Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts tries to escape defenders Wednesday against Arkansas State at Paulson Stadium. (Ben Brengman/For the Savannah Morning News)
STATESBORO -- Georgia Southern found a consistent groove on offense for about 15 minutes during Wednesday’s 43-25 loss to Arkansas State.
The Eagles scored 17 points and racked up 175 of its 333 rushing yards as they traded scores with the Red Wolves in a wild and wacky second quarter. They scored touchdowns on a 74-yard run by running back Monteo Garrett and an 8-yard scamper by running back Wesley Fields, both on option pitches.
As Georgia Southern (0-4, 0-1 Sun Belt) imposed its will in the running game, breaking off 10 runs of 7 yards or more in the second quarter, and began to look like the offense fans are so familiar with, one thing became clear: as quarterback Shai Werts goes, so goes the offense.
Werts, a redshirt freshman, appeared to play with a different kind of swagger Wednesday compared to his first three games as a college quarterback in which he couldn’t veil his youth and inexperience. He looked hesitant in his decision making, and too many plays looked to break down because of it.
But when the GS offense was clicking in the second quarter Wednesday, Werts looked confident about where he was going with the football. He attacked the defense, got to the line of scrimmage faster, and made the right reads. He made a textbook pitch to Garrett and let Garrett do the rest as he raced down the sideline for the longest GS touchdown run of the season.
“I think they felt like they were in rhythm tonight,” head coach Tyson Summers said. “I think (offensive coordinator Bryan Cook) has done a good job with that. I think you continue to see growth in our quarterback play. I think he continues to get better and continues to will himself into those things. I think he was better with his decision making tonight.”
Summers also acknowledged Werts isn’t there yet. That youth and inexperience still showed up in spurts.
On one option pitch, Werts looked to his right expecting to see his pitch target, Myles Campbell, but Campbell was trailing too far behind, and Werts had to look directly behind him to pitch the ball before he was drilled by an incoming defender.
On another play, Werts missed his pitch so bad, it was 3 yards ahead of running back L.A. Ramsby, and the ball fortunately rolled out of bounds.
“We’re a very quarterback driven offense, and I do think you continue to see him get better,” Summers said. “I think he’s making better reads, I think he’s putting our offense into better rhythm. He’s got a lot on him. That’s the nature of the beast when you play quarterback at any school, at any place at any time. I think you continue to see him lead. Does he need to be more consistent, does he need to cut out some of the errors? Yes, he does. But all of us do.”
Then came the backbreaker when Werts threw an interception early in the third quarter after Arkansas State had scored 14 unanswered points in less than two minutes of game time.
The ball was severely underthrown, and Campbell, his intended target, was 10 yards away from it as it was picked by Arkansas State’s Michael Johnson and returned 30 yards, setting up another Red Wolves touchdown that gave them a 36-17 lead.
Werts said he felt better and more comfortable with the offense Wednesday, but also admitted he needed to make better decisions.
“I feel like we made a big jump on the offensive side of the ball,” he said. “We had the same juice the whole way, just at the end a few things didn’t go our way, I threw the pick. That kind of killed the momentum a little bit, I feel like. That’s just on me. I saw Myles one-on-one, but I didn’t check to see where the backside safety was going to roll, and I threw it right into his hands.
“I’ve got to get the ball out a little quicker, step up into the pocket. I’ll take all the blame for the sacks, the interception, that’s all on me. I’ve got to do a better job of pocket awareness.”
Even though the Eagles lost and fell to 0-4, Garrett said the offense saw a glimpse of its potential, and it’s a matter of developing consistency. Werts, he said, is leading by example in that area.
“Shai’s a really big-time part of the offense,” Garrett said. “I can see Shai playing in the league one day. Shai’s going to get better, and he’s going to keep pushing us to get better.
“There’s a couple of things we need to clean up. We’re going to get it together. We’re going to watch tape, fix our mistakes and look forward.”