Here are a few – some good, some bad – that stood out to me as I watched the game:
On the opening kickoff return, Avery Sweeting was tackled by Georgia Southern’s William Bussey. Except, he wasn’t. He was actually tackled by teammate Bryan Williams. It was a shorter kick, so Sweeting ran up and Williams was running back to help set up blocks. They ran into each other. I saw that and thought, “That’s not a good start.”
Things didn’t improve much in the next two plays, both incompletions to Keith Rucker. One was a drop off a fastball from Nick Arbuckle. Interesting though was before the snap on the first attempt, Arbuckle walked back, looked down to the receivers on the right and signaled something. I think he pointed to his bicep. This was something he did throughout the game, using different signals. It was fairly clear that early he had a bead on whatever the Eagles were trying to do on defense.
After the incompletions then the Panthers converted two third downs, one long and one short, and were on the Eagles’ 34-yard line when Arbuckle threw one of those interceptions that reminded you of last year. It looked like he was trying to go to Penny Hart, but Hart went one way and Arbuckle threw the other. Again, I thought, “That’s not good for Georgia State.”
The interception was returned to the 50, and I thought the Panthers were going to quickly go down 7-0. That wasn’t a knock on Georgia State’s defense. I told some people before the game that I thought it probable Georgia Southern would score on its first two drives because it is tough to replicate the speed of their offense during practice.
Except the Eagles didn’t look fast. They actually looked kind of slow. They could get nothing going and didn’t help themselves with a holding penalty that set up first and 19, tough for any offense, but especially a run-based offense.
The Eagles were forced to punt.
The teams traded punts with neither able to move the ball very well. However, you got a sense that it might be Georgia State’s day on the Eagles’ second possession because Kevin Ellison threw a beautiful pass to Derek Keaton that bounced off his hands inside the 10-yard line. That would happen three more times in the game to different receivers.
The second quarter is when both teams started to lose their minds a little bit.
Six unsportsmanlike conduct penalties were called. I’ve never seen six in a game, much less in a quarter.
But back to the action. Georgia State scored first on a pretty throw by Arbuckle to Penny Hart, who caught the ball in stride and pulled away from his defender for a 63-yard touchdown. Hart is very small, but his legs were moving like he was on a bike in the Tour de France. 7-0, Panthers.
Georgia Southern answered on its drive, but may not have if not for back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct penalties which set up first-and-goal at the 8. Still, it took three tries for the Eagles to pick up the eight 8 yards. In last year’s 69-31 win over Georgia State at the Dome, the Eagles averaged more than 9 yards per carry.
On Georgia State’s next drive the Panthers got really, really lucky.
On second and seven at the 28-yard line, the Panthers line blocked to their right, leaving end Ryan George unblocked on the Eagles’ right side. Arbuckle dropped back and was looking to his right and didn’t see George coming until the last second. George buried him for a 9-yard sack. Georgia State was lucky that Arbuckle wasn’t seriously injured because George wasn’t even touched as he came in. It didn’t look like he hit him at full speed. He may have been as surprised as I was to see him unblocked. The Panthers did a good job most of the game protecting Arbuckle.
On the next series, Tarris Batiste made two plays, one likely unnoticed and the other that would have been given a nickname.
The first came on the Eagles’ first play on the series. Fullback Matt Breida, arguably the best back in the Sun Belt and the best mid-major runner in FBS, ran right for 14 yards. As he neared the 48-yard line, Batiste came in for a low tackle. It appeared he hit Breida right on the ankle as he dove out of bounds. It wasn’t a dirty play and couldn’t have been intentional because both players were in the air. It was just a tackle. However, Breida stayed down, later went to the locker room and didn’t return to the game.
Later on that drive, Ellison rolled right on an option play and pitched the ball toward a running back. He must not have seen Batiste waiting, who jumped and almost intercepted the pitch. Instead, it bounced into the air and was recovered by Ellison on the 20 for a 5-yard loss. Those 5 yards were important because it forced a 37-yard field goal attempt that was missed to the right. If it were a 32-yard field goal attempt, it likely would have been good.
That was the last of the small moments I remember going into the half.
I didn’t witness it, but Arbuckle said the moment happened. As he came out to warm up with the receivers before he second half, he said some of the Georgia Southern students said something about his deceased mom. He said they said the wrong thing.
After forcing a punt on the Eagles’ first drive in the second half, Georgia State scored on its first drive in the third quarter. Arbuckle hit Robert Davis for 21 yards, Donovan Harden for 17 yards and Davis again for 18 yards and the touchdown.
While those passes were important, equally important was Glenn Smith’s run for 22 yards to start the drive. During its four-game winning streak, the Panthers have been a much better running team in the second half than the first half (more on that later). Smith’s run was a sign that the Panthers were taking control of the line of scrimmage.
After forcing another punt, the Panthers scored again. Arbuckle was again dealing, hitting Harden for 27 yards, Keith Rucker for 29 yards and Rucker again for 4 yards and the touchdown. Again, Smith had a 22-yard run on the drive. The Panthers led 20-7.
The Eagles needed a score. Facing fourth and 3 on the 44-yard line, Favian Upshaw lofted a pretty pass that BJ Johnson appeared to catch along the sideline that would have been a first down. You could see everyone on Georgia State’s sideline signaling that it wasn’t a catch, but what else would they do?
Looking at video, some of us in the press box thought it was a catch. Because it happened on the sideline opposite the press box, we couldn’t see if the receiver was able to maintain possession.
After a long, long review, the ruling on the field was overturned. The Panthers took over.
Here is one of the moments I’ll remember from the game for a while.
Facing first third and goal at the 1, the Panthers broke the huddle and moved toward the line. Left tackle Michael Ivory stayed behind and seemed to say something to running back Kyler Neal in the backfield before he moved into his position on the line of scrimmage. I didn’t get a chance to ask Ivory after the game what he said. It’s better to imagine that he said, “Run right behind me. I’ll get you into the end zone.”
Neal did and scored a touchdown to give the Panthers a 27-7 lead.
On their next drive, as Neal was rumbling 28 yards for a touchdown and 34-7 lead, you could hear Georgia State’s coaches two boxes down from where we sitting going bananas. They were screaming Neal all the way to the end zone. The coaches were hitting walls and countertops.
The last moment I’ll remember came after the game.
All of the interviews were done except for the one with coach Trent Miles.
He came out and did his interview. It seemed like we were done – I had turned off my voice recorder – when Miles shared the story about his job interview with President Mark Becker.
He said Becker asked him if he could get the team to a bowl in their third year.
“Dr. Becker, you got your bowl game,” Miles said.
What Miles didn’t say was, “Now extend my contract.”
Miles has two years left on his deal. After a four-game win streak and the team’s first bowl game forthcoming, it would seem that Miles has done enough to earn a new deal. Athletic director Charlie Cobb said last week that any discussions/evaluations will happen after the season.