STATESBORO – Conner Manning found Penny Hart for a 9-yard touchdown with 2:31 to play to give Georgia State a 21-17 come-from-behind win over Georgia Southern Saturday afternoon at Paulson Stadium, the Panthers’ third straight win over their in-state rival.
The Hart touchdown completed a six-play, 31-yard drive that started when Georgia Southern’s Wesley Fields fumbled and Georgia State outside linebacker James Traylor recovered with just over five minutes to play.
But the story of the day was the Georgia State (5-3, 4-1 Sun Belt) defense, which kept the Panthers in the ballgame until the offense found its rhythm.
After the defense set up the go-ahead score, they still had to make one last stand as Georgia Southern (0-8, 0-4) drove to the GSU 15 in the closing seconds. But linebacker Trey Payne tackled quarterback Shai Werts to end the game.
“The way that game ended was exactly what that game should have come down to, with our defense having to make a great stop,” head coach Shawn Elliott said. “They played unbelievable all day to give us an opportunity to win this football game. You can’t mention one guy, not with the way they played and the way they continued to fight. It was an unbelievable team effort.
“I told the team at halftime, ‘Listen, we’re playing 30 more minutes, so let’s do something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.’ And I’m so proud of our guys. I’m proud of our University, I’m proud of our fans, I’m proud of our band. I’ve been down here a number of times as a coach … And it always feels good to win in Statesboro!”
Hart finished the game with eight catches for a school-record 191 yards, including a career-long 70-yard reception that set up the Panthers’ second touchdown. He broke the record of 190 that he set three games ago at ULM.
Manning went 22-for-37 for 319 yards and two touchdowns with Glenn Smith on the receiving end of eight of those completions. Smith finished with 57 yards through the air while also adding 11 rushes for 49 yards.
Georgia State jumped in front quickly. On the game’s first offensive play, cornerback Chandon Sullivan picked up a fumble near the sideline and raced 28 yards for the touchdown, giving the Panthers a 7-0 lead just 17 seconds into the game.
Sullivan is the first Panther to score two defensive touchdowns in his career; he also had the first “pick six” in GSU history vs. Arkansas State in 2015.
That marked the third consecutive contest in which the Georgia State defense forced a turnover on the game’s first possession after safety Bryan Williams’ back-to-back interceptions vs. Troy and South Alabama.
But Georgia Southern answered with an 80-yard drive, capped by Myles Campbell’s 8-yard touchdown reception, tying the game at 7-7 with seven minutes to play in the first quarter.
The score remained 7-7 until late in the first half. After a punt, the Eagles took over at midfield with 47 seconds left and managed to get in position for Tyler Bass’ 48-yard field goal that gave Georgia Southern a 10-7 halftime lead.
Georgia State appeared to take the lead after driving down the field on the opening possession of the second half, but a touchdown was wiped out by a pass interference penalty and the Panthers missed a field goal.
After Georgia Southern took a 17-7 lead late in the third quarter, the Panthers responded immediately. Manning hit Hart over the middle for a 70-yard completion down to the 5-yard line. Two plays later, Manning found freshman tight end Roger Carter in the corner of the end zone for the 4-yard touchdown, and the Panthers were within 17-14 with 27 seconds left in the third quarter.
“Penny never ceases to amaze me,” Elliott said. “He does these things every single day on the practice field, so it’s not a surprise when he comes out here and makes these plays. We’re thrilled to death to have him on our football team.
“But it took an army. He made the great catch, but it took the protection and a great throw. When you pull out a victory like this, it’s hard to pinpoint one individual.”
Georgia State has won four of its last five games and sits in second place in the Sun Belt, trailing only unbeaten Arkansas State. GSU faces its second straight road game next Saturday at Texas State (4 p.m. ET).