Bill Curry said many times during the past nine months that his Georgia State football team had re-dedicated itself to weight room, practice fields, film study and classroom after last year’s disappointing season.
Either the Panthers were looking ahead to next week’s game at Tennessee, or there’s still a lot left to work on after Thursday’s 33-6 season-opening loss to South Carolina State at the Georgia Dome. Either way, it looked familiar, so much so that many of the students who packed their section left by the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think you can avoid that comparison but we aren’t the same group that we were a year ago at all,” Curry said. “Not the same attitude, not the same work ethic. We have drastically improved those things and now we have to improve the performance on the field.”
On offense, quarterbacks Ben McLane and Kelton Hill struggled behind a line that was replacing four starters. McLane committed a costly and inexplicable fumble just before the end of the half that led to a South Carolina State touchdown and changed the game’s momentum. Hill didn’t fare much better as the line couldn’t keep the Bulldogs’ pass rushers away. The Bulldogs had six sacks, five of McLane. Georgia State couldn’t get the ball to Albert Wilson, its best playmaker, as the offense produced 229 yards.
“The sacks were so uncharacteristic; we probably haven’t given up 15 sacks the last two years, total,” offensive coordinator John Bond said.
On defense, cornerback Isaiah Howard fell down looking for the ball on the Bulldogs’ opening possession, resulting in a 72-yard touchdown pass that quickly put the Panthers behind. The defense, breaking in a new 4-2-5 scheme and coordinator in Anthony Midget, played well in spurts, but still gave up 488 yards.
“They caught the ball. They ran the ball in key spots,” linebacker Mark Hogan said. “Five or six plays didn’t go our way. All we can do now…it’s over. All we can do now is move on.”
On special teams, Matt Ehasz, kicking in place of the suspended Christian Benvenuto, missed two of his four field goals and committed a roughing-the-kicker penalty in the fourth quarter.
But the Bulldogs kept giving the Panthers chances.
Quarterback Richard Cue threw two interceptions in the first half that the Panthers couldn’t turn into points.
The Panthers’ best weapon may have been Matt Hubbard, who cannoned a school-record 80-yard punt to pin the Bulldogs on their 2 in the second quarter. The Panthers forced a punt, and took advantage of the field position by getting the ball back on the Bulldogs’ 40. McLane moved the Panthers to the 27, but back-to-back sacks pushed them back to the 39. McLane found Danny Williams for 20 yards on third and 21. Instead of going for it on fourth and short, like they unsuccessfully tried earlier in the game, Curry sent Ehasz out and he hit the 36-yarder to cut Georgia State’s gap to 7-3.
McLendon intercepted an overthrow by Cue and returned it to the 23-yard line to giftwrap a scoring chance for the offense and give the Panthers a lead later in the half. But it was wasted when Ehasz banged the 23-yard field goal off the upright to keep the score 7-3.
After Georgia State’s defense held again, McLane gift-wrapped a scoring chance for the Bulldogs when the ball flew out of his hand as he cocked his arm to throw a pass. South Carolina State recovered on the 23-yard line.
Unlike the Panthers, the Bulldogs didn’t waste their opportunity. Cue threw a strike to Tyler McDonald for a 22-yard touchdown to give the Bulldogs a 14-3 lead.
“Fourteen points, two plays we were in position to make the plays,” defensive coordinator Anthony Midget said. “The first touchdown we had a guy in position to make the play but he just didn’t make it. We told the guys going into the half that in those two plays we gave up 14 points.”
The Panthers bounced back on the first possession of the second half. Hill led the team to the 7-yard line, but a false start penalty – the first on the team in the game – pushed them back to the 12 and Hill couldn’t punch the team into the end zone. Ehasz hit the 25-yard field goal to cut the gap to 14-6. Curry said he didn’t want to get into a field-goal battle, but he didn’t have much of a choice.
“We had really good chances, we had really good chances coming out in the second half running the ball. But when you get in the red zone you’ve got to score,” he said.
South Carolina State marched right down the field, with Cue hitting McDonald for a 13-yard touchdown pass on third and 10 to give the Bulldogs a 21-6 lead.