At another time, Bobby Petrino might have had the last laugh in his return to the Georgia Dome on Saturday.
Instead, the game between Petrino-led Western Kentucky and Georgia State didn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things, and there wasn’t anything funny for Panthers fans as the Hilltoppers cruised to a 44-28 victory. The loss kept Georgia State (0-9) winless this season.
It was Petrino’s first time on the sidelines in the building since he quit on the Falcons during the 2007 season to take the coaching job at Arkansas. He was fired from there in 2012 after he crashed his motorcycle, which led to revelations of his mistress and lies to his boss.
Not even using using the Falcons’ locker room, which the Hilltoppers did Saturday, could prompt Petrino to wax poetic on his short-lived 13-game stay with the Falcons.
“It was a long, long time ago, and like I said, I’m really just focused on what we can do to get better at WKU,” he said.
Instead, Saturday’s performance was mostly history repeating itself for Georgia State fans. Not only did they not get their own bit of karmic revenge against Petrino, they were reminded of the divide that separates established FBS teams such as Western Kentucky from first-year FBS teams such as the Panthers (0-9).
“We dug ourselves a huge hole,” coach Trent Miles said. “We were unable to sustain any drives in the first half with our offense, other than a big play (Robert Davis’ 67-yard touchdown reception), in the first half. With too many three-and-outs we left our defense on the field way too much, and they got tired.”
The Panthers focused on stopping Western Kentucky running back Antonio Andrews, FBS’ active career leader in all-purpose yards, and they mostly did a good job. Andrews rushed for 110 yards, didn’t have a kick return and had just one punt return for minus-3 yards. He caught three passes for 36 yards to finish with 143, the third time in his career that he failed to surpass 150 yards.
Instead, Keshawn Simpson punished the Panthers with four rushing touchdowns against a defense that was on the field for 75 plays.
Two of those touchdowns were part of a 21-0 run that turned a 10-7 lead into a 31-7 lead midway through the third quarter and effectively ended the Panthers’ chances of rallying.
Georgia State fell behind because it couldn’t run in the first half, totaling 22 yards against a stacked defense. The Panthers had two three-and-outs and lost the battle for time-of-possession by more than eight minutes.
“Our first run of the game is minus-2 yards,” Miles said. “And then we’re second-and-long, and then it’s third-and-long. The odds are horrible for you.”
The Panthers switched to a hurry-up offense in the second half — one that Miles said they will use the rest of the season — and the running game began to improve. Georgia State got to within 10 late in the third quarter.
Trailing 31-7, the Panthers got back on the board on a 2-yard scoring run by Travis Evans with 4:37 left in the third quarter. The play cut Western Kentucky’s lead to 31-14. The score was set up by a 32-yard pass from Bell to Avery Sweeting down to the 2-yard line.
Georgia State’s Jonathan Jean-Bart added an 11-yard touchdown run to cut Western Kentucky’s lead to 31-21 with 54 seconds left in the third quarter. It was the freshman’s first touchdown. He finished with 53 yards as the Panthers rushed for 85.
But Western Kentucky answered with a 3-yard scoring run by Simpson to take a 38-21 lead with 10:18 left.
That was too much for Georgia State to overcome.
“The kids showed again that they’re fighters,” Miles said. “We went back out and answered it and put ourselves back in the game, but give Western Kentucky the credit.”
That may still be hard for some in Atlanta to do.