Georgia State coach Bill Curry was emotionally choked up before Saturday’s game against Old Dominion, but ultimately he left with the familiar feeling of disappointment.
Curry, who is retiring after the season, was coaching his last home game at the Georgia Dome. He was honored, along with the team’s 12 seniors, before the game when he learned that the locker room in the team’s practice facility will now bear his name.
But the players, who said they wanted to send him out with a win, couldn’t stop making the same types of mistakes in the first half that they’ve made most of the season in a 53-27 loss to the Monarchs.
“Even today with all of the honoring of the seniors and wonderful gestures that were made, which I deeply appreciate, we didn’t come anywhere close to playing to our potential,” he said. “Yes, we fought back and yes we always do but when you are down that far to a really good football team, you’ve made it so difficult that you have to be perfect in the second half and we certainly weren’t.”
It was a mostly disappointing home finale for Curry, a man who learned as a player at Georgia Tech and in the NFL that discipline and courage can guide one to great things. They are the same beliefs that he tried to teach the players he coached in previous jobs at Tech, Alabama and Kentucky before he accepted the Georgia State job in 2008 and began those lessons anew.
The Panthers on Saturday played with courage, as they have all season in never giving up even when falling behind by sizable margins. Albert Wilson returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter to cut the Monarchs’ lead to 39-14. D’Mario Gunn, one of 12 seniors honored before the game, set another record when he returned an interception, one of three by the Panthers, 73 yards for the longest run back in school history. And Ben McLane hit Wilson for a 93-yard scoring pass, which also set new records, in the fourth quarter to cut the Monarchs’ lead to 46-21.
But they didn’t have enough discipline, particularly in the first half, to defeat No. 6 Old Dominion (8-1, 5-1 CAA). Taylor Heinicke, a Collins Hill grad, threw for 351 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions for the Monarchs.
“It’s a function of coaching,” Curry said. “There is no other way to say it. There are no excuses or pointing fingers. You have to get that done. I would have sworn to you that we would have it done earlier this season. I promised our leaders that this team would be consistent. We haven’t made anybody play against our very best. It has to happen against the best team. We have to make it happen.”
Old Dominion moved easily down the field on its first drive to take a 8-0 lead. The Panthers couldn’t get any pressure on Heinicke on the drive. He capitalized by running for 34 yards on one play and then later hitting Marquel Thomas for a 9-yard touchdown pass. The Monarchs ran a trick play involving a shovel pass on the point-after, resulting in a two-point conversion.
The Panthers then started to make the mistakes that have plagued them all season. The first drive, which looked promising, was stopped when Wilson was dropped for a loss of 11 yards on a reverse in Old Dominion territory.
The second drive was stopped when McLane was sacked and fumbled. ODU recovered on the 34-yard line and scored four plays later to take a 14-0 lead on an 11-yard run by Tyree Lee.
Georgia State continued its missteps with receivers dropping first-down passes – one by Travis Evans and the next by Wilson – on third down on consecutive drives.
The Monarchs, who didn’t commit too many mistakes, took advantage of the last drop to drive for their third touchdown on a 1-yard run by Angus Harper to take a 22-0 lead with 11:06 left in the first half.
The Panthers committed another mistake later in the quarter when McLane’s pass went through Wilson’s hands right to Devon Simmons. The Monarchs took over and scored a few players later on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Heinicke to Larry Pinkard to take a 29-0 lead with less than six minutes remaining in the first half.
But the Panthers weren’t done yet. McLane found Emmanuel Ogbuehi for a 55-yard reception down to the Monarchs’ 9-yard line. Ogbuehi said it was a double-move route that he’s run most of the year. But Georgia State was unable to score, with McLane taking a sack on fourth and goal.
Georgia State bounced back, opening the second half with an 11-play scoring drive, capped by a 3-yard touchdown by Rosevelt Watson to cut the Monarchs’ lead to 32-7. Ronnie Bell led the team on the drive. He replaced Ben McLane, who had three turnovers in the first half to increase the Panthers total to 30 lost this year.
Heinicke answered with a 4-yard scoring pass – his third of the game – to Nick Mayers to push the lead to 39-7 with 6:40 left in the third quarter. Heinicke needed 2 minutes, 7 seconds to lead the Monarchs 81 yards.
But the Panthers kept fighting.
Wilson took the ensuing kickoff five yards deep in the end zone and returned it for a touchdown. The return, which was a school record, was the second for a score in his career. He also returned one against Alabama in 2010. Wilson said he was determined to bring the ball out against the Monarchs, even though Curry later said he wasn’t supposed to. He said Parris Lee told him to cut inside, so he did, and then outraced the coverage.
Gunn stepped in front of Heinicke’s pass at the 1-yard line and returned it to the Monarchs’ 26-yard line on Old Dominion’s next drive.
But Bell gave the ball back a few plays later when he dropped it as he was scrambling around in the backfield, waiting for a receiver to get open.
McLane came back in for Bell and hit Wilson, streaking down the home sideline, for a 93-yard score. The touchdown broke the previous records for longest pass and longest play from scrimmage of 84 yards, set on a McLane-to-Wilson strike against Texas-San Antonio earlier this year. Curry said they knew that the deep ball would be there against a specific coverage. Wilson said he didn’t tell the coaches that he thought the coverage was going to be called. He credited them with anticipating the defense and making the correct call.
The Panthers added a 1-yard touchdown run by Malcolm Smith, another senior who was honored before the game, to cut the Monarchs’ lead to 46-27 with 4:06 left in the game.
“Maybe I should have,” he said. “I just so wanted us to play our best. Not just for the seniors, but for everybody, the Georgia State community, everybody has knocked themselves … so that we can do what we love to do. Georgia State football will be a great success. It’ll just be later than I anticipated.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu