This was a first for a program bred to expect victory regardless of hierarchy.

1. Some of your best planning will be useless.

When Georgia Southern won national titles in the 1980s, it was with the triple option. When it returned to I-AA glory in the 1990s, it was with the triple option. When Jeff Monken capped his career in Statesboro by upsetting Florida in 2013, it was with the triple option.

When Fritz was hired by Sam Houston State in 2010, he just needed to move the ball despite few returning offensive players. SHSU ran the option out of conventional spread passing formations.

"When we started out, we just wanted to run some kind of option where we didn't have to block everyone, and honestly it's just sort of grown from there," Fritz said.

Fritz inherited Monken's triple option roster. By 2014's end, Georgia Southern looked more like Gus Malzahn's Auburn than former Eagles coach Paul Johnson's Georgia Tech: "the Fritzkrieg." But they still ran like an Oklahoma Wishbone through an undefeated Sun Belt debut.

The Fritz essence isn't as foreign to Statesboro as it sounds: marry spread formations to various styles of the option run to achieve the friendliest coverages for your passing attack. Entering his second year, Fritz wants to expand the passing.

Running backs Matt Brieda and L.A. Ramsby are exceptional, especially combined with the mobile quarterbacks recruited to Monken's system. Starting QB Kevin Ellison is suspended for the first two games of 2015 for academics. So Favian Upshaw is alone, but is considered the team's best passing quarterback and the fastest man on the roster.

"He's the fastest quarterback in Division I," Ramsby says.

"I don't know about all that," Upshaw says. "We'd have to see."

After two weeks of film study, offensive coordinator Doug Ruse and his staff find something that bothered West Virginia's 3-3-5 defense last season: inside runs from 12 personnel (two tight ends). And both Texas (5.8 yards per carry) and Oklahoma (6.5 per carry) hurt the Mountaineers' 5-2 bear front with inside runs. The idea is two tight ends hurt WVU's coverage, while inside runs challenge a defense built with Big 12 passing in mind.

To help put more tight ends on the field, defensive end Nardo Govan will move back to his original position. Govan was injured last season, and during recovery, the TE moved to DE. He's preparing to play both against WVU.

The amount of information Govan will absorb is staggering. He's watching film for both positions and studying both playbooks at night after practice and time in the library.

"I'm not worried. I'll be prepared. I know I will," Govan says on Wednesday. "It's hard to describe [this week]. It's like ... I'm in a dark room, and there's spots of light. Suddenly a light just flashes. And I have to react, I have to be aware of what's going on around me. I have to be on point, aware, at all times.

"On defense, know my assignment, execute, then improvise to make a play if I need to. And then on offense, know my rules. Even if they do something totally different than what I've seen, stick to the rules to get on the right person. If the ball comes my way, do I block inside? Or is it designed to bounce outside?"

WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson's scheme responds differently than expected. West Virginia is so dominant early that the 12 plan is scrapped.

"We ran it a little bit early, and it didn’t alleviate anybody staying inside the box," Fritz said on Sunday. "It really almost brought another guy to the party. So we didn't end up running that as much as we anticipated we would."

Govan never sees the field on offense.

2. You will learn the limits of talent.

Gibson's success was senior safety Karl Joseph, who assaulted Georgia Southern with eight tackles and three third-quarter interceptions. Joseph and safety KJ Dillon flooded gaps and harassed Upshaw's deep throws.

"Those are guys who are likely headed to the league," Fritz says. "When they would get out of position and we could make a play, they tackled one-on-one. I think I counted nine times where we had a possibility of one-on-one, they’ve got to make the tackle or we make the run, and they made the tackle. Those are plays we would normally break."

The perspective of December will likely recalibrate what happened on September 5. If West Virginia's defense dominates in Big 12 play, Southern's effort will become palatable.

Regardless, Fritz knows the overlooked FCS specialists brought in under Monken must annually be fortified with FBS-caliber players. By his estimate, 95 percent of snaps on Saturday came from players recruited before the 2015 signing class, the Eagles' first in a full FBS cycle.

"I say this as a tip of the hat to the guys before; they recruited some great players. The difference last year was that when we went out on the field, we had some decent size on the offensive line."

3. You're up against more than just your opponent.

In March, Georgia Southern athletic director Tom Kleinlein told SB Nation about constant refusals by power programs to play Georgia Southern except in Week 1 paycheck games.

