You can throw out all the initials when Georgia State and Kennesaw State play football. FBS. FCS. LOL. It just doesn’t matter.
The story of where these two young programs found themselves after their first-ever meeting Thursday night transcended college football’s caste system. You couldn’t tell who was supposed to be the made men of the FBS from the hungry FCS wannabes.
They were just two schools separated by nothing but “25 miles and two-and-a-half hours,” joked Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott, proving that in just a little more than a year in town, he has fully grasped the local traffic flow. They represent two of the three largest football-playing schools in Georgia by enrollment, by the way. Neither of the programs having even yet reached their clumsy adolescence. Both looking to climb above the other in the “Hey, Look at Us Over Here, We Matter, Too” rankings.
It was the slightly older program from the better NCAA neighborhood prevailing, but just barely. Georgia State 24, Kennesaw State 20, the Panthers driving 73 yards inside the last two minutes for the winning touchdown.
The prospect of losing to the four-year-old Kennesaw State program from the FCS would seem to have added another layer of desperation to this opener for the Panthers. This was the Owls’ first time playing a FBS opponent. They had nothing in the way of substance or reputation at stake. Regardless of the outcome Thursday, they still would have a clear path back to their division’s playoffs (having gone to the quarterfinals a season ago).
But Georgia State, a team that went no-huddle in its haste to join the larger FBS, is still battling all kinds of insecurities in the company of giants. The smaller FCS schools are put on this earth to give FBS teams a running start to a season. Losing to one always leaves a mark.
Here Elliott took a realist’s view. “We’re not too far off from them (just five years older); they’re not too far off from us. We’re still in growth here. We’re in a fight for our life every single week, every single game,” the coach said.
So, he reacted no less differently than if his team had rallied from an early 14-0 deficit Thursday night to beat Alabama. A clearly excitable man, Elliott was holding nothing back in his enjoyment of the moment. There was no, “Well, we only beat a FCS team,” residing between any of the lines in his postgame presser.
Georgia State hasn’t won an opener since 2014, so, yeah, this one felt so very good.
He looked around at the loud home crowd of 23,000 and felt something approaching an authentic game-day experience, especially as the Panthers were scoring 14 points in the last minute of the first half. “A big-time atmosphere, right before the half – the excitement and the energy, I could feel it,” he said.
And this really happened, too. Honestly: The winning head coach even praised the band. (Although, given Elliott’s thoroughness, I’m sure he’ll have to study the film on the tubas before issuing a final grade).
He had every reason to rejoice in the performance of his junior-college transfer quarterback, Dan Ellington. “What a gutsy performance,” he said of his guy who ran for 77 yards and threw for another 187 (completing 20 of 28 for three touchdowns and no interceptions).
“He laid it on the line. He did everything in his power. He willed himself to make plays, he willed that team to move down the field offensively for that winning score. He took a couple hits and it just fueled his fire even more.”
Count the fellow who caught the winning 8-yard pass in the corner of the end zone with 41 seconds left – a fellow whose very name hints at victory celebrations – as a big fan of the new QB.
“He showed me he’s really tough, that he can take the hit, he can give the hit, he can make moves, he can pass the ball. He can do everything,” junior receiver Diondre Champaigne said.
It is the style of KSU and its coach Brian Bohannon to dare greatly with his option offense. Like going for it on fourth-and-1 from its own 24-yard line in the first quarter. The doing it again moments later on fourth-and-2 from its own 45, along the way to a touchdown drive. But his call to throw it on first down deep in KSU’s own end with just 50 seconds left in the first half rather than run out the clock was the kind of unnecessary boldness that bordered on the foolhardy. DeAndre Applin intercepted, Georgia State took it 37 yards for a tying touchdown, and flipped the script on the Owls.
This from the happy coach across the way: “When they threw that interception I was like, ‘You’re getting a little greedy. I’ll take it,’” Elliott said.
There will always be reason to contrast these two programs, because of the divergent recipes they chose in cooking up football from scratch.
Georgia State was the impatient and impetuous one, the program that rushed from its humble lower division beginnings – ready or not – into FBS. It won its first bowl game, the Cure Bowl, last season.
Then there’s KSU, now entering just its fourth season of existence – the same point in their history that the Panthers were when they made their jump to the bigger division – still firmly and contentedly competing for a FCS national title.
They are very similar fish choosing to swim in very different pools. Put them together for one night and they do make for some interesting competitive comparisons as well. The FBS-FCS matches this time of year don’t normally keep you guessing to the end like this.
Don’t know that any real rivalry was born this night, though. Georgia State and Kennesaw State are not pledged to each other in any near future schedule. And it’s not like Elliott and the Panthers are looking for a steady diet of an option opponent.
“They got to beat us before it becomes a rivalry,” Elliott joked, sucking the marrow from a win that didn’t feel minor in any way.
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