Georgia Southern played its best game of the year and it still wasn’t enough.
The Eagles erased an early 7-0 deficit against Georgia State and led for the majority of the afternoon, but a pair of costly late turnovers and a 9-yard touchdown strike from Connor Manning to Penny Hart with 2:31 to play allowed the Panthers to escape Paulson Stadium with a 21-17 win on Saturday.
“This one hurts. All losses hurt,” GS coach Chad Lunsford said. “We had plenty of chances to win this game. We need to learn how to finish.”
Leading 17-14 with 9:43 to play, Kindle Vildor got a hand on a pass by Manning (22-37, 319 yds. 2 TD). The tipped ball went straight to Chris DeLaRosa for his second career interception and the Eagles (0-8, 0-4 Sun Belt) were in business at the Georgia State 28. But two plays later, what woul have been a first down run by Wesley Fields turned into a fumble and new life for the Panthers (5-3, 4-1).
Georgia State worked its way downfield, but the Eagle defense held and Panther kicker Brandon Wright was wide left on a 53-yard attempt — his second miss of the day — to keep the Eagles in front with 5:29 remaining.
A solid drive with a few first downs could have run out the clock and finally put the Eagles in the win column.
Instead, disaster struck. Fields fumbled for a second time and the Panthers pounced on it at the GS 31. The Panthers converted a third down to move inside the 10 and Hart (8 catches, 191 yards) hauled in a 3rd-and-goal toss to put Georgia State ahead.
“He’s a great player,” Lunsford said. “You have to know where he’s at. We did, but a guy like that sometimes makes a play.”
Georgia State took the lead on the first play of the game on yet another Eagle misfire.
Shai Werts swung a quick pass out to Myles Campbell, but Cambell was stripped while fighting for yards. Chandon Sullivan scooped it up and ran 28 yards for a 7-0 Panther lead just seconds into the game.
The Eagles bounced back and led for 27:44 of game time between Tyler Bass’ 48-yard field goal just before halftime and Hart’s touchdown grab. But Georgia Southern couldn’t quite get out of its own way.
“It’s simple,” Lunsford said. “We have to hang on to the ball. If we hang on to the ball — any of those times — we win the game.”
Georgia Southern took its first double-digit lead of the season late in the third quarter when Werts ran in on fourth-and-goal from the 4 for his first rushing touchdown.
Unfortunately for the Eagles - as has been the case all season — offensive prosperity was met with a defensive letdown. On the first play of the Panthers’ ensuing drive, Manning found Hart for 70 yards to the GS 5. Two plays later, Manning hit Roger Carter to make it 17-14.
Georgia Southern had a chance to get its 10-point advantage back early in the fourth quarter when the Panthers were pinned deep and could only punt out to their own 48. The Eagles did nothing with the great field position, going three-and-out.
The ensuing possession for Georgia State resulted in the DeLaRosa interceptions, but that seemingly fortuitous break ended up being the final bright spot of the day for the Eagles.
The Eagles will continue to look for their first win of 2017 and won’t have to wait long for their next chance. Georgia Southern heads to Boone — where it hasn’t won since 2007 — for a Thursday night matchup with Appalachian State.