“We don’t have moral victories here at Georgia Southern,” Fritz said. “We played close games against NC State and Georgia Tech, but we need to win one of these games. We haven’t under my watch. It will be a real challenge, but I think our guys are ready to play a game.”
Fritz ranks 13th on the NCAA four-year colleges active win list at 146, tied with former WVU and current Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez. Fritz came to GSU last season after elevating the program at Blinn College – whom he turned into a junior college national power – before successful stints at Central Missouri and Sam Houston State. Georgia Southern went 9-3 overall, and unbeaten in the Sun Belt last season to win the conference in their initial foray into the FBS level. Now, the Eagles are expected to take the next step, which means another victory over a Power Five foe as they did in a 26-20 win at Florida in 2013.
“Well coached,” Fritz said of the Mountaineers, themselves trying to reach their former lofty status. “Got great players. It will be a hostile environment. It’s one of those games the players and coaches alike really look forward to, a tough game on the road against a great opponent.”
Fritz said what really drew his focus to West Virginia was its 3-3-5 odd stack look, a defense the triple option-based Eagles don’t see much. It’s a literal odd-on-odd match-up for both teams, and West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has maintained that he doesn’t understand how teams ready for Georgia Southern with just a week to prepare. Fortunately, WVU has had what amounts to a full offseason that was whittled down to about two-plus weeks of true game prep. The same was true for GSU, as Fritz and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Doug Ruse began digging up tape of the Big 12 foe over the summer.
“We run a little different offense than they see all year and they run a different defense than we will see all year,” Fritz said. “One of the interesting things each week is to figure out exactly how a team is going to play you. Are they going to be really aggressive? Are they going to be assignment sound? Sometimes when you get real aggressive you lose your gap integrity. We will have to try and figure that out in the first quarter. But we have an extra week to prepare for a defense we don’t see all the time.
“We started looking at tape in the summer and developed a preliminary game plan. With first games, most people take two weeks to prepare rather than the standard one week. We will have had about 10 practices where the major portion of the practice was devoted to West Virginia.”
So something’s gotta give on one side or another. The simple argument is that the Power Five program has the better depth, bigger size, more talent and finer skill and speed. And that’s likely the case, especially within Gibson’s experienced defense that is designed to play in space. But tackling, always an issue, can become even more difficult in first games, and that could open the door for the Eagles to bust a few big plays. That, combined with the keep away style, could shorten the game and trim multiple West Virginia possessions off the books.
It’s then that Georgia Southern, who rallied from down 25 points at Georgia Tech last year to lead deep into the fourth quarter, seems primed for an upset. But GSU has its own concerns, namely that along with being down to its second string quarterback after starter Kevin Ellison was suspended, it is also breaking in four new starters along the line. But the coaching staff admittedly feels better about the front than they did three weeks ago, and Fritz has been pleased with the development of reserve quarterback Favian Upshaw.
Upshaw has played in 11 career games, and was sold as a back-up last season in completing 70.4 percent of his passes. He was also the team’s fourth-best rusher with 385 yards, including a whopping 9.6 yard average. The junior hit on six of 12 passes late at Georgia Tech before a fumble – one of just 12 turnovers for GSU last season – led to the winning score for the Yellow Jackets. Upshaw will be helped by a pair of senior targets in B.J. Johnson (23 rec., 312 yds) and tight end James Dean, a smaller player at 6-1 who started four games last season, and uber-back Matt Breida.
“He has the full grasp of the playbook,” Fritz said of Upshaw, an FIU transfer who will make his first start since his final season in high school in 2011. “He has been with us through two springs and a full season and then fall camp. He can do anything. We have a lot of confidence. He has great composure and is very competitive.”
Breida, meanwhile, was a first-team All-Sun Belt selection last year after rushing for 1,485 yards including topping the 100-yard mark seven times. He went over 200 yards twice, against Georgia State (201) and Navy (210). Breida isn’t a long-strider, and can lack exceptional breakaway speed, but at 5-10 and 185 pounds, delivers a punch on the interior with enough open field explosion to break sizeable gains. Georgia Southern’s defense returns eight starters out of coordinator Jack Curtis’ 4-2-5 look. The Eagles, which allowed more than 25 points just four times last season, start eight seniors and three juniors. GSU also returns all four players up front and four of five in the secondary, which should help against Dana Holgorsen’s multiple looks.