He's still working the phones, saying Southern isn't running a troublesome triple option, just a zone read like anyone else. That's a half-truth. GSU has a winning resume thanks in part to an offense no one else wants to use or face.

When Kleinlein tells his colleagues that Southern's fan base will travel, that's not necessarily appealing. After the Eagles brought an estimated 10,000 fans to Georgia Tech's Bobby Dodd Stadium last season, their ticket allotment at Georgia this November is only 4,200, including seating for the band, per Kleinlein.

Other ADs also know the elusive return game to Statesboro's Paulson Stadium won't be in front of a half-empty Sun Belt crowd of commuter students. Southern packs its 25,000-seat stadium, an in-ground pool of humidity with a home record of 181-33.

Unlike most mid-majors, Southern isn't just seeking paychecks. It's trying to step in the realm of Boise State by scheduling as aggressively as possible. Traveling to Alabama or West Virginia is a fiscal matter, and Kleinlein has booked home-and-homes vs. Western Michigan and UMass. But finding the power school that will risk the PR hit of a Sun Belt road loss is yeoman's work.

"I've heard every excuse possible at this point," Kleinlein said. "I just got off the phone with a friend at a SEC program, a guy I used to work with. He told me, 'No way,' before I could finish talking."

Fritz knows it's harder to find time to prep for an offense like his in a regular game week than in a Week 1.

"By all indications, [West Virginia] studied at least a solid two or three weeks on us," Fritz said Sunday night. "They were well-schooled. I’m glad we’re back in the regular routine now."

How game week works

4. You will fight what you can't control.

Tuesday, coaches break down the day's practice film with no quarter given. Offensive line coach Alex Atkins sits closest to the projector screen, commenting on every snap. Southern graduated away its offensive line last season.

Tuesday nights aren't kind to anyone -- it's the transition between installing a game plan and repping it to some version of readiness -- but Atkins stands out as the most profane and creative.

"It's hard to be positive when you see the guys messing things up. Guys are learning new things, running 100-odd plays out there, and it's hard to not see the negative. The lack of experience is scary."

At midweek, Atkins likes the toughness he's seeing. He doesn't expect the line to wither against a much larger defense than what Southern normally sees. But they need reps.

The South Georgia weather doesn't care. Wednesday, one lightning strike in the vicinity forces practice off the outdoor field. Southern has no indoor football facility; practice takes place on the basketball courts of the student rec center.

The same team that beat the Florida Gators practices in sneakers on a basketball court while undergrads lift weights on the other side of a glass partition.

Friday, Southern loses hours when its charter from Savannah to West Virginia is delayed taking another Sun Belt team, Troy, to NC State. Meetings at the team hotel have to be rescheduled.

"I told the guys today, I can't remember how many times I stood next to a broken-down bus when I was a coach in junior college. You learn to adapt to what you can," Fritz says that night.


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5. You will take damage.

"This is an offensive game now. You’re not going to be perfect. The tempo, there’s nothing fun about it," defensive coordinator Jack Curtis says Wednesday.

Fritz employs a third party group to provide analytics. The numbers tell him things like which side of the field his team has more success punting toward, and it also tells him what SB Nation's Bill Connelly found in his Mountaineers season preview: WVU's air raid offense has been running the ball more on standard downs.

Combine this with WVU's loss of Clint Trickett at quarterback and Kevin White at wide receiver, and it's a strong bet the Mountaineers will want to run. One, they're getting better at it, and two, it will demand Georgia Southern's safeties draw in and give quarterback Skyler Howard favorable matchups.

Stripped of nomenclature and formations, this is the same thing Georgia Southern's offense wants to do. The difference is that Dana Holgorsen's offense is built to pass deep at a quick pace.

"It's what they've done best, but since they're also running the ball now, you’ve got to have enough installed to have fixes and adjust for whatever," Curtis says. "But how much is enough? When do you start confusing your guys?"

West Virginia's first deep pass is a 41-yard touchdown. Curtis and Fritz know Holgorsen orders deep shots partly with the intent of demoralizing a secondary. The first play of the next drive is, as predicted, a 57-yard pass.

"We think we'll see run calls on third-and-7, third-and-8, and that deep pass can come at any time. [Holgorsen] doesn't necessarily have a pattern," Curtis says.

If there's a tendency, it's to combine home-run calls on consecutive plays. Hit a big one? Tempo, and try it again.

