Nick Arbuckle’s voice began to crack and his eyes began to water, showing the pain he was in after Georgia State’s 27-16 loss to San Jose State in the Cure Bowl on Saturday night.
It was an honest moment, void of cliches and bravado.
“I dedicated my entire life to this,” the senior said. “For it to end like this, it’s tough.”
The pain was caused by a San Jose State defense that Arbuckle said it had never shown during the season.
He would know because he said he watched every one of the team’s plays. He said he never left the hotel once the team arrived in Orlando on Wednesday — he said he didn’t even venture onto City Walk where the team stayed in Universal Studios — other than for mandatory events because he wanted to keep analyzing a defense that he seemed truly sad he didn’t get to face.
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“It was my whole life,” he said again.
The defeat snapped Georgia State’s four-game winning streak. The Panthers’ season ends at 6-7 in its sixth year of playing football and in its first bowl game.
They key moment in the game came on fourth and 1 at the 49-yard line with 7:50 left and the Panthers trailing 20-16. Because the running game had twice failed to pick up third-and-1s in the game, including on the previous play, coach Trent Miles elected to try to do what Arbuckle and the Panthers do best: throw deep.
Miles said the play was set up well.
Penny Hart, the team’s most productive receiver this season, beat his man, but Arbuckle overthrew him by inches. He said it was a throw that he will never miss again.
“I’ll relive that for the rest of my life,” he said.
Before hugging Arbuckle after there were no more questions for him, Miles said that he doesn’t have to relive it because he has made that throw millions of times.
“I have complete confidence in that young man,” he said.
Here are five observations from the Cure Bowl:
What did San Jose State do? The Spartans entered bowl season second nationally in fewest passing yards allowed per game (153.6).
And then they threw in the new wrinkle that Georgia State had difficult solving.
The defense that San Jose State used, the one they hadn’t used all season, was based on the cornerbacks playing way off the line of scrimmage and then forcing Georgia State’s receivers to the outside. Arbuckle tried time and time again to squeeze passes into the deep corners. He connected with Donovan Harden on a 38-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter that cut San Jose State’s lead to 10-7. That may have been the highlight.
With the receivers blanketed outside, Arbuckle didn’t have his usual tight end to try to hit underneath in the middle because Keith Rucker was diagnosed with a broken rib in the past two weeks that sidelined him. Freshman Ari Werts filled in and caught three passes for a team-high 63 yards.
Arbuckle went 14-of-29 for 208 yards and touchdowns.
“They took away our entire game plan,” he said.
That’s not all the Spartans did. Arbuckle said San Jose State also put in a third-down defense that he said they may have shown once all season. As a result, the Panthers failed to convert nine of 10 third downs, and held the ball for just 21:41. Miles referenced the third-down issues several times after the game.
The Spartans’ third-down scheme also stymied Georgia State’s running game, holding the Panthers to just 23 yards on 20 carries.
The defense continues to play well. As it has done for the prevous four games, Georgia State’s defense continued to be productive, holding the Spartans to 286 yards despite being on the field for 73 plays.
The group twice held San Jose State to field goals when it had first-and-goal inside the 5-yard line. On its third trip inside the 5-yard line, San Jose State took advantage with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Kenny Potter to Josh Oliver to increase its lead to 27-16 with 2:40 left.
The defense’s only break down came just after Georgia State grabbed a 16-13 lead with 10:46 left. The Spartans had no trouble driving down the field on their subsequent drive, with Kenny Potter finishing a 42-yard touchdown run to regain the lead. It was San Jose State’s longest run of the game.
Stopping Ervin. Stopping San Jose State running back and returner Tyler Ervin was job No. 1 for Georgia State. The school’s career leader in all-purpose yards (5,919), Irvin had rushed for 1,469 yards on a 5.6-yards-per-carry average with 13 touchdowns this season.
The Panthers did a decent job containing him in the first half until he broke loose for an 85-yard punt return for a touchdown to give the Spartans a 10-0 lead with 8:55 left in the half. Miles said they were trying not to punt the ball toward Ervin, but because of the pressure on Wil Lutz he just had to kick the ball.
Ervin caught it in the middle of the field and used his speed to split the coverage for the score.
“When an athlete like that gets in open space he will make you look bad,” Miles said.
He finished with 132 rushing yards and 98 return yards.
Georgia State’s seniors. The six seniors who started for Georgia State capped their careers with the following performances:
Arbuckle, the Sun Belt student-athlete of the year, became the Sun Belt’s single-season passing leader on his touchdown to Harden, surpassing Troy’s Levi Brown (4,254 yards). Arbuckle added a 19-yard touchdown pass to Todd Boyd in the fourth quarter that gave the Panthers a 16-13 lead with 10:46 left.
Center Taylor Evans and the offensive line couldn’t open running lanes against the Spartans. The Panthers gained 23 rushing yards.
Harden, a two-time all-conference selection, caught three passes for 53 yards and a touchdown.
Kicker/punter Wil Lutz, an all-conference selection, averaged 47.5 yards on his first eight punts, including a kick of 70 yards.
Linebacker Joseph Peterson, an all-conference selection, finished with 10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
Safety Tarris Batiste, an all-conference selection, finished with five tackles. He also was ejected from the game after an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on the game’s next-to-last play.