Photo: Todd Drexler/Sideline Sports
At the end of one of the strangest and most difficult seasons anyone involved with the Georgia State program has been through, the reward was the same as it usually is – a trip to a different city to play in a bowl game. In this case, it was a date with Western Kentucky in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, AL. This was a game without the usual bowl trip fanfare, without the team dance-offs, without a week’s stay in a fancy resort hotel, but it was not without the late December football. The Panthers had one more chance to announce to the world who the 2020 Georgia State football team was. And announce to the world they did, winning convincingly, 39-21, to secure a second straight winning season for the first time in Georgia State’s short history. What did it take to clinch this third straight win at the end of 2020? This is Upon Further Review.
2nd Quarter Closedown
The 2020 LendingTree Bowl was won in the 2nd quarter. The score was tied at 7 at the start of the quarter, after Destin Coates’ rushing touchdown with 8 seconds left in the 1st erased Western Kentucky’s early touchdown lead, and it was 27-7 Georgia State 15 minutes later. In what was easily the Panthers’ best quarter of 2020, and possibly beyond, the defense held the Hilltoppers scoreless, forcing two turnovers – interceptions by Antavious Lane and Jontrey Hunter – and the offense had three possessions and found the end zone on all three. It was a beautiful display of complementary football and it gave Georgia State an unmatchable foothold in the game.
Western Kentucky actually outscored Georgia State 21-19 in the game’s other three quarters, but the Panthers’ 20-0 edge in the 2nd had the Hilltoppers playing from behind the entire second half, and it was a deficit they couldn’t overcome. After taking a 21-7 lead on their second touchdown of the 2nd quarter, Georgia State would never lead by less than double digits.
Cornelious the Boy Quad Wonder
It was a familiar formula from Georgia State’s young quarterback – early mistakes that were followed by a standout performance the rest of the game that made you forget there were ever any doubts. Quad Brown started out 2-of-7, including a bad interception in the end zone that squandered the Panthers’ first trip to the red zone. But once the clock hit that fated 2nd quarter, Quad flipped the switch. The freshman signal-caller went 10-of-17 for 123 yards with three passing touchdowns in the quarter as he led Georgia State to a comfortable lead. He was accurate in his deep balls, hitting Sam Pinckney in stride for a 26-yard touchdown which gave Georgia State their first lead at 14-7, and he avenged his earlier red zone errors with two excellent throws in the end zone to find Jamari Thrash and Cornelius McCoy for the final two scores of the quarter.
Quad finished 2020 on a real high. In the final three games, all Georgia State wins, he averaged a 65% completion percentage and 312.7 passing yards a game. If he can replicate that success into the new year, the Sun Belt is in trouble, simply put.
True to their form in 2020, against Western Kentucky, the Georgia State defense did what they’ve done best all year – stuff the run, get to the quarterback and force turnovers. That formula paid off with another good performance last Saturday. Not known for their rushing attack coming into the game, Western Kentucky couldn’t take advantage of the extra game as a new opportunity to establish the run. The Hilltoppers managed just 104 yards on 26 carries. What’s more, 32 of those rushing yards came from one CJ Jones run late in the 4th quarter, after the game was long over.
WKU quarterback Tyrrell Pigrome had shown some escapability and good improvisational skills outside the pocket throughout this season, to great effect in the run game as well as the pass game, but that wasn’t to be in this game. Georgia State kept him bottled up in the pocket and forced him to beat them deep. He couldn’t do it. The Maryland grad transfer ended the day with just 9 rushing yards (factoring in sack yardage) and 180 passing yards on 17-of-33 passing. The Panthers front also registered 3 sacks and forced Pigrome into some incompletions even when they didn’t get home. To go along with his 1.5 sacks, Jordan Strachan had three QB hurries on the day.
The last part of the formula for Georgia State’s good defensive performance was its opportunistic nature. The turnovers they forced were not only important in and of themselves, they were timely. The Panthers’ lead was just 14-7 in the 2nd quarter when a perfectly called slip screen for Gaej Walker moved Western Kentucky into GSU territory. But on the next play, Antavious Lane leapt in to steal a would-be reception from Joshua Simon and give Pigrome his first interception of 2020. After the Georgia State offense took advantage of the takeaway and extended the lead to 21-7, WKU’s Beanie Bishop returned the resulting kickoff all the way to the GSU 43, setting the Hilltoppers in better position than they had been in before the Lane interception. But Jontrey Hunter stayed with his man in coverage as Pigrome took a shot at the end zone and the sophomore outside linebacker brought in the defense’s second interception in as many plays. The offense marched down the field before the break and Georgia State had their 20-point lead as well as a stranglehold on the game.
Turning the Page to 2021
The most common pastime of any college football fan is looking ahead hopefully towards the future – and for Georgia State, the projection is easy to see. The 2021 version of the Panthers shouldn’t lose many impact players, especially depending on pending decisions from seniors on whether to use their extra year of eligibility because of Covid-19. So if the team can circle back next fall and pick up with the same formula that saw them end 2020 on a 3-0 run, it’s easy for fans to dream about what may happen. Georgia State now has back-to-back winning seasons and is as poised as ever for the leap fans have longed for. It’s certainly not a given, but if it’s going to happen, the 2020 LendingTree Bowl could be a precursor to what that might look like.