For the first time, the Panthers can call themselves bowl champions.
GSU dominated in all three phases, defeating Western Kentucky 27-17 in the Cure Bowl on Saturday. Quarterback Conner Manning was named the game’s MVP after going 20-of-28 for 276 yards and a touchdown.
“When you do things you’ve never done before, you remember it the rest of your life,” GSU coach Shawn Elliott said. “We’ve set the standard for the rest of this program’s history.”
Here are five things to know about the Panthers’ biggest win in school history, and where the team goes from here:
Best they’ve ever had: With the win, the Panthers finish 7-5 (5-3), the most wins the program has achieved. It did so in Elliott’s first season.
Elliott said his team is made of “misfit players and misfit coaches.” The players said they’ve been impressed with Elliott from the first day they met him.
“Energy,” senior defensive back Bryan Williams said about his coach’s most captivating trait. “He came in and just started yelling.”
“I thought he was the realest coach I’ve ever been around,” senior pass rusher Mackendy Cheridor said.
“We weren’t really selling anything,” Elliott said. “It was either get it or get out.”
Whatever the method, it proved successful – and was wrapped up by a historic win.
The Panthers set Cure Bowl records in total yards (419), first downs (21), rushing yards (143) and third-down conversions (8-for-16). They did so against a school that had made four-straight bowls, and won the last three.
The defining drive: The Panthers failed to capitalize on the opening drive of the second half, turning it over on downs at the WKU 21. The defense forced a punt, and the Panthers offense responded.
On third and four, Manning found Penny Hart, playing on an injured ankle, for 27 yards. Hart faked out and sped by the cornerback before turning around and stretching out for the catch.
“Guys around me stepped up,” Manning said. “My only goal (this season) was to help lead this team to a bowl victory.”
Elliott pulled out a trick on the next play with a reverse flea-flicker. Receiver Devin Gentry flipped the ball to running back Glenn Smith, who tossed it back to Manning. Tight end Roger Carter was wide open for a 42-yard touchdown that put GSU up 20-10 and completed a momentum shift.
Winning with defense: Considering the quality of opponent and the stage, Saturday may have been the defense’s best showing of the season; against one of the best passers in the nation, nonetheless.
Hilltoppers quarterback Mike White has been one of the most prolific passers in college football, producing without any semblance of a run game (WKU statistically had the worst rushing attack in FBS). White was third nationally in passing efficiency a year ago, and had thrown for over 300 yards in seven consecutive games this season.
That didn’t matter. The Panthers sacked White six times, including two from Cheridor. With 10.5 career sacks, Cheridor set the new school high in his final game. WKU finished with -2 rushing yards on 21 attempts.
White surpassed the 300-yard mark again, albeit with much of the damage coming in the final quarter while down 27-10. Chase Middleton picked White, GSU’s second interception of the day, on the Hilltoppers’ last drive.
Overcoming adversity: A recurring theme in the Panthers’ final two losses of the regular season was self-inflicted wounds. Quarterback Conner Manning was adamant the team couldn’t leave plays on the field, and while the team still had some miscues, it overcame them.
Brandon Wright had a solid day, and it’s hard to blame him for the team coming away with nothing on the final drive of the first half. On third and 10 at the Hilltoppers 36, Manning hit Jonathan Ifedi on a screen for a touchdown. But it was overturned after a review concluded Ifedi’s knee had tapped the ground before he hit the hole.
Wright would then miss a 54-yarder, leaving GSU with a 13-10 lead at half. Wright converted a 42-yarder and 37-yarder earlier in the day.
The Panthers were driving to open the second half, but rather than attempt a 38-yard field goal, the team went for it on fourth and one, with Smith getting stuffed. The defense forced a punt, and two big throws from Manning later, GSU had pulled away.
The quarterback came up big again with 12 minutes remaining. He ran for 12 yards on a third and 13, allowing Kyler Neal to convert the fourth and one. Manning made a pinpoint throw to Carter down the seam to put the team inside the red zone with nine minutes left.
Neal finished the 16-play, 74-yard drive with a touchdown to make it 27-10. The possession chewed 9:01 of clock.
It was an emphatic switch from the past two games, where the team seemingly wilted against pressure.
Changes coming, but Hart remains: The Panthers will require a retool next season after losing Manning, Sullivan, Smith and several other key contributors. But its best player will return for his junior season.
The Panthers star receiver Hart was limited by an ankle injury that occurred in the first half of the Dec. 2 loss to Idaho. Despite saying he would be full-go, Hart wasn’t healthy enough to make much of an impact, though his third-down catch on the first scoring drive of the second half proved vital.
He was targeted twice in the first half. He did manage to cut and get open but the pass sailed over him. He fielded a punt for a fair catch after Sullivan’s exit.
Hart’s season ends with a school-record 74 catches and 1,121 yards, 56 shy of Albert Wilson’s record.
The sophomore entered the day eighth in the FBS in receiving yards per game with 99.5 and 12th in receptions with 6.6. After appearing in just two games a season ago due to a foot injury, Hart’s individual 2017 campaign, even with the late injury, was successful.
GSU will bring back much of its defense, including star linebacker Michael Shaw, though replacing Sullivan, B.J. Clay and Bryan Williams in the secondary will be challenging.