Georgia State falls but Miles remains positive

Georgia State’s hope of building momentum on last year’s first appearance in a bowl game was mostly forgotten in a flat 31-21 loss to Ball State in Friday’s season-opening game in the Georgia Dome.

“It’s one football game,” coach Trent Miles said. “If every body wants to give up on us because of one game then that’s their fault.

“These kids will respond, they’ll fight, they’ll gather and keep continuing working to get better. You don’t sell the house because of the first game. We put a lot of stock in it, but at the same time, we’ve got a lot of questions that we need to answer within our team to figure out who we really are.”

The Panthers’ defense, which featured eight returning starters on Friday, played well through three quarters before it gave way under an accumulation of Ball State plays. Cornerback Jerome Smith had two interceptions, including returning one for a touchdown in the first quarter.

But the offense struggled through the first three quarters under new starting quarterback Conner Manning. An inability to stretch Ball State’s defense with long passes, the seasons-long problem of an inability to run the ball, combined with two turnovers, penalties and a critical error by the special teams contributed to the Panthers’ fourth loss in an opener in the past five seasons.

Georgia State will look to bounce back next week at Air Force.

Here are five observations from Friday’s game:

The quarterback competition. Miles was so intent on keeping the starting quarterback a secret that even during the player introductions on the video board both Manning and Winchester were said to be starters.

Manning had just a few snaps of college experience while at Utah. Winchester is a redshirt freshman. Neither had played in a game since Nov. 2014.

“Now you are seeing what it’s like, life without Nick Arbuckle,” Miles said of last year’s starting quarterback who was named the Sun Belt Conference player of the year after passing for more than 4,000 yards.

Manning went 21-of-32 for 163 yards with a touchdown and an interception on a poor decision in the first quarter, while leading the Panthers to a touchdown and 166 yards in total offense.

Manning and his receivers failed to get on the same page on several deep throws, with him throwing to one spot and the receiver running to another.

“It was miscommunication,” Manning said. “We have to get that fixed. We will. Going into next week everything will be locked in.”

Miles said everyone on the team knew for weeks that Winchester was going to play. It was just a matter of when. They discussed at halftime bringing him in at some point in the second half.

Winchester’s first college action came at the start of the fourth quarter and with the Panthers on the 1-yard line after a goal-line stop by the defense. He was able to move the team to the 45 before they were forced to punt. He had a 13-yard touchdown run with 2:24 left. He completed 4-of-8 passes for 32 yards and added eight rushes for 61 yards.

“I feel like a lot of the mistakes I made was it wasn’t that I wasn’t seeing it, it was I didn’t trust it,” he said.

The quarterbacks said that the Ball State’s defense didn’t do what they had prepared for based upon the film they watched of the defensive coordinator Tim Daoust’s previous work as a position coach at Syracuse.

The Cardinals blitzed frequently early, according to Manning. The coverages and techniques were also different early, according to Winchester. The team made adjustments, but Winchester said they just failed to execute.

Miles said the competition to be the starting quarterback will continue this week.

Mistakes. The game started with a personal foul being called against Georgia State on the opening kickoff. It continued with two Georgia State turnovers – a fumble by Glenn Smith and the interception by Manning – in the first quarter. Ball State eventually turned the interception into a touchdown.

Then, a touchdown by Penny Hart was wiped out because he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct because he wagged his finger as he ran into the end zone in the first quarter. He did make up for it with a touchdown that counted later in the possession.

Brandon Wright, after hitting his first two punts well, shanked his third for 25 yards to give Ball State possession at Georgia State’s 44-yard line. Ball State took advantage and tied the game at 14 near the end of the half, meaning each of its first two touchdowns were the result of Georgia State errors.

“We have to play better, work harder and coach better,” Miles said.

Running game. This was supposed to be the season when the Panthers were able to consistently run the ball after seasons of not being able to do so.

As has happened many times in the past few seasons, nothing Georgia State tried worked against a front seven that ran a variety of blitzes

Georgia State finished the first half with minus-2 yards rushing on 12 attempts, a yards total that Miles noted twice during his post-game interview. They had 30 yards midway through the fourth quarter, but 25 of those were on scrambles by Winchester.

The Panthers finished with 77 yards rushing, but the starting backs totaled just 26 on 12 carries.

“Just unable to run the ball, which was very disappointing to me,” Miles said. “We had the ability to run the ball, just for some reason not able to do it tonight. There’s too much talent on the line for us not to be able to run the ball.”

Defense. The defense got off to a great when Smith returned an interception 48 yards for a touchdown on Ball State's opening possession. Smith grabbed a second interception on the Cardinals' next possession, this time snagging a tipped pass to set up Georgia State on Ball State's 32-yard line. The Panthers offense failed to take advantage.

The defense began to show signs of fatigue by missing tackles in the second half — it was on the field for almost 28 minutes through the first three quarters — as the Cardinals pulled away with an effective option running game in the fourth quarter. Ball State eclipsed 400 yards, including 274 rushing, with 4:46 left in the game.

The defense faced 81 plays and gave up 455 yards, including 325 rushing yards.

“They ran the ball down our throat,” Miles said. “Our defense was out on the field for a long period of time.”

Miles said the issues weren’t helped by his team’s offense.

“We didn’t do anything on offense to help move the ball and protect our defense,” he said.

Attendance. More than a few people still don't seem interested in attending the games, either reinforcing the need for Turner Field and a home that will be smaller than the Georgia Dome, or raising more questions about why the university pursued the Braves' home in the first place.

Perhaps it was because the game was being played on Friday, a night reserved for high school football. Perhaps it was because of Labor Day, when some people head out of town. Perhaps it was because the opponent was from Indiana and didn’t figure to bring a large base of its own fans. Perhaps because Dragon Con was going on next door at the World Congress Center, but the announced attendance on Friday was 12,233.