The team was 1-4 and coming off back-to-back dispiriting losses to FCS power Liberty and Sun Belt Conference foe Appalachian State. The Panthers’ defense was manhandled in both games, providing little belief outside the team that a bowl game was likely.
After one of those losses, coach Trent Miles gathered the players together the next week and asked them “Who are you playing for?” It wasn’t a new question. Miles has talked about it previous seasons.
But he again wanted the players to think about if they were playing for just themselves, or just for the weekly game. If so, they were forgetting that they had teammates, family members, friends and fans who wanted to see them succeed.
“That opened a lot of people’s eyes,” wide receiver Penny Hart said. “Sometimes you can lose sight of that. Everybody figured that out for themselves.”
Hart said the players shared who they were playing for. Some mentioned seniors like Joseph Peterson, who had experienced just three wins in his career. Others mentioned family members.
The players began to trust each other. Trust is a word many of the players have used when asked for the difference in the team during its winning streak and the one that had a hard time getting out of its own way in its first five games.
“I remember guys really starting to buy in,” linebacker Trey Payne said. “It would have been easy to pack it in. That had deep meaning for us.”
Then came a 31-19 win at Ball State. The defense played its best game, setting programs lows for points under coach Trent Miles, a season low for yards (372). It also provided a glimpse of things to come. Both of those lows for points and yards would be bettered.
The Panthers lost two more games, but were competitive in both, before winning four consecutive to secure a bowl berth.
While Georgia State’s players say they are excited to play in a bowl, quarterback Nick Arbuckle said on Saturday that their goal before the season is to win a bowl game.
The Spartans will be an interesting opponent. The Mountain West Conference team lost three of its final four games and is one of the teams that received a special dispensation to be eligible to play in a bowl despite not having at least a 6-6 record.
The Panthers seem ready for anyone.
“It’s kind of like being a parent and you see your kid graduate,” Miles said. “You feel a sense of excitement because you know they are excited. I feel like a proud parent right now.”