- Gabriel Burns
Georgia State will go for its school-record seventh win Saturday against Western Kentucky in the Cure Bowl in Orlando.
The Panthers, once 6-3, have lost two in a row. The Hilltoppers, once 5-2, lost four of their past five.
It’s Georgia State’s second bowl in three years after posting a 1-23 mark in its first two seasons in FBS. The Panthers lost the inaugural 2015 Cure Bowl to San Jose State 27-16.
Here are five things to watch for in Saturday’s game:
1. Turning yards into points: Every coach will reel off clichés about the uselessness of total yards compared with the final score. The Panthers are a perfect case study.
Georgia State ranked fourth in the Sun Belt Conference in yards per game, yet 118th nationally in scoring at roughly 20 points a game. That number sinks to 12 at home, where the Panthers failed to ever built momentum and lost four of five contests.
More than anything else, the Panthers can’t leave points on the board. That’s obvious, but that’s also what cost the team a chance at a Sun Belt title.
“Shooting ourselves in the foot,” quarterback Conner Manning said the most recent loss, a 24-10 stunner to Idaho on Dec. 2. “I give credit to them, they beat us. But we left a lot out on the table. That’s just from ourselves not executing with the penalties and key misreads. Just got to be able to execute cleanly and play a clean game.”
2. Containing Mike White: Western Kentucky’s quarterback led Conference USA in passing yards, yards per game and completions despite being sacked 42 times, fifth most in FBS.
The Panthers rank eighth in the Sun Belt in passing defense despite boasting a pair of ball-hawking cornerbacks, Chandon Sullivan and Bryan Williams.
“Their record doesn’t show how good they are,” Sullivan said of the Hilltoppers. “Their quarterback, I believe he’s an NFL prospect. They have a bunch of good receivers. From a secondary standpoint, we know we’ll get tested. They like to throw the ball a lot so we have to stay on our A-game.”
3. Get Penny Hart involved: The Panthers have one of the better receivers in the nation in Hart. It’s best they put him to good use.
After missing most of last season with a broken foot, Hart has been the engine of the GSU offense in 2017. He’s accounted for 32 percent of the team’s receptions (73) and 38 percent of its receiving yards (1,094).
Hart injured his foot against Idaho, but he said he’ll be full-go Saturday. It’s hard to envision the Panthers winning if he doesn’t find the end zone, which has surprisingly been a rarity in recent weeks.
The first-team All-Sun Belt receiver hasn’t scored since the Georgia Southern game Nov. 4, leaving him with a three-game touchdown drought.
“We just have to continue to fight,” he said. “Between those two games, it’s in the past, but learning from them, watching the film and figuring out what we have to do as a team to stay together and fight for each other.”
4. Weakness against weakness: The Panthers have been inexplicably bad at rushing the passer.
Their 18 team sacks rank second-worst in the conference. They were one of two Sun Belt teams not to reach 20 sacks, while New Mexico State led the conference with 40 quarterback takedowns.
As mentioned earlier, the Hilltoppers have allowed 42 sacks, fifth most in the nation. Part of that is because of sheer volume, with White attempting 521 passes, second-most in the FBS.
The Hilltoppers have the worst rushing attack in college football, putting up just 66 yards per game on the ground. GSU shouldn’t sweat that much, but with all the dropbacks incoming, the Panthers are going to have to overcome their defensive woes.
5. Shawn Elliott on display: This game could be a huge recruiting tool for the Panthers. They might walk away with seven wins in Elliott’s first season.
It’s also being nationally televised on CBS. An added bonus: There aren’t any “big time” programs playing Saturday. Whoever wants to watch college football likely will turn to the Cure Bowl.
Elliott has the spotlight. How he reacts with his players, calls and emotion moments will be there for the world – and recruits – to see. If things go well, it will be an important day for the program.
“The biggest impact (Elliott has had) is challenging leaders to be leaders at all times,” senior cornerback Chandon Sullivan said. “That’s the hard part. He challenges everyone to step up and fight through everything.”