Georgia State had no previous experience at beating anyone from the highfalutin conferences. Hadn’t beating anyone of any size been practically a biblical trial?
And, yet, when it did happen in the Panthers’ 10th year of football existence, when they upset 26-point favorite Tennessee on Saturday and sent the college realm into a seizure of disbelief, they seemed to know almost instinctively the right notes to sound during the after-party.
The lead on the CBS Sports web site made the Georgia State quarterback out to be about the worst thing to hit the Vols hometown since Nick Saban. “Dan Ellington is a name that will live forever in infamy in Knoxville, Tenn.,” it was written.
The quarterback took the higher road when he heard about that one.
“I think it should be Georgia State (in that first sentence),” Ellington said Monday. “I wasn’t the only one playing out there. Though, hearing that means a lot because I was blessed to be a part of history, part of the first time Georgia State did something.”
Ellington had scored the decisive touchdown in the 38-30 victory on a nifty, shifty 22-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown run. He did lead the Panthers on three no-fluke touchdown drives of 75 yards or more. But there also was a running game that outgained Tennessee in yardage, 213-93. And a defense that took away the ball three times and held the Vols to just one second-half touchdown, that in the final two seconds when it mattered little. And a certain crusty nature to the whole team that allowed it to survive five lead changes, making certain it owned the final one.
It was a pure joy to behold. “At the end of the day we won, they lost. We were just the better team. We went out and played and had a lot of fun that day I don’t think they had a lot of fun. I know their fans didn’t have fun,” Ellington said.
There was a simple determination at play Saturday. It can be heard in Ellington’s words when describing his thoughts while running toward one of Neyland Stadium’s distinctive end zones: “It was, ‘I got to get to that checkerboard.’ And I got to it.”
While all the rest of the college football world was prone to shock and to ridicule and, in certain parts of Tennessee, to blind anger, it was left to Georgia State to act as if this was all part of the plan.
If there’s an insult buried in all the incredulity – who and what is Georgia State to come into Knoxville and do this to Tennessee – Panthers coach Shawn Elliott isn’t wounded. Knowing who you are and what you’ve just done is a big part of sounding the all the right notes.
“No, not at all, I didn’t take it as that,” Elliott said. “We’re 10 years old. We hadn’t done a whole lot. And here is Tennessee and the mighty SEC.
“I don’t know if they took us seriously or not,” he added after a pause. “But they certainly do now.”
After all, with this one victory at the start of the season, the Panthers matched or surpassed their win totals in three of their first five seasons. They came to Tennessee off a 2-10 season, having lost their last seven of 2018.
Only those who practiced within the confines of the old Turner Field could have even imagined such a victory possible – and surely many of those had to harbor grave doubts. All they had heard since the end of ’18 was the need for better leadership, a better attitude, a greater commitment.
They also heard the incessant playing of Tennessee’s battle cry, “Rocky Top,” done to condition the Panthers players to what awaited them at Neyland.
All the messages worked, with an obvious assist from the Vols. And nobody was hearing “Rocky Top” at the close of the business Saturday.
“We took a group of gutsy individuals up to Knoxville and they played with a lot of heart, lot of enthusiasm, lot of togetherness and pulled off a great win,” Elliott said.
Elliott was an assistant with his alma mater, FCS Appalachian State, in 2007 when the Mountaineers went to fifth-ranked Michigan and beat the Wolverines 34-32 in what is considered one of the college game’s grandest modern upsets.
He resists all possible comparisons to Saturday.
Unlike that Michigan, this Tennessee was unranked. And unlike that App State, this Georgia State hadn’t even the faintest hint of a winning tradition.
“It’s totally different,” Elliott said, looking back at that 2007 Mountaineer team. “We had just won two (FCS) national championships. And we had a lot of returning starters. We knew we were going to compete.”
The Panthers open at home Saturday night against an FCS opponent – Furman. The Paladins are ranked 11th in the lower division, a few spots south of a Kennesaw State bunch that gave GSU fits last year.
The coach is really hoping one extra large victory still resonates a week later. He’d very much like the world to pay his team some mind even when it’s not reordering college football’s food chain.
“I would like to see the excitement continue,” Elliott said. “I’d like for people to have a great interest and enthusiasm about our football program that I think these guys deserve. They’ve done everything asked of them. They’ve gone out and had a major accomplishment. It would be really special to see that enthusiasm. I’d love to see our students embrace this football program and come out and rock this place Saturday night.”
By early this week, his players already were making the right noises about coming down off the high of one win and trying to fashion another, more modest one. Now it is the one trying to avoid the upset.
“From a program standpoint and big-picture standpoint we know it’s a monumental win, an historic win,” safety Remy Lazarus said. “But honestly if you could tune into practice today and the vibe today, we’re locked in. I wouldn’t say we’re on a cloud at all.”
But, wait, there was still time to put one more good lick on mighty Tennessee before moving on.
“I think (Furman) will give us a tougher battle than we faced Saturday, if you want to be honest,” Lazarus said.