ORLANDO, Fla. — From 0-12 to Cure Bowl champions in four years.
Georgia State's fledgling football program took a bow Saturday, celebrating a 27-17 victory over Western Kentucky — the first postseason win in school history.Conner Manning threw for 276 yards and a touchdown for the Panthers (7-5), who had a winning record for the second time in the program's eight-year history and set a school record for victories in a season.
"I told them before we stepped on the field that the team that wanted this game the most was going to win," first-year coach Shawn Elliott said.
"There was no doubt in my mind that we were the team that wanted it and we were going to win it," Elliott added. "We're a bunch of misfit coaches and misfit players that learned how to work hard and fight every day."
The Panthers (7-5) started their program from scratch in 2010, going 6-5 as an FCS independent. They began the transition to FBS with a 1-10 record in 2012, then sank to a program-worst 0-12 the following year — Georgia State's first in the Sun Belt Conference.
Saturday's appearance in the Cure Bowl was the team's second in three years. The Panthers lost to San Jose State 27-16 here in 2015, finishing 6-7.
A moment we'll be reliving forever.— GSU Football (@GeorgiaStateFB) December 17, 2017
History was made in Orlando on Dec. 16, 2017. pic.twitter.com/3WwFIENCr7
"Coming into the year a lot of us believed we could have a special year," Manning said. "The new coaches brought a lot of energy, and we started this during the winter. We got to work early with the goal of being in this position."
Manning threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Roger Carter, Demarcus Kirk scored on a 26-yard run, and Kyler Neal finished a 16-play drive consuming nine minutes of the fourth quarter with a 1-yard touchdown run that put Georgia State up 27-10.
Mike White tossed touchdown passes of 54 and four yards to Deon Yelder, finishing with 351 yards — the senior's eighth consecutive 300-yard game passing — for Western Kentucky (6-7). Yelder had five receptions for 112 yards for the Hilltoppers.
Georgia State star Penny Hart, the Sun Belt Conference leading receiver, did not start and played sparingly because of an ankle injury. His lone reception — for 27 yards midway through the third quarter — came on the play before Manning threw his TD pass to Carter.
Western Kentucky finished with a losing record in their first season under coach Mike Sanford. The Hilltoppers also were denied in their bid to set a school record with four consecutive bowl wins.
"Today's game, honestly, it's been what's ailed us all year," Sanford said.
"We needed to identify opportunities to run the football, I thought we had some early opportunities but not enough," Sanford added. "That made us one dimensional and more difficult to throw the football. To win championships we have to run the ball effectively, and we didn't do that."
White finished 26-of-39 passing and threw an interception on the final play of his career. He also lost a fumble late in the second quarter.
It wasn't the way the Hilltoppers envisioned him finishing up.
"Mike is up there with some of the best (quarterbacks) that I've ever been around," Sanford said. "It's disappointing for Mike to not go out the way he deserves to go out."
SETTING THE TONE
Georgia State defensive end Mackendy Cheridor had two sacks in the opening half, sending a message to White that the Western Kentucky quarterback could be in for a long day. Chase Middleton, Hardrick Willis, Terry Thomas and Dontae Wilson also had sacks for the Panthers.
Western Kentucky defensive end Julien Lewis was penalized for roughing the passer early in the second quarter. Officials reviewed the play and determined the 6-3, 300-pound redshirt junior should be ejected for targeting.
Western Kentucky: The Hilltoppers won the Bahamas, Miami Beach and Boca Raton bowls the past three seasons, joining Clemson, Georgia, Louisiana Tech, Stanford, Utah, Virginia Tech and Wisconsin as the only team with bowl wins each of the past three years. The chances for a fourth straight win were hindered by three turnovers — one of them on a trick play early in the fourth quarter — and six sacks.
Here’s the play that put the Panthers up by 10. pic.twitter.com/LuSo6OLRBv— GSU Football (@GeorgiaStateFB) December 16, 2017
Georgia State: Playing in the Cure Bowl for the second time in three seasons is a nice accomplishment for an eight-year-old program. The Panthers finished fourth in the Sun Belt under first-year coach Shawn Elliott, but placed nine players on the league's all-conference team.
Western Kentucky: The game was the last for 19 seniors, including White, who began his career at nearby South Florida. The class won 37 games — second-most by the Hilltoppers as a FBS program. In addition to a new starting quarterback, there will be opportunities to shine at wide receiver, where departing seniors Nacarius Fant, Cameron Echols-Luper and Kylen Towner combined to catch 134 passes for 1,423 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
Georgia State: Like Western Kentucky, the Panthers will try to build off this year's success with a new quarterback. Manning's successor will have some productive players to work with, beginning with Hart —a 5-8, 180-pound sophomore who led the Sun Belt in receiving with 74 receptions for 1,121 yards and eight touchdowns.