When the clock hit zero, Georgia State Stadium was shrouded in blue.
Georgia State got some home cooking Thursday night, controlling the pace and leading South Alabama wire-to-wire in a 21-13 win at Georgia State Stadium.
The Panthers (4-3) moved back over .500, and their four Sun Belt wins are tied for the most in the conference.
“I’ll tell you what, it’s a lot better when you win coming in here (the media room) than when you lose,” said Panthers coach Shawn Elliott, who couldn’t stop smiling after the game.
Five observations from what was one of GSU’s more complete games in the 2017 campaign, and one the team absolutely had to have:
1. What a difference five days make: The Panthers prioritized their red-zone woes this week, and it worked. GSU was 2-for-5 inside the 20 against Troy, coming away with only 10 points.
On Thursday night, the Panthers crossed the goal line twice in two red-zone possessions in the first half, mounting a 14-3 lead against a struggling offensive team. GSU built that advantage despite three of its seven first-half possessions starting inside its own 11.
The Panthers finished 3-for-3 in the red zone, which proved crucial.
2. The dagger: Conner Manning and Penny Hart are back after a lackluster showing Saturday. Up 14-6, Manning engineered the game-finishing drive, rolling out and finding Hart in the corner of the end zone for an 8-yard score that put it out of reach.
“We have to find ways to target him,” Elliott said. “He’s an electric football player with the ball in his hands. He makes things happen.”
The Jaguars’ Jamarius Way got open down the sideline and scored a 75-yard touchdown to cut it to 21-13 with 2:11 left, giving South Alabama a glimmer of hope. It recovered the onside kick, but GSU’s defense didn’t bend and forced a turnover on downs.
“We really make it interesting, don’t we,” Elliott said, breathing a sign of relief. “We really do.”
3. The record: GSU safety Bryan Williams snatched an interception on the Jaguars’ first drive. That’s nothing new. Williams tied the school record with his sixth career pick. He also tied the single-season mark with his fourth of the year.
Williams said he saw the play on film, and playing quarters, was in the right place at the right time to deliver a tone-setting turnover.
“This is a big season for us,” said Williams, the first sixth-year senior in school history. “We’re playing good right now.”
Williams’ unit looked much more comfortable than last Saturday. The defensive backs were more confident, staying in position and tackling significantly better than against the Trojans. They attacked the ball – especially on sideline throws – and forced third and longs. That was the defense apparent during the Panthers’ three-game road win streak.
“Our defense played a phenomenal football game,” Elliott said. “It really did. They had them on their heals all game long. … Just big plays all night.”
4. The intensity didn’t wait: GSU has started quickly in every win. It lacked energy Saturday, but looked the complete opposite against the Jaguars.
“It’s about momentum,” Elliott said. “Typically you don’t start the game and overpower someone. You’ve got to get in a rhythm and a lot of times that’s developing the run and staying with the run a little more.”
Staying with the run was wise. Elliott acknowledged his running back assembly isn’t composed of special talents, but rather hard workers. Glenn Smith led the way with 17 rushes for 74 yards, while Kyler Neal added 32 yards on 10 carries.
5. First and two: Thursday was GSU’s first win in its new stadium. It was the first time an inhabitant won in the arena in over a year, dating to when the Braves defeated Justin Verlander and the Tigers 1-0 on Oct. 2, 2016.
“It’s got to feel good,” Elliott said. He couldn’t help but exclaim “first win at Georgia State Stadium” multiple times in the postgame conference.
Moving to 4-3 (3-1 in Sun Belt play), the Panthers sit two games away from earning their second bowl nod, a goal several seniors have expressed as a mission to complete their careers.
The Panthers head to Statesboro to face rival Georgia Southern next weekend. The Eagles are fresh off firing coach Tyson Summers after a dreadful 0-6 start.