By BRETT MARTEL
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Georgia Southern quarterback Shai Werts kept his team in suspense until pregame warmups.
That’s when he started getting geared up emotionally the way he normally does on game days — which teammates and coaches understood to mean that their offensive leader wasn’t going to let his shoulder injury sideline him for what was likely his final game with the Eagles.
“It really energized our team,” coach Chad Lunsford said. “The guys fed off that for sure.”
Werts had three touchdown runs and threw a 65-yard scoring pass to help Georgia Southern beat Louisiana Tech 38-3 in the New Orleans Bowl on Wednesday.
“Going into the week, I really didn’t know if I was going to be able to play,” insisted Werts, who missed Georgia Southern’s previous two games. “When the time came for me to make a decision, I felt good.”
Werts scored one of his touchdowns on a designed QB run that covered 37 yards. His two other rushing TDs came from a yard out.
“It definitely feels good to go out on top with my guys,” Werts said. “You’re only as good as your last game, and if this is my last game, then I feel good about it.”
Georgia Southern (8-5) came up with four interceptions — including two near its own goal line in the first quarter. Safety Justin Birdsong intercepted two passes — the first against Louisiana Tech starter Aaron Allen and the second against reserve JD Head in the third quarter.
“It was a big game for us,” said Birdsong, noting that his team was motivated by hearing that Louisiana Tech (5-5), which is in Conference USA, had won 18 straight against current Sun Belt Conference members. “It was definitely a statement to go out there and do what we did.”
The Eagles came in averaging 262 yards rushing and finished with 322 against Louisiana Tech.
Malik Murry broke off a 43-yard run on the opening drive to set up Werts’ first short TD run. Gerald Green’s 55-yard run in the fourth quarter highlighted his 108-yard, one-TD performance. Werts finished with 71 yards rushing.
“I didn’t want Shai to have to go out with an injury and I don’t think he wanted to either,” Lunsford said. “Super proud of him, proud of how he was able to end his career here.”
The Bulldogs were trying to win a bowl for the seventh straight season, but could not overcome three interceptions thrown by Allen inside the Georgia Southern 30 in the first half.
“He did not play very well,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said. “He certainly hasn’t played that way so far this year … but he had a hard night tonight.”
Allen’s first turnover came when Birdsong stepped in front of a pass at the 5 on a first-down play from the Eagles 17. Tech’s next possession ended when cornerback Derrick Canteen intercepted his sixth pass this season on the Georgia Southern 1 on a Tech first down from the 26.
The second turnover set up Werts’ deep pass to Khaleb Hood to make it 14-0.
Allen threw his third interception in the second quarter, when safety Anthony Wilson picked off a quick slant pass at the 25 on a second-and-10 from the Eagles’ 30.
Tech was on the verge of being shut out in the first half when Smoke Harris returned a punt 60 yards to set up the Bulldogs on the 0 with 31 seconds left. The defense responded by forcing two incomplete passes and sacking Allen to set up Jacob Barnes’ 45-yard field goal.
“We didn’t execute at a high level at all,” Tech running back Israel Tucker said. “We had too many turnovers.”
Louisiana Tech: Statistically, this was a difficult matchup for the Bulldogs, who came in allowing about 185 yards rushing. Once Werts and the Eagles’ ground game got going, it was going to be up to Tech’s offense to keep pace on the scoreboard, but turnovers prevented that.
Georgia Southern: The Eagles played to their strengths, riding their rushing attack for the bulk of the game and hitting Tech for a couple sizeable gains in the passing game — one for a score and one that set up Werts’ second short rushing TD. Meanwhile, Georgia Southern’s opportunistic defense increased its season interception total to 18, and its takeaway total to 26, which ranks first in the nation (albeit in 13 games, more than any other team has played in this pandemic-altered season).