This wasn’t just a loss that the Georgia Southern Eagles handed the Florida Gators Saturday. As difficult as it might be to fathom a 26-20 loss to a team from what used to be called Division IAA, try comprehending this: It was the first loss for the Gators to a team currently in the NCAA FCS (football championship subdivision) since 1946 and the first out-of-conference loss at home to a team not named Florida State or Miami since 1988.
What Georgia Southern accomplished hit home with fourth-year head coach Jeff Monken and it wasn’t lost on GSU linebacker Kyle Oehlebeck, either. Monken knew just how tough it is to win a game in Gainesville. So did Oehlbeck, who grew up not that far from The Swamp.
Standing near the podium while his players spoke to the media post game, Monken offered hugs and kind words to each kid as he headed back to the locker, but the largest and warmest embrace was saved for Kyle Oehlbeck, who played his high school ball at nearby Buchholz.
“It was the best feeling in the world,” Oehlbeck said after contributing eight tackles to Georgia Southern’s defensive effort. He later remarked this win was “something I’ll never forget.”
Oehlbeck never got so much as a letter of interest from Florida during his recruiting process even though he was located right in the Gators’ back yard. You think he will ever forget what happened Saturday? He’s a senior who got to play (and win) the final game of his collegiate career in his hometown.
Still don’t believe it? That’s okay because you aren’t alone. Georgia Southern running back Johnathan Bryant didn’t either, and he ran for 24 yards on four carries in the game.
“It’s unbelievable,” Bryant said. “I just went back out [on the field] again to look at the scoreboard. I love this. I’m just trying to soak it all in right now.”
There is much to soak in because the Eagles won this game without completing a pass, the fewest completions by a Florida opponent in a game in records that date back to 1976. The Eagles outgained Florida 429-279, averaged three more yards per play and won the time possession battle, yet they fumbled three times (lost two), missed two PATs and had a 30% conversion rate on third down.
Despite the blunders, they still won. At times the Eagles looked about as easy to tackle as a plume of water vapor, or maybe that was just Florida’s already slim hopes of a bowl game evaporating before our very eyes.
Prior to Saturday, Georgia Southern had never beaten a football bowl subdivision (formerly Division IA) opponent. The Eagles were 0-20. Make that 1-20 now.
For further perspective do a little math. Florida guaranteed Georgia Southern $550,000 to take the trip to Gainesville. That’s $1,282 per rushing yard. That’s the fourth most ever gained on the ground by a Florida opponent. Here’s another number: $19,643. That’s the amount of dollars per point the Gators were favored over the Eagles before the game (28). The wise guys in Las Vegas don’t seem so smart after this one.
Monken joked about wanting to lose his lunch at different parts of the day after the game, and after he shook Florida head coach Will Muschamp’s hand he “celebrated his butt off” with his team. Then he found his mother, father and wife all of whom were in attendance and gave them all hugs as well.
The Eagles are in a transition year from FCS to FBS. That makes them ineligible for a Southern Conference championship, the FCS playoffs or an FBS bowl game this year. They’ll move to the FBS’ Sun Belt conference next year, but won’t be eligible to play in a bowl game in 2014 either. That’s two years without postseason play for a program with more FCS national championships (six) than any other team in that football division, all of them earned since 1985. Prior to this season, GSU had made it to the FCS semifinals three straight years.
“This will stick with me throughout my entire life,” Oehlbeck said. “It’s just a culmination of so much hard work.”
He expressed how this win exorcised the demons of coming so close to a national championship in years past, and the frustration of not having the chance to win one at all this year.
This loss ensures the Florida Gators won’t be playing any football in the postseason either. A seventh defeat dooms them to a boring, football-less December for the first time since 1992.
Two teams walked off Florida field after the game, but although neither will play in the postseason, one looked like it had won the national championship. The Gators exited quickly and quietly while the Eagles stuck around and celebrated with their fans for what seemed like an eternity, taking it all in as if they didn’t really want to leave. To be fair, they probably didn’t. Maybe it was simply too hard to grasp, or too lofty to comprehend. The Georgia Southern Eagles beat the Florida Gators.