"What you fear against [West Virginia] is guys getting out of alignment or getting calls late, getting burned once and carrying that over," Curtis said.

"Watching the film, they're running a play every 12 seconds when they want to. When you give up the big play, that's when they're hurrying up to the line. They're the best I've seen at it," senior safety Matt Dobson says on Wednesday.

6. You will plan for the unexpected, and it will work.

There’s a photo of WVU's quarterback -- "the photo" -- Georgia Southern’s defensive staff found. They’re not sure of the date. They’re not sure if it’s from a scrimmage. But they think "the photo" shows a pre-snap Howard's eyes wide and focused away from the center.

That's it.

"We think he’s reading the defensive end. If he’s doing that, we think they could use the zone read with a QB run option," Curtis says on Tuesday. "There’s a concern he’s going to do it."

This is a big jump. West Virginia has modified zone reads in the past, but QBs in Holgorsen’s offense aren’t put in the open field to dodge tackles. Curtis’ concern isn’t that WVU will suddenly run Howard 25 times. It’s that a single Howard keeper could come in the middle of a tempo set to create a game-breaking play.

"[Howard] is not an [Upshaw]-type runner, but he’s capable. If you’re running a zone read, our end is having to play cut-back, or 'cut to keep,' and cut back to the running back and the QB. Well if the QB doesn’t run it, that’s OK, but If he’s running the ball, you have to get the guy to cut to keep, plus another guy. That's going to change how you line up."

Further evidence against the likelihood of Howard running actually bolsters Southern's confidence that he will.

"We've read all offseason that Howard is the man, the QB Holgorsen wants, so the idea he’d put him in harm’s way a lot seems unlikely."

If it happens, it might be once. But Curtis' staff feels it has to prepare.

It happens. WVU leads, 13-0. After a touchdown on the opening drive, Southern puts pressure on Howard. WVU has punted on its last two drives, but the Southern offense is floundering. Another touchdown before the half could put the game away.

Howard throws a 47-yard pass to Shelton Gibson over three Eagle defenders. With the ball on Southern's 23, WVU scrambles to the line. Howard takes a quick snap, makes the read and breaks for 10 yards, where he's tackled by Dobson and cornerback Darius Jones.

It's a first down, but it's a touchdown-saving recognition.

Nine times last season, Holgorsen's offense would string consecutive explosive plays (runs of 10-plus yards or passes of 20-plus) by scrambling to the line before the defense could recover. In six of those combos, the second play was a touchdown or a play ending inside the 20. What scares Curtis isn't the big play; it's the seconds of real time following it.

WVU stalls and kicks a field goal. They're up 16-0, but Southern kept them out of the end zone.

The photo created the hunch, the hunch caused the adjustment, and the adjustment bought Georgia Southern four points' worth of positive psychology.

It's not that coaches don't trust the media. That relationship is irrelevant. It's gamesmanship between staffs. Coaches parse things said by opposing players and assistants, who aren't as savvy as head coaches.

But sometimes you just find a photo on the Internet.

7. They will plan to scare you.

The culture of Georgia Southern has bred an expectation of winning every game. Erk Russell won a I-AA national title from scratch in four years. You either live up to that, insane as it might be 13 games into FBS play, or you don't.

"That comes from the community. You go out there and ask them, and they think we’re going 12-0. And they mean it. It’s installed in us," says Upshaw, who transferred three years ago from FIU. "Before I came here, I knew what games we had a chance in and which ones we didn’t. It's not like that here."

"We believe we have a chance against anyone here. We’re all the not-so-recruited guys of our town or our county. We have a lot of guys who have a lot to prove."

The visiting locker room at West Virginia shares a hallway with a door to the Mountaineers' locker room. Before the game, a chain and a padlock cover the WVU door. In the hour leading to kickoff, a speaker near the door blares music as loud as possible. As Eagles enter and exit warm-ups, the bass from Rich Homie Quan's "Choices" vibrates the walls.

The idea is that the visitors don't know what WVU is doing at any moment, whether pure hell is breaking loose next door.

Ramsby walks by, headphones on, listening to Future. He's indicative of most Eagles, indifferent to the stadium's noise. Atkins, sitting in the hallway, shrugs.

"I don't really buy into the psychology stuff. Look at these guys. Does it look like they care? They might go out there and win or lose, but they aren't going to be intimidated."

Photos: Todd Bennett, Getty; Steven Godfrey, SB Nation; Ben Queen, USA Today