Conner Manning’s throw to Penny Hart was perfect: a 9-yard fade into the corner with the ball placed where only Hart could reach it.
The touchdown lifted Georgia State to its third consecutive victory over rival Georgia Southern. As good as the throw was, Hart knew that Manning was going to lead the Panthers to the winning score long before the ball left his right hand.
As the Panthers huddled on their own 31-yard line with 4:56 remaining, Hart could see that Manning was in control. He was the leader.
“I could look in his eyes and tell that he was ready to go to do what we had to do to win the game,” Hart said. “To put that ball in such an amazing spot for me to catch it, I knew right then he wasn’t wavering at all. He wasn’t shook up or anything. He was ready to win that game.”
Though playing for his fifth offensive coordinator in five years, Manning’s development, leadership and execution are important reasons why the Panthers have qualified to play in their second bowl in the past three years. If the team can win its next two games, at Georgia State Stadium against Appalachian State on Saturday followed by another home game against Idaho on Dec. 2, Georgia State will win at least a share of its first Sun Belt Conference football title.
“It would mean the world,” Manning said. “A lot of people didn’t see us in this position. At the end of the day, our group of guys believe in what we could do. We know if we worked hard and listen to the coaches we know we could accomplish our goals.”
If the Panthers are able to win the Sun Belt, Manning will be why. He has passed for 2,385 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. His coaches like that he throws a “catchable” ball, pointing to his 64.4 percent completion rate. They like his preparation, saying he attacks every day. They like his work ethic. They like his leadership, saying he makes those around him play a little bit better because he holds them accountable. They like that he trusts them.
That Manning is at Georgia State at all, and playing for his fifth coordinator – this time it’s Travis Trickett – is another story.
Manning was a highly-rated high school quarterback in California. He signed with Utah, only to see the offense change its sling-it-around approach that fit Manning’s skills to an option style that became en vogue. While Manning says he’d like to think he has 4.8 speed, it wasn’t a good fit.
After three years, Manning elected to transfer. Georgia State’s previous offensive coordinator, Luke Huard, began recruiting Manning. The Panthers, led by quarterback Nick Arbuckle, had just competed in their first bowl game, the Cure Bowl in Orlando, in Dec. 2015.
Manning agreed to come to Atlanta. Because he had already graduated from Utah, he was eligible to play immediately.
Not having played consistently in competitive situations in four years since he was at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, Calif, Manning struggled early. Still, the potential was obvious. He passed for 269 yards in a 23-17 loss to Wisconsin. He followed that with two consecutive games of at least 340 yards before sustaining an arm injury in practice that forced him to miss the next two games. After passing for 237 yards in emergency duty against Arkansas State, he passed for a career-high 422 yards against Louisiana-Monroe.
That’s when everything changed for Manning again because coach Trent Miles was fired after that 37-23 loss to the Warhawks.
Shawn Elliott was hired and Manning’s quintuplet coordinator was hired. With Trickett came yet another set of new plays with new terminology and a new coaching style.
Manning said it was an easier transition because he has gone through it so many times and, when it comes down to Xs and Os, most concepts are the same.
“All of the offenses I’ve been a part of have been trying to accomplish the same thing,” he said.
Trickett remains impressed, saying that he is doing more with the offense than he’s ever been able to do and that’s because of Manning.
“It’s tough,” he said. “The fact that he’s been as in as he’s been, the trust he’s given me in such a short amount of time, is huge. Trust is hard to earn and it’s easily broken. You have to make sure that you build it and it’s strong. It allows him to play confident.”
Trust was mentioned by Manning several times on Wednesday when discussing the past two seasons.
Now, the payoff could come in the next two weeks if the Panthers can defeat the Mountaineers, a team they have yet to score a touchdown against in three meetings, and the Vandals.
Five years. Five coordinators. Four quarterback coaches. One transfer. Two big games. One conference title.
“It’s always fun when you win,” Manning said. “That’s the ultimate goal in this game.”