ATLANTA -- Ball State downed Georgia State 31-21 in the season opener Friday night at the Georgia Dome.
Georgia State (0-1) sophomore cornerback Jerome Smith led the Panthers with two interceptions in the game, returning one 48 yards for a touchdown for the Panthers' first score of the 2016 season.
Led by James Gilbert with 160 yards and two touchdowns, Ball State (1-0) rushed for 325 yards, including 267 in the second half.
"We turned the ball over in the first quarter and we could not sustain any drives. We did not do anything on offense to help move the ball and protect our defense," Georgia State head coach Trent Miles said. "Ball State ran the ball and did things better in the second half offensively, they did a much better job than we did, so congratulations to Ball State.
“These kids will respond, they’ll fight, they’ll gather and keep continuing working to get better."
Smith's return, just the second "pick six" in GSU history, came on the first possession of the game and gave the Panthers a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the game.
On the next possession, Smith came up with another interception, this at the Ball State 34-yard line after the ball was tipped at the line of scrimmage by Shawanye Lawrence. But the Panthers were unable to convert the short field.
With the game tied at 7-7, junior quarterback Conner Manning, the graduate transfer from Utah making his first start for the Panthers, hit Penny Hart for a 14-yard touchdown pass on the first play of the second quarter.
Manning completed 21 of 32 passes for 163 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Georgia State held a 14-7 lead until Ball State tied the game on Gilbert's 1-yard, fourth-down plunge with just 10 seconds left in the half.
The Cardinals took their first lead on their first possession of the second half, driving for Morgan Hagee's 44-yard field goal and a 17-14 advantage with 8:25 to play in the third quarter.
After forcing a Georgia State punt, Ball State moved deep in Panther territory to a first-and-goal at the GSU 5. But the Panther defense held on three straight running plays, and then on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, Bobby Baker broke up Neal's pass in the end zone.
With GSU taking over at its own 1, redshirt freshman Aaron Winchester entered the game for the first time and moved the Panthers out to midfield before GSU had to punt.
Ball State then drove for another touchdown, keyed by quarterback Riley Neal's 46-yard run down to the GSU 15. Then Teddy Williamson's 15-yard scoring run put the Cardinals ahead 24-14.
After the Cardinals scored again on their next possession, Winchester tried to rally the Panthers, directing a 8-play, 79-yard scoring drive, capped by the quarterback's 13-yard run. That pulled Georgia State within 31-21 with 2:24 to play, but the Panthers could not recover the onside kick and Ball State ran out the clock.
Winchester finished with 59 yards rushing on eight carries while completing four passes for 32 yards.
Senior wide receiver Robert Davis led the Panthers with eight receptions for 61 yards as he caught a pass in his 38th consecutive game.
Smith's interception return for touchdown is just the second "pick six" in GSU history. The first was last year by Chandon Sullivan at Arkansas State. He is the fifth Panther to grab two interceptions in a game and third in the last two seasons (Bobby Baker vs. Charlotte and Tarris Batiste vs. Georgia Southern).