Staring at the winningest season in Georgia State history, the Panthers fell flat in back-to-back weeks.
After coach Shawn Elliott questioned some’s effort in last week’s home loss to Appalachian State, the Panthers were upset by Idaho 24-10 at Saturday’s home finale in front of an announced crowd of 14,163 fans.
Georgia State will still qualify for a bowl at 6-5 (5-3 Sun Belt), but for a season that built such momentum, the end was a disappointing dud.
“Certainly not the way we wanted to go out,” Elliott said. “Very, very careless football game in a lot of aspects. … It wasn’t the effort we needed to win today for our seniors.”
Here are five observations from the game, which ensured the Panthers a 1-4 home finish.
1. Not fooling anyone: Georgia State got creative on offense in the first half, though it came off more foolish than clever.
On a second-down play, the Panthers rolled quarterback Conner Manning out while his offensive line didn’t move. It had minimal impact. Manning looked downfield but settled for his own 3-yard gain.
Penny Hart caught a pass inside the Idaho 5-yard line. The Panthers ran once before deciding to throw an out to Ari Werts, who fumbled away the go-ahead opportunity.
At the Idaho 26 early in the second, Manning flipped to running back Glenn Smith, who threw toward the end zone, but was intercepted by Jalen Hoover, again resulting in the Panthers leaving Idaho territory with nothing to show.
2. Self-inflicted wounds: The Panthers handed a 3-8 Idaho team more chances than it deserved.
Aside from botched trick plays, Georgia State simply played down to its opponent. Victor Heyward gave GSU two first-half sacks, but the pass rush was otherwise inconsistent and at times non-existent.
Georgia State could’ve added a field goal before half, but Smith was tackled in-bounds after a 4-yard reception at the Idaho 23 and time expired.
“That’s just a bad play by me,” Manning said. “It’s got to be at the end zone or out of bounds.”
The Panthers coughed up the ball on the second-half kickoff, leading to a Vandals field goal that extended the lead to 17-10. Demarcus Kirk fumbled on the next Panthers possession, but Trey Payne had a big third-down sack to stall the drive. Idaho had a bad snap on the field-goal attempt that helped the Panthers escape a mess.
GSU punted on the next two drives, the latter of which Manning almost lost a fumble at midfield. Aaron Duckworth’s 49-yard run put the Vandals at the GSU 9 just before the fourth quarter. Isaiah Saunders wrapped it up with a touchdown that made the score 24-10.
3. Exhausted defense, patchwork offensive line: After being the final FBS team to allow a 100-yard rusher last week, GSU did so again with Duckworth, who finished with 114 yards on 19 carries. Saunders added 61 yards on 14 carries.
Elliott said his defense needed a breather, and the short offensive possessions and turnovers didn’t work in their favor.
“We didn’t have the opportunity offensively to get our defense any rest,” he said. “And they took advantage of it.”
Meanwhile, GSU’s offensive line, which relied on several combinations because of injury, couldn’t hold back pressure on Manning. Down 17-10, GSU produced back-to-back three-and-outs. Elliott said the struggles and the score essentially removed the rushing attack and play-action.
4. Hart makes history: In securing his 72nd catch, Hart broke current Kansas City Chief Albert Wilson’s school record for catches in a season. He exited the game with a foot injury after catching three passes for 72 yards.
He finishes the regular season with 1,094 yards and eight scores. Hart missed most of last season because of a broken foot, but posted similar numbers his freshman season with a Sun Belt freshman record 1,109 yards and eight touchdowns on 72 catches.
While Georgia State must replace Manning, Smith and other key offensive players, retaining Hart will soften the blow. He’s the first Panther to record multiple 1,000-yard seasons.
Hart will lead the Sun Belt in receiving. His eight catches per game and 102.2 receiving yards per game entering Saturday were eighth-best in the FBS, while his 5.96 career receptions per game are fourth best among all active FBS players. His 87.3 career yards per game are eight best among active players.
Perhaps most impressively, Hart accounted for more than 32 percent of the Panthers’ receptions and over 38 percent of their receiving yards.
Just 26 games in, Hart is on pace to shatter records for receptions, yards and touchdowns, where he sits third in each category. The leaders in those marks, Wilson and Robert Davis, are in the NFL.
5. Up next: In Elliott’s first season, the Panthers will play in their second bowl game. They remain a candidate for the Cure Bowl in Orlando, among others. Bowl games and dates will be announced Sunday.
“When you go out there and put on a performance like we did today, you have to look hard at yourself in the mirror before you can move forward,” Elliott said.