People watch the first half of an NCAA college football game between Georgia State and Tennessee State in Atlanta, Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017. (Jason Getz /Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Photo: Jason Getz/AP
Photo: Jason Getz/AP

Five things we learned from Georgia State’s opening-weekend loss

Georgia State’s night of new was stained by a not-so-new result: a loss.

In coach Shawn Elliott’s debut, the Panthers lost to the Tennessee State Tigers 17-10 in their first home game at Georgia State Stadium on Thursday.

The Panthers’ defense bent but didn’t break for much of the night, but the offense couldn’t finish drives. Former Florida quarterback Treon Harris was a nightmare for the GSU defense, more so with his legs than his arm.

The GSU offense couldn’t find a big play when it needed it. Trailing 10-3, it turned the ball over on downs twice to start the second half, including once inside the 10.

It overcame its own mistakes to have the ball at its own 44 with 1:33 left, but quarterback Aaron Winchester, who replaced an injured Conner Manning in the third quarter, threw an interception on the second play of the drive to end any comeback hopes.

“The lessons learned in life, probably the toughest lessons are the ones you learn the most,” Elliott said. “It’s a tough lesson for a group of guys. … We were out-executed tonight, no doubt.

“But one win, one loss does not make a season, I can tell you that. It does not at all. And we’ve got to build leadership from this loss, and we’ve got to move ahead. It’s going to be a tough loss to follow for the next 17 days. (Georgia State is off until Sept. 16.)”

Here are five observations from Georgia State’s opening-game loss. 

1. The offense needs an identity.

Specifically, it needs a run game. Manning completed 8 of 10 passes in the first half despite GSU having virtually no running threat. Manning’s eight yards rushing (on two carries) was the second-most behind Taz Bateman’s seven carries for 15 yards (1.9 average) at halftime. 

The second half was more promising. Tight end Ari Werts had a 59-yard catch and run to the 15, but the Panthers turned it over on downs inside the 10. But the team squandered two golden opportunities on drives starting at midfield, losing two fumbles. 

Elliott feels they should’ve passed deep more to establish a run, but he also acknowledged they were getting out-muscled at the line. 

GSU had 17 rushing yards entering the final stanza. It finished with 49 yards on 29 attempts. Entering the fourth quarter, the Panthers’ drives had ended as follows: Fumble, punt, punt, field goal, kneel, turnover on downs, turnover on downs, fumble. 

“There was a lot of times we got beat up front,” Elliott said. “… We’ve got to be a little more creative, to tell you the truth. … We’ve got to develop a better run game. And when I say a better run game, I mean we have to develop a run game. We’ve got to go back and we’ve got to establish.” 

2. Special teams could be an asset to this team.

It’s a stretch to say any Panthers played well Thursday, but one reason they kept the outcome within reach was their special-teams play. Linebacker James Traylor partially blocked a field goal in the first quarter. TSU missed another three attempts, though GSU didn’t influence either. 

Glenn Smith had a 33-yard kick return. Kicker Brandon Wright converted a 20-yard field goal and an extra point. 

From midfield, punter Oliver Holdenson pinned the Tigers at the 6 with 2:32 left to play, which the defense took advantage of, forcing a three-and-out that gave the Panthers the ball back with a chance to tie the score. Holdenson averaged 41.5 yards on two punts. 

3. The turnovers were costly and produced, as Elliott coined it, a “very, very poor performance”

GSU gave the football away four times, with each coming around midfield or better. That doesn’t include the two times the Panthers turned it over on downs, with one of those coming in the red zone. 

“I told those guys in there, we’ve got to develop leadership. And leadership comes with tough situations like that. … There’s four quarters of football. One play shouldn’t deflate us like that. At all.” 

4. The tackling has to be better, but the defense showed toughness.

Missed tackles plagued the Panthers throughout, but especially in the first half, and they were fortunate to have limited TSU to 10 points. 

Regardless of how many players the defense rushed, Harris escaped and eluded prospective tacklers seemingly every other play. He had 11 rushes for 91 yards and completed 12 of 25 passes, largely because of the extra time his legs bought him. Perhaps that’s more a credit to Harris’ ability – scrambling was his best skill at Florida – but Elliott, who continuously preaches physicality, actually credited his defense. 

“Let me tell you, it’s not very, very easy to go out there like they did, the way we were playing offensively, and show up and make plays and then at the end of the game put us in position,” Elliott said. “That’s positive.” 

Backed inside its own 5, TSU’s Seth Rowland ripped a 59-yard run that keyed a drive Harris finished with a 12-yard touchdown run, putting GSU in a tough hole at 17-3 midway through the third.  

“We need to do better at everything,” defensive tackle Julien Laurent said. “… You want to start off in a new stadium with a win. Can’t get the first game back. So yeah, it does hurt.” 

Elliott stopped short of saying the defense played well, but he was proud of them keeping GSU in the game. Had the Panthers had even an average night on offense, the defense could’ve gotten more credit. 

5. Georgia State Stadium is a hit.

In a short time, a traditional baseball field was converted into a football palace. And it shined brightly Thursday in front of 24,333 fans. 

“It was what we expected,” Elliott said. “We appreciate everybody who came out here tonight. Appreciate all the efforts and everything that went on. It was a great way to open this stadium, except for the game itself.” 

Laurent, a senior, said having their own stadium to defend made a difference. Gabe Mobley, a junior offensive lineman, added similar. 

“The stadium is obviously incredible,” Mobley said. “… It stings for sure. Hopefully they’ll give us another chance when we come back home against Memphis.”

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