Georgia State’s Cure Bowl opponent, Western Kentucky, isn’t so unfamiliar. Like the Panthers, the Hilltoppers were plagued by inconsistencies, appearing dynamic one day and aloof the next.
WKU got off to a 1-2 start before ripping off four wins in a row. It sank down the stretch, losing four of five and slumping to a 6-6 record.
GSU, meanwhile, had its own streaky tendencies. It lost its first two games, went 6-1 in its next seven, then lost the final two, including an extremely underwhelming upset loss to Idaho at home.
Yet the Panthers still have a chance at a school-record seventh win and their first bowl win in two tries.
“It’d be amazing,” senior cornerback Chandon Sullivan said. “Being in this program for four years, seeing the direction, getting a new stadium. Getting our first bowl win, it’d be everything we need to build this program.”
Sullivan praised the Hilltoppers, acknowledging that their record doesn’t tell the whole story. He singled out quarterback Mike White, whose 521 pass attempts are second-most in the FBS.
“They’re a very good group,” Sullivan said. “Their record doesn’t show how good they are. 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.”
WKU becoming overly reliant on White and its passing attack is a far cry from the teams that won back-to-back Conference USA titles in 2015 and 2016. The team that ranked 52nd in rushing last season sits 129th in 2017, worst in the nation.
The game could erupt into a passing frenzy. The Hilltoppers run primarily man coverage, which bodes well for Panthers quarterback Conner Manning and his group that has performed better when not diagnosing more zone.
Panthers receiver Penny Hart is key. Hart was off to a quick start against Idaho with 72 first-half yards, but the offense fell apart after he exited with a foot injury. Hart led the Sun Belt with 1,094 yards on a school-record 72 receptions.
He likes what he sees from the Hilltoppers’ defense.
“They like to run man and we like to pass against man,” Hart said with a smile. “So that’s what it is.”
“They play a lot of man, a lot of quarters stuff,” Manning said. “So we’re just preparing to do what we need to do.”
For varying reasons, the Panthers haven’t converted yards into points. Despite the conference’s fourth-best passing offense, GSU was 118th nationally in scoring. It often stalled in the red zone, and scored just 10 points exactly in four of five home games (1-4).
If the Panthers are going to get that seventh win, they’ll need to convert yards into points and play a complete game, something they haven’t done in the past two tries.
“It’s always about closing out,” cornerback Chandon Sullivan said. “That’s the difference between winning and losing. We’ve been in a lot of close games this year, but the last two weeks we haven’t closed well. … You can’t ever relax. You can’t ever get comfortable. You have to stay focused.”