ATLANTA — Playing just its third football game, Georgia State almost pulled off a major upset.
That the near-miss against Jacksonville State came after an effort a week earlier that coach Bill Curry called “horrific” made it even more surprising.
The Gamecocks are ranked No. 4 in the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision — formerly 1-AA. Georgia State had lost its previous game to Lambuth, a NAIA school with less than 500 students.
But the Panthers forced Jacksonville State into overtime before falling 34-27 and it looked for a moment as if GSU’s upset hopes weren’t over on Saturday before a crowd of 16,128 at the Georgia Dome.
“We thought we’d kept the game going,” said center Ben Jacoby, a Buford graduated who transferred to GSU from Ball State.
A fourth-down pass in overtime was juggled and then held on to by Arthur Williams at the back of the end zone. At first, the signal was touchdown. But the call was overturned, with Williams ruled out of bounds when he secured the ball.
“We never question the officiating,” Panthers coach Bill Curry said afterward. “… We don’t make excuses that someone made a bad call, because if you do that, you have a reason to fail.”
Jacksonville State (3-0) came in riding high, but barely escaped thanks to a 2-yard touchdown run by quarterback Marques Ivory on the opening possession of overtime.
“We were a tough team to beat today,” Curry said.
Drew Little bounced back from a poor performance in the 23-14 loss to Lambuth, completing 25 of 38 passes for 227 yards, and the GSU defense had plenty of good moments. Curry and the Panthers, however, wanted no part of a moral victory.
“There are a lot of young men sobbing in our locker room,” the coach said. “We didn’t come here to do well against good teams. We came here to beat them.”
Curry showed that, taking a gamble on a failed fake punt that led to a 27-yard field goal by James Esco with 12 seconds left in the third quarter and a 20-13 Jacksonville lead.
“I don’t think you can be cautions when you’re playing against big leaguers and you’re just starting out,” Curry said.
GSU (1-2) quickly battled back to tie the game on a 46-yard TD run by Travis Evans and then the teams alternated touchdowns. After Darius Barksdale put the Gamecocks back ahead with a TD from a yard out, Little scored from the same distance with 3:57 left in regulation to tie the game again.
In range for a potential winning field goal, the Gamecocks had the clock run out in regulation without getting a timeout.
“I don’t know how many mistakes we made. I made a big one,” Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe said. “We made a mistake of almost getting beat.”
Right from the start, the Panthers looked nothing like the uninspired team that lost to Lambuth.
GSU made Jacksonville State settle for a 20-yard field goal by Esco at the end of an opening 13-play drive and then used a big play on a little trickery to take a lead. Darren McCoy took a handoff on a reverse and raced 41 yards down the right sideline to put the Panthers ahead with 1:26 left in the first quarter.
It was a brief lead, though. The Gamecocks went 82 yards in 11 plays and scored on a 4-yard pass from Ivory to Jamal Young to start the second quarter. Iain Vance’s 39-yard field goal with 4:16 left in the second quarter gave GSU a tie, but then Jacksonville State took the lead for good.
Cory Blanchard scored on a 4-yard run with 50 seconds left in the second quarter to put the Gamecocks up 17-10 and Little was intercepted as GSU tried to counter before halftime.
It was the Panthers’ only turnover.
Vance, a Duluth graduate who walked on at Georgia Tech and Alabama without ever getting a chance to kick, booted a 25-yard field midway in the third quarter to cut the lead. He is 4-for-4 this season.
After getting just five first downs a week ago, Georgia State had 339 yards against Jacksonville State. The Gamecocks finished with 450 as Ivory, a former Northside of Warner Robins star, was 24 of 32 passing for 283 of the yard.
“We were ready to play our hearts out and from the first possession, we did just that,” Jacoby said. “After the way we fought, there were a lot of guys upset with the way the game ended. But that’s in the past now. We’re looking ahead, not back.”
“We have to do it again without the stimulus of ‘These guys beat Ole Miss,’” Curry said of his team’s vastly improved performance. “It has got to be a habit and that’s our next job.”