STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) — James Madison’s first week in the AP Top 25 ended with a painful reminder that even ranked teams must avoid turnovers.
Kyle Vantrease threw four touchdown passes, including a 22-yarder to Derwin Burgess Jr. with 1:10 remaining, and Georgia Southern beat No. 25 James Madison 45-38 on Saturday to spoil the Dukes’ first appearance in the AP Top 25.
James Madison (5-1, 3-1 Sun Belt Conference) committed four turnovers, including three interceptions by Todd Centeio. The Dukes also had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown.
“You can’t turn the ball over four times and win football games, you just can’t,” said James Madison coach Curt Cignetti. “And you can’t turn it over four times and get a punt blocked for a touchdown and expect to win games.”
Vantrease passed for a school-record 578 yards and had three receivers with more than 100 yards as the Eagles (4-3, 1-2) shredded James Madison’s proud defense.
James Madison led 14-0 early in the game and 24-14 early in the second half. The Dukes, who moved into the Top 25 in their first FBS season by ranking second in the nation in total defense, couldn’t stop Georgia Southern’s comeback despite holding the Eagles to 12 rushing yards.
“They are a great team, an absolutely phenomenal team,” said Vantrease of the Dukes. “We had to put the ball in the air and our guys went out and made plays.”
Centeio’s 25-yard touchdown pass to Terrance Greene Jr. gave James Madison a 38-37 lead with 2:28 remaining.
Vantrease brought the Eagles down the field quickly and completed an 11-yard pass to Burgess to set up the decisive score.
Anthony Wilson’s interception with 18 seconds remaining ended James Madison’s final drive.
Centeio ran for three touchdowns and completed 28 of 48 attempts for 468 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions.
Georgia Southern scored 20 unanswered points after trailing 24-14. The Eagles took their first lead on Vantrease’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Jalen White late in the third quarter. Alex Raynor’s 41-yard field goal pushed the Eagles’ lead to 34-24 early in the fourth.
Centeio’s 28-yard scoring pass to Reggie Brown cut Georgia Southern’s lead to 34-31, and after Raynor’s 24-yard field goal extended the Eagles’ lead 37-31, Centeio put the Dukes back in front.
Georgia Southern’s Amare Jones had seven catches for 164 yards and two touchdowns. Khaleb Hood had eight catches for 131 yards and Jeremy Singleton had seven catches for 108 yards.
It was Georgia Southern’s second noteworthy win of the season, following a 45-42 win at Nebraska on Sept. 10. This time, Eagles fans were able to celebrate by running onto the field.
“To be part of a stormed field is unbelievable,” Vantrease said.
Georgia Southern, trailing 17-14, opened the second half with a failed onside kick. The kick failed to travel 10 yards, giving James Madison excellent field position.
Three plays later, Centeio’s 10-yard scoring run extended the lead to 24-14. He had scored on runs of 17 and 13 yards in the first half.
Georgia Southern scored the next 20 points.
“We looked a little tired out there,” Cignetti said. “We looked a little bit like we were running in mud in the second half.”
Vantrease found Jones on a 75-yard touchdown pass on the Eagles’ first play of the half, again trimming the Dukes’ lead to three points.
James Madison dominated the first quarter, holding a 219-23 advantage in total yards. Centeio’s 13-yard scoring run gave the Dukes a 14-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter.
The Eagles quickly pulled even. Vantrease threw a 13-yard scoring pass to Jones before freshman Joshua Thompson’s blocked punt and recovery in the end zone for a touchdown tied the game.
Camden Wise’s 26-yard field goal gave James Madison a three-point lead.
Raynor, who had made his first nine field goal attempts this season, was wide left on a 39-yard attempt to end the first half. The miss left the Dukes with a 17-14 halftime lead. He was good on three other field goal attempts.
James Madison: The Dukes appeared to stray from their extremely successful offensive mix of the first quarter, including Centeio’s runs. But the defense will take most of the blame, giving up the massive passing yards after allowing an average of only 227.4 yards in the first five games.
Georgia Southern: The Eagles showed resiliency as Vantrease completed 38 of 64 passes in the one-dimensional offense. He was also well protected and never sacked.
James Madison’s visit to the Top 25 will last only one week.
James Madison: Returns home to play Marshall in another Sun Belt game on Saturday.
Georgia Southern: Plays at Old Dominion on Saturday.