After qualifying for a bowl, Georgia State fell into a late-season swoon.
The team was outscored 55-20 in home conference losses to Appalachian State and Idaho, shredding the momentum the Panthers built after achieving a 6-3 record. GSU allowed 100-yard rushers in both games after permitting none all season.
“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,” coach Shawn Elliott said after the 24-10 loss to Idaho.
While a 6-5 record may be a disappointment given the circumstances, it still presents the Panthers with an opportunity to secure their most wins in a season and first bowl win when they face Western Kentucky in the Cure Bowl on Saturday in Orlando.
“It’s huge for our program,” quarterback Conner Manning said. “We finished the year on a sour note. But to come out here and compete at practice, go out there and play a good Western Kentucky team, we know they’re going to be ready to play. We have to be ready to go.”
If they’re going to win their seventh game, the Panthers will need to be more disciplined. Penalties, miscommunications and blown field position cost them mightily in the past few weeks.
“Shooting ourselves in the foot,” Manning said of the two losses. “I give credit to (Idaho), 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.”
“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.”
The Panthers’ best player, receiver Penny Hart, exited in the second quarter against the Vandals with a foot injury. He said he’s fully healthy.
Hart’s health is critical for Georgia State’s chances. He led the Sun Belt Conference with 1,094 yards on 73 catches. Those numbers account for 38 and 32 percent of the offense’s output, respectively.
“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.”
It might be better for GSU that the game will be played in Orlando rather than Atlanta: GSU is the definition of a road warrior. It has five road wins – tied for second-most in the FBS – compared with a single victory at Georgia State Stadium.
The Panthers scored only 61 points across five home games (12.2 per contest). They scored exactly 10 in each of their four losses and hit 21 in the win against South Alabama.
In staggering comparison, they averaged 26 points per game on the road, though that number balloons to 31.2 if excluding the 28-0 loss at Penn State.
And yet despite the discrepancy, a win may make those home woes forgotten.
“Being able to have the opportunity to make history here, be part of winning that first bowl game,” Hart said. “This team would go down in history. I think it’s the best team we’ve had here yet if we’re able to close out with a win.”