ORLANDO, Fla. (FNN SPORTS) – The Georgia State Panthers won the 2017 AutoNation Cure Bowl benefitting the Breast Cancer Research Foundation (BCRF), their first bowl victory in school history, by defeating the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, 27-17, on Dec. 16 at Camping World Stadium. GSU senior quarterback Conner Manning was named the Most Valuable Player following the victory.
Playing in their second AutoNation Cure Bowl in three years, the Panthers (7-5, 5-3 Sun Belt) relied on their steady defense to stymie the Hilltoppers (6-7, 4-4 C-USA) and their passing offense that ranked ninth in the nation.
The Panthers came into the game with a defense that had already broken school-records earlier in the season, but they managed to out-do themselves, holding Western Kentucky to a net of negative-two rushing yards.
The defense also combined for six sacks, eight tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and two interceptions on the day, including one that stopped a late drive by the Hilltoppers to seal the win with 38 seconds remaining. The final pass of the game was intercepted by Chase Middleton, a junior linebacker who had a sack, a fumble recovery and six total tackles to go along with the game-ending interception.
Combining with their steady defense, the Panthers utilized a balanced offensive attack. Manning threw for 276 yards and a touchdown on 20 completions. Five Panthers had at least 27 receiving yards, including three who had over 50. Glenn Smith carried the running game with 73 yards on 23 carries, but Demarcus Kirk and Manning also contributed with 59 rushing yards combined.
After seeing little offensive action in the first half from either side, Georgia State got off to a hot start in the third quarter. Already leading 13-10 at the break, the Panthers utilized a trick play that resulted in a 42-yard touchdown pass from Manning to freshman tight end Roger Carter, increasing their lead to 10.
With the momentum on their side, the Panthers’ defense stood strong, not allowing Western Kentucky to cross midfield a single time in the third quarter. On the first play of the fourth quarter, the Panthers snuffed out a trick-play attempt from the Hilltoppers, picking off a deep pass from wide receiver Nacarius Fant.
On the ensuing drive, Georgia State put the game away, bleeding off 9:01 on the clock in the fourth quarter as Kyler Neal’s one-yard touchdown run capped off a 16-play, 74-yard drive for a 27-10 margin.
The Western Kentucky offense attempted to come to life in the fourth quarter, though, with senior quarterback Mike White leading an 87-yard touchdown drive to bring his team back to within 10 points with just over two and a half minutes to play. After a three-and-out stop by the Hilltoppers defense, the offense came back out to the field with a minute and a half to play. Despite the slim chances of making a comeback, White passionately led his offense right back down the field, picking up 55 yards on three plays before throwing the game-ending interception that sealed the deal for Georgia State.
In his first-year as head coach, GSU’s Shawn Elliott was able to lead his team to its first bowl victory in just its fourth year of full eligibility in the FBS.