ORLANDO – Led by Most Valuable Player Conner Manning and a record-setting effort by the defense, Georgia State earned the first bowl victory in school history with a 27-17 win over Western Kentucky in the AutoNation Cure Bowl at Camping World Stadium.
The win also gave the Panthers (7-5, 5-3 Sun Belt) their school-record seventh victory of the season under first-year head coach Shawn Elliott and secured their first winning season as an FBS program.
“We’re just a bunch of misfit players and misfit coaches who are blue collar, work hard and love one other and look at us,” Elliott said. “First bowl win, most wins in school history - I’m damn proud to be a Georgia State Panther, I know that!
Manning, the senior signal-caller, completed 20 of 28 passes for 276 yards and one touchdown while directing a GSU offense that also rushed for 143 yards. Georgia State accomplished that while essentially playing without top weapon Penny Hart, who was battling an ankle injury and was limited to a handful of snaps.
"Coming into this season, my only goal was to lead this team to a bowl victory," Manning said as he accepted the MVP award.
The Georgia State defense limited Western Kentucky’s (6-7, 4-4 CUSA) high-powered offense to 349 yards. By collecting six sacks, including two by senior Mackendy Cheridor, the Panthers set a school record by holding WKU to a net of minus-two yards rushing.
Leading 13-10, the Panthers used a flea flicker to take a 10-point lead in the third quarter. After two flips, Manning got the ball back and found freshman tight end Roger Carter all alone for a 42-yard touchdown and a 20-10 advantage with 5:55 left in the third quarter. The touchdown was set up by Hart’s lone catch of the game, a 27-yard reception to WKU 42-yard line.
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers effectively sealed the game a 16-play, 74-yard drive that ate up nine minutes on the clock. The drive started after Jerome Smith’s interception, and Kyler Neal tallied the clinching score on a 1-yard run to put GSU ahead 27-10 with 5:50 left in the game.
Georgia State got on the scoreboard first with Brandon Wright’s 42-yard field goal on the Panthers’ opening possession, giving GSU a 3-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
Then the teams traded quick touchdowns on a total of just five plays. First, WKU needed just two plays to score, including White’s 54-yard touchdown pass to Deon Yelder.
But the Panthers’ answer was almost as quick. Devin Gentry rushed for 10 yards, and then Manning found Tamir Jones down the left sideline for 49 yards to the WKU 26. On the next play, Demarcus Kirk broke through the middle of the line and rambled 26 yards for the score to regain the lead at 10-7 with 6:19 to play in the first quarter.
In the second quarter, the teams exchanged field goals, with Wright’s second three-pointer of the day, this one from 37 yards, giving GSU a 13-10 lead with nine minutes left in the first half.
Late in the half, the Panthers had an apparent touchdown pass called back when Jonathan Ifedi’s knee was ruled to have touched the ground before he took off for the end zone, so the halftime lead remained 13-10.
NOTING THE PANTHERS:
With his third-down sack in the first quarter, Mackendy Cheridor became the Panthers’ career leader, surpassing Christo Bilukidi (9.0, 2010-11). Cheridor added another sack, which caused a fumble, in the second quarter to bring his record total to 10.5. He also has the GSU record for caused fumbles with six.
Junior linebacker Chase Middleton recovered a fumble and returned it 19 yards and also had a sack and an interception.
Glenn Smith rushed for 73 yards on 23 carries.
Kyler Neal’s clinching touchdown gave him sole possession of the GSU record for rushing TDs with 13.