Staff Photo: Jason Braverman
Georgia State head coach Bill Curry is congratulated by Kelton Hill during the conclusion of Thursday’s game at the Georgia Dome.
ATLANTA — The first football game ever at Georgia State University couldn’t have gone much better.
A better-than-expected crowd of 30,237 enthusiastic fans — including some 11,000 GSU students — gathered at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night to watch the Panthers dismantle Shorter University 41-7 in the historic inaugural game.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time,” said junior safety Brandon Jones, who led GSU with six tackles on the evening. “We come in and see this whole crowd, and we see everyone is so supportive. The team was shocked. What I felt is (that) the team came together once we (knew) we had all that fan support.”
The game was the culmination of more than two years of preparation and anticipation for the GSU players, coaches, students and alumni alike.
“Everything’s been memorable,” GSU president Mark Becker said during an impromptu press conference at the end of the first quarter of Thursday’s game. “Before the game, we went down to the field and we did some photo opportunities for this historic event.
“Our student section was already full. Their bodies were painted and I’ll never forget the excitement of those kids. The students have been behind this program. To see the student excitement and to see them fill the student section straight away will be with me forever. I love it.”
Likewise, Thursday’s debut couldn’t have gone much better for the Panthers (1-0) from a football perspective in Bill Curry’s first game as a head coach in almost 14 years.
GSU outgained Shorter (0-2) in total offense 366-263, including a big night from several players like quarterback Drew Little (13-17-0, 135 yards, 2 TDs), running back Parris Lee (eight carries, 62 yards, 2 TDs) and receiver and Peachtree Ridge grad Sidney Haynes (four receptions, 52 yards).
And the Panthers played almost error-free ball, not committing a turnover and not even losing control of the ball once, while forcing three fumbles from Shorter, recovering one.
“All the while (during the last two seasons of building the program), we hoped that when we took our product into the Dome, ... that it would be worth watching,” Curry said. “So, with all this preparation, it was really thrilling to me to see us look like a football team.”
Of course, the Panthers weren’t perfect, and there was plenty for Curry to point to that needs correcting — most notably, eight penalties for 45 yards.
And those areas that need improvement illustrate the next big challenge for the Panthers for the rest of this season — beginning with the next game Sept. 11 against another NAIA opponent, Lambuth University — and beyond.
From an on-field perspective, neither Curry nor the players are concerned with any potential hangover about preparing each week now that the inaugural game has come and gone.
“Now I know they can do it when the lights come on,” Curry said. “All this is, is a start, but not only does it not diminish our ability to prepare (for the rest of the season), I think it really helps us because now the players can see the payoff.”
Becker acknowledges seeing a payoff from a marketing perspective is just as big of a challenge to help the program grow behind the buzz of the first game.
And he is quick to caution people not to get too carried away with the success of the debut game.
“Quite simply, the fans have to have a great experience (to build a successful program),” Becker said. “Fans come back when you have a quality product. So, the biggest challenge is to build a successful program that fans keep coming back for.”
Still, for another day or so, the Panthers can bask in a successful beginning.
“That atmosphere — we were just so excited and ready to go out and play,” said tight end and Mill Creek grad Emmanuel Ogbuehi, who caught the first touchdown pass in GSU history from Little in the second quarter.