A week after earning its first win, Georgia State football did almost everything coach Bill Curry hoped they wouldn’t in Saturday’s 49-24 loss to Villanova at the Georgia Dome.
Playing in front of a sparse homecoming crowd of 12,136, the Panthers lost their best player when running back Donald Russell suffered a left knee injury in the first quarter. That wasn’t the only bad luck. The Panthers gave up a punt return for a touchdown and had an interception returned for a touchdown.
It was exactly the type of performance that Curry hoped he wouldn’t see. Curry knew that No. 24 Villanova, unlike Rhode Island last week, was going to be a much tougher opponent physically and mentally than Rhode Island was last week. He hoped his team could match that toughness. Aside from the mistakes that led to points, the Panthers (1-7) dropped passes, they missed tackles and they committed ill-timed penalties. Most of those errors occurred while giving up 35 points in the first half – the most in a half this year – to put themselves too far behind to rally.
“Obviously we didn’t learn what we should have the past few weeks… ” Curry said. “A good Villanova team pushed us around all day. There really aren’t words for it. I don’t have an explanation. I don’t have an excuse.”
Now, the already offensively challenged team may have to finish the year without Russell, who stayed down after a short run in the first quarter. Curry described the injury as an MCL strain. Russell, a senior, came into the game as the CAA’s leading rusher with 743 yards and was responsible for 40 percent of the Panthers’ offense. He was replaced by a trio of running backs, led by Travis Evans. But the offense couldn’t create consistent sustained drives without Russell and with an inconsistent Ben McLane, who threw another interception in the second half that the Wildcats eventually converted to a touchdown.
“This is just getting old, it’s the same old story,” tight end Emmanuel Ogbuehi said about the losses. “We know we have to be perfect and we haven’t been. If we continue this way it’s going to be the same result.”
On defense, the Panthers had no answer for Villanova’s option offense. Led by running back Kevin Monangai, who rushed for 130 yards on 18 carries, the Wildcats ran for more than 340 yards and totaled 470. Georgia State’s defensive line was playing without several first- and second-teamers who were out or left with injuries.
Curry said the defense was out of position on the quarterback runs and reads.
“We see it every week, it’s not like it’s some kind of magic show,” he said.
Villanova took a 7-0 lead on its first possession when quarterback John Robertson scored on first and goal from the 6-yard line.
The game changed in the first quarter on the ineffectiveness of Georgia State’s offense compared to the effectiveness of Villanova’s. The Panthers had three consecutive drives in which they didn’t make a first down.
The Wildcats capitalized on the second one with a 66-yard punt return by Poppy Livers with 6:37 left in the first quarter to take a 14-0 lead. Livers caught the ball in the middle of the field, broke a tackle and sprinted left toward the visitor’s sideline, outracing what was left of Georgia State’s defense for the score. It was the first punt return for a touchdown allowed by the Panthers this year, and the first scored by Villanova since 1980.
“It was a ridiculous mistake in coverage by two of our best guys who got blocked,” Curry said.
The Wildcats capitalized after the third three-and-out with a a 14-yard touchdown pass from Robertson to Norman White early in the second quarter to take a 21-0 lead.
Playing its first drive without Russell, Georgia State answered with a 34-yard field goal by Wil Lutz to cut the deficit to 21-3 with 9:32 left. Albert Wilson gave the Panthers outstanding field position with a 61-yard kickoff return.
The Wildcats needed six plays to tack on another touchdown on a 12-yard by Monangai, a 5-8, 200-pound running back who broke several tackles on the score. Defensive tackle Theo Agnew said he thinks players lost their fundamentals because they have may have been distracted by everything going on with the game, including homecoming and the fact they were playing a ranked opponent.
“There were certain things we didn’t get done,” Agnew said. “We have to get better with the run game.”
On the next play, McLane locked in on his receiver, enabling Eric Loper to break on the pass, intercept it, and return it for a 32-yard touchdown to give Villanova a 35-3 lead with 6:48 left in the first half. McLane said he thought Loper was going to drop back. Instead he barely moved.
“We put in so much work and we all care a lot,” McLane said. “We work hard and when we don’t get the results it’s tough.”
Georgia State scored on a 9-yard run by Evans to cut its margin to 35-10 with 1:38 left in the first half. The Panthers twice converted fourth-and-one plays to keep the drive going.
McLane bounced back from his second interception to throw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ogbuehi with 8:20 left to cut the Panthers’ deficit to 49-17. It was Ogbuehi’s second touchdown in the past three games.
Ronnie Bell added a touchdown with a 55-yard strike to Wilson with 3:21 left.
Georgia State has three games remaining to try to salvage the year and send out Curry, who is retiring after the season, with fonder memories.
“We’ll get ready to go to James Madison and finish the season with some dignity but it’ll have to be a whole lot better than today,” Curry said.
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu