CONWAY, S.C. – Penny Hart caught eight passes for 132 yards and a touchdown, and Glenn Smith returned a kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to lead Georgia State to a 27-21 victory in its Sun Belt Conference opener at Coastal Carolina Saturday night at Brooks Stadium.
Georgia State (2-2, 1-0 Sun Belt) quarterback Conner Manning passed for 273 yards and one touchdown, and Kyler Neal and DeMarcus Kirk scored rushing touchdowns. Kirk’s 4-yard touchdown put the Panthers ahead 27-14 with three minutes left, and then GSU held on for the victory.
“It wasn’t pretty, but I don’t care. That’s a win!” head coach Shawn Elliott said. “We’re 1-0 in the conference. They played their tails off.”
Smith took the opening kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown to give the Panthers the early 7-0 lead. The senior running back fielded the ball near the right hash and appeared to be bottled up at the 20-yard line. But he broke out of the pile and around the left side to daylight, breaking a tackle at the GSU 20 to reach the end zone.
That is the sixth kickoff return for touchdown in GSU history and the second on the opening kickoff, following Darren McCray vs. Campbell in 2010.
Coastal Carolina (1-4, 0-2) took the ensuing kickoff and drove deep into Georgia State territory, but the Panther defense held on three straight plays inside the 6-yard line and then forced a missed field goal.
Georgia State converted the missed field goal into an 11-play, 80-yard touchdown drive. Manning completed four passes to Hart on the march, including a short shovel pass that Hart grabbed and raced around the left end for an 8-yard touchdown. That put GSU ahead 14-0 with three minutes left in the first quarter.
Coastal Carolina got on the board midway through the second quarter on Tyler Keane’s 33-yard touchdown pass to Omar Black, but the Panthers answered right away with a 65-yard scoring drive. The drive was aided by three costly Chanticleer penalties, but Manning had two key third down conversions with a 17-yard completion to Tamir Jones on 3rd-and-six and an 11-yard rush down on 3rd-and-10 at the 14. That set up Kyler Neal’s 1-yard scoring run and gave the Panthers a 21-7 lead with 2:20 left in the first half.
After the Chanticleers pulled within 21-14 with seven minutes left, Manning led the Panthers on a 91-yard scoring drive, keyed by a 52-yard completion to tight end Ari Werts, who was left wide open on a wheel route and raced down the sideline to the CCU 23. Kirk finished the drive with his 4-yard touchdown run. The Panthers missed the extra point but led 27-14 with three minutes left.
Coastal managed a quick touchdown, moving 80 yards on six plays in just over a minute to pull within 27-21 with 1:50 to play. But Georgia State recovered the onsides kick and managed one first down to run out the clock.
Smith finished with 74 yards rushing on 23 carries, three receptions for 13 yards and two kickoff returns for 114 yards to total a career-high 201 all-purpose yards. Werts had four catches for 92 yards, and Jones added two receptions for 24 yards.
"We executed a lot of good pass plays. We've got to get a little better in the run game, but most of all, we've got to finish better," Hart said. "I'm probably being a little too hard on myself and my team, but that's what is going to propel us to be better. We've got to finish a lot better than that.
"There is definitely such a thing as an ugly win, but you never want to downgrade a win. You get in the film room and learn from it and get better," Hart added.
Georgia State will play its fourth straight road game next week at ULM in a 5 p.m. ET kickoff in Monroe, La. The Panthers next home game is the Oct. 21 Homecoming contest against Troy at Georgia State Stadium. Kickoff time for that game will be announced Monday.