With the loss, its second in its third bowl game, Georgia State finished 7-6 and missed a chance to set a school record for victories. The defeat was the team’s fourth in its past five games, coinciding with quarterback Dan Ellington suffering an ACL injury in the last play of the first half against Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 9.
The defeat marked the end of the college careers of several key seniors, including Ellington, who passed for 156 yards with a touchdown and an interception and rushed for 70 yards with a touchdown, running back Tra Barnett, who finished with 64 yards, offensive tackle Hunter Atkinson, kicker Brandon Wright, who set a school record in the game, linebacker Ed Curney and safety Remy Lazarus.
“I can write a book on each and every one and what they mean to our program,” Elliott said. “They did everything in their power to be successful. We will never forget what they did for us.”
The game was set up as a test between Georgia State’s rushing offense, led by Barnett, who surpassed 2,000 yards in his career this season to lead a group that averaged 245.2 yards per game, against Wyoming’s rushing defense, which allowed just 99.4 yards per game, sixth-fewest in FBS.
Georgia State finished with 355 yards of total offense, setting a new school record of 5,718 yards to break the record of 5,627 yards set in 2015.
Because it was playing from behind most of the game, Georgia State didn’t get a chance to run the ball as frequently as it did during the season. The team finished with 199 rushing yards. Wyoming, led by Xazavian Valladay, who rushed for 204, finished with more than 280 rushing yards.
The mistakes started early for the Panthers.
Leading 7-3, and facing fourth-and-1 on the GSU 38, Ellington tried a shovel pass to wide receiver Devin Gentry, who bobbled the ball multiple times until it fell to the turf. Compounding the error, Georgia State was called for an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after the play. Wyoming took advantage with an 18-yard touchdown pass on third-and-5 from Levi Williams to Austin Conway to take a 10-7 lead.
Elliott said it may have surprised some that the team was going to go for it on fourth down.
“We were going to take some chances,” Elliott said.
Georgia State’s mistakes continued.
On the Panthers’ next play, Ellington was intercepted by Alijah Halliburton, who returned the poorly thrown pass 23 yards to GSU’s 11. Three plays later, Williams completed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Valladay to increase the Cowboys’ lead to 17-7 with 35 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
Georgia State regained its composure to put together an 11-yard scoring drive that ended with a 25-yard field goal by Wright to cut Wyoming’s lead to 17-10 with 9:31 remaining in the first half. But the Panthers may have felt like more could have been done after they had a first-and-10 at Wyoming’s 11. A 2-yard loss on third-and-5 ended the drive.
The field goal was Wright’s 32nd of his career, breaking Wil Lutz’s career mark. Wright’s 83 points this season also set a school record.
Georgia State caught a break on Wyoming’s next drive when Quavian White intercepted a poorly thrown pass by Williams at the 5-yard line. White returned the ball 25 yards to set up the Panthers at their 30 with 3:44 remaining in the half. Williams, making his first start this season, had already flirted with being intercepted a few times.
But the mistakes continued and the next two were big.
A shanked punt of 17 yards by Wright set up Wyoming on its 40. Georgia State forced a fourth down, but Evan Jones was flagged for a roughing-the-kicker penalty to give the Cowboys a fresh set of downs at their 49 with slightly less than a minute remaining in the half.
“That’s on me,” Elliott said. “We called the block for whatever reason. I should have overrode the call.”
Wyoming took advantage, again on third down, with a 51-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Ayden Eberhardt. The pass was a prayer, thrown by Williams as he was falling out of bounds. Eberhardt caught the ball around the 30-yard line and zigzagged his way through Georgia State’s defense to give the Cowboys a 24-10 lead with 32 seconds remaining.
“Give them that crazy touchdown right there before the half,” Elliott said. “Had eight guys almost run into each other on that throw.
“From momentum, it was a seven-point ball game. You feel good. We feel like we can move the ball. Then that happens. That was a critical moment.”
And the second half brought nothing new.
On second-and-11 at Wyoming’s 36, Williams hit Valladay for a 63-yard pass to the 1-yard line. A Georgia State player had a chance to stop Valladay, but whiffed on the tackle. Valladay scored on the next play to give the Cowboys a 31-10 lead with 8:12 remaining in the third.
Elliott said a a lot of times the Wyoming receivers would beat the Panthers’ defenders to the inside, even though they were playing to try to force them to go outside. Other times, the defenders weren’t forcing the Cowboys off their routes. Elliott said Georgia State should have pressed more at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the routes.
The Panthers responded with a 44-yard touchdown pass from Ellington to Cornelius McCoy, who dragged tacklers into the end zone to cut the deficit to 31-17 with 7:43 left.
Wyoming extinguished the short-lived rally when Valladay broke four tackles in a 62-yard run to the 4-yard line with 2:28 remaining in the third quarter. After a face-mask penalty against Georgia State, Williams scored on a 6-yard run to give the Cowboys a 38-17 lead with 1:21 remaining in the third quarter.
The final GSU mistake may have come when Aubry Payne was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line with 6:46 remaining.