Georgia State emerging as Sun Belt powerhouse

Georgia State senior quarterback Conner Manning completed 26 of 35 passes for a career-high 446 yards in win over Louisiana-Monroe.
Georgia State senior quarterback Conner Manning completed 26 of 35 passes for a career-high 446 yards in win over Louisiana-Monroe.

Credit: Justin K. Aller

Credit: Justin K. Aller

Coming off a record-setting win, the Panthers are about to experience something that feels nearly as rare: a home game.

Ten days from being two months since their last game at their new stadium, the Panthers host Troy on Saturday in a battle that could bury the Trojans in the Sun Belt standings.

Georgia State started 0-2, upset in its season/home opener Aug. 31 by Tennessee State and crushed at Penn State. The team’s won three consecutive since, keyed by the offense and defense clicking at once.

But it was the offense that saved them last week against Louisiana-Monroe. GSU scored a record 47 points against an FBS opponent. Quarterback Conner Manning threw for 446 yards, second most in school history. Receiver Penny Hart set a school record with 190 yards on 11 catches.

The Panthers collected 670 total yards, a school record.

“I think we came in with a good plan,” Manning said. “We knew we’d have some opportunities on the outside. Really just execution. Offensive line gave me time to sit back there all day and throw. We made plays on the outside.”

Hart, who missed most of last season injured, has regained star status. He caught three touchdowns – all over 20 yards – against Louisiana-Monroe. He’s exceeded 100 yards in each of the last three games, all wins.

“I’ll remember it as an accomplish that I was able to do,” Hart said. “You know, Donovan (Harden) having it before and him being a role model for me, and talking to him and being able to talk some trash to him about it is fun.”

Hart was named to the Biletnikoff Award watch list Wednesday for the second time in his career. The award goes to “the most outstanding receiver in college football.” Hart wasn’t interested in discussing individual accolades, instead opting to look ahead to a critical conference game against a team that surprised LSU in Baton Rouge just a few weeks ago.

“They’re doing a lot of different things,” Hart said of the Trojans. “They play a lot of different coverages. Unlike the past three teams we’ve seen, they did a lot of man. This team is really good at off-coverage and mixing it up a little bit.”

A lot can change in a matter of weeks, as the Panthers can attest. Coach Shawn Elliott, who is in his first season at GSU, emphasized toughness and spoke of changing the culture – common coaching speak, but the players say it’s working.

“We’re just a really resilient team,” Hart said. “We had to learn who we were. A lot of different players, different coaches, different staff. You have to get acclimated. So the first two games, you have to try to learn as quick as you can to understand who you are and what you want to do with the season. We’re understanding that as we go. We haven’t figured that out but we have an idea of what we want to do from here on out.”

Manning agreed, and added the offensive coaches have helped him immensely.

“Coach (offensive coordinator Travis) Trickett, I’ve learned a lot of new things from him that’ve helped my game,” Manning said. “Just the mindset they’ve brought in to this program has changed things for the better. We just have to keep improving and trusting in their plan.

“Overall execution and finishing drives. We were a little sloppy. Guys weren’t doing their jobs, trying to do a little too much. So as long as we kept focusing on doing our jobs, we started moving the ball and finishing drives.”

With a win, GSU would hold a two-game lead plus a tiebreaker over Troy in the conference. The Panthers are among three Sun Belt teams without a conference loss, joining Arkansas State and Appalachian State. The Panthers will host Appalachian State on Nov. 25. Louisiana-Monroe is just behind them, with its lone loss to GSU.

Four of the Panthers’ final six games are at home, helping their odds of not just bowl eligibility, but perhaps winning the conference.

“It’s good,” Hart said. “Give these fans a little something to come out to, especially after the past few games, three road wins. Give them something to get excited about with a good team coming in like Troy. Get to see a heavyweight fight.”

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