It was a moment when you don’t know what to say, hoping not to seem trivial.
So Georgia Southern linebacker Kyle Oehlbeck, from Gainesville, ran to the stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on Saturday after the Eagles’ 26-20 victory over Florida and hugged his girlfriend and mother.
They were speechless, he said.
Senior running back Jerick McKinnon found his brother Lester Norwood, a former defensive back at Florida, amid the celebration and also savored the moment.
Senior Johnathan Bryant may have done the smartest thing.
“I just went out there again to look at the scoreboard,” said Bryant, gaining a second confirmation of the program’s first win against a FBS team.
The Eagles (7-4) led most of the way against last season’s Sugar Bowl participant, a team that started the season ranked No. 10.
Southern ran its triple-option offense to perfection and outgained the Gators 429-279.
Six national-championship banners fly at Paulson Stadium, but a win over one of the top programs perennially in college football? Southern had lost 20 consecutive games to FBS competition.
“This was a big win,” said Eagles coach Jeff Monken, not about to rank the program’s victories.
But this was a shining moment for Southern. McKinnon returned to the lineup after sitting out last week against Elon because of a sprained ankle and scored the game-winning touchdown on a 14-yard run with 2:57 left.
Florida (4-7) marched to the Southern 17, but twice the Eagles’ unheralded secondary knocked down passes to ignite a frenzied celebration.
“From the beginning of the season we hoped to go 11-0,” said senior fullback William Banks, who set up McKinnon’s game-winning touchdown with a 53-yard run to the Florida 14 after the Gators scored 10 consecutive points.
“I know we let Eagle Nation down (record-wise this season). I hope this makes up for it.”
McKinnon finished with 125 yards on nine carries to end his career with 3,899 rushing yards, passing Jayson Foster (3,835) and Joe Ross (3,876) to move into third place on the school’s all-time rushing list.
Freshman quarterback Kevin Ellison gained 118 yards rushing and scored on runs of 45 and 1 yards. Banks did not practice during the week and was limited earlier because of concussions, but had 11 carries for 94 yards and a touchdown.
“We pretty much had the run stopped. It was a few undisciplined plays in the run, and they capitalized on them,” Florida linebacker Darrin Kitchens said.
Southern capitalized to the tune of 429 rushing yards — the fourth-most ever allowed by Florida and the most since the Gators’ surrendered 524 to Nebraska in the 1996 Fiesta Bowl.
“We went out and played with passion for one another,” McKinnon said. “We wanted to win this last one for everybody.”
The Eagles’ defense, much maligned after surrendering 495 passing yards to Samford earlier in the season, played one of its better games of the season.
Linebackers Edwin Jackson and Oehlbeck registered 10 and eight tackles respectively as the Gators played conservatively. Florida’s game plan of running between the tackles and not putting the game in third-string quarterback Skylar Mornhinweg’s hands showed little signs of life.
But the Gators managed a field goal by Frankie Velez on the opening possession and cashed in a Bryant fumble at the Eagles 14 for a touchdown to make the score 10-0.
“It’s not the first time they’ve been in that situation,” Monken said. “Nobody panicked.”
Bryant saw it another way.
“When your backs are against the wall, all you can do is fight,” he said.