ATLANTA — After 16 straight losses, Georgia State and its fans didn’t care about style points in college football’s 2014 season opener.
Any win looked good, even a come-from-behind, last-second 38-37 win over second-year FCS member Abilene Christian on Wednesday night at the Georgia Dome.
Will Lutz’s 26-yard field goal with four seconds remaining gave the Panthers (1-0) their first win since Oct. 13, 2012.
It also gave Trent Miles his first win as GSU head coach after enduring last year’s rough 0-12 campaign.
“We’re very excited for our young men,” Miles said. “We’re very excited for the Panther family, the students, the administration, the faculty and anybody who has anything to do with Georgia State University.
“Our kids fought through a lot of adversity. They never quit believing. They whole time, they believed in themselves, they believed they were going to win the game no matter what. They stuck with it and at the end, Will Lutz put it through the uprights and we had one more point than (Abilene Christian). It was a great day for the Panthers.”
It didn’t look like it would be a great night for the Panthers a promising first half in which they outgained Abilene Christian 302-243 and led 21-16 started to unravel in the second half, which led to them trailing by nine points on two separate occasions.
Parker McKenzie, who finished the night 30 of 40 for 403 yards and four TDs, hit his final scoring pass of the night on a 7-yard hook-up with Cade Stone to give the Wildcats (0-1) a 37-28 lead with just 6:36 remaining.
But trailing just 37-35 with less than three minutes left, junior college transfer quarterback Nick Arbuckle, in his first start at GSU, came up with the most clutch of his 31 completions on 47 attempts for 413 yards — 1 yard short of the school record — and four touchdowns late in the fourth quarter.
The biggest one came with GSU facing fourth and 14 on its own 32 with 57 seconds to play after a potential game-winning TD pass to Donovan Harden was nullified by a holding penalty.
Arbuckle threaded the needle to Lynquez Blair for a 24-yard completion up the middle of the field to the Abilene Christian 49 to give the Panthers new life.
“I kind of new the coverage they were going to be in,” Arbuckle said. “They’d been in it the whole series. They were playing three safeties. I knew that the seams would be open. I just had to move that middle safety, so I kind of stepped in the pocket and looked one way to get the safety to move and came back and hit Quez.”
However, it was a pair of runs from Arbuckle that combined for 30 yards on the final drive and helped put the Panthers in range for Lutz’s winning kick.
The second one, which went for 17 yards and brought GSU to the Abilene Christian 9-yard line with seven seconds left, was a check off on what normally would be a draw to the running back.
But Arbuckle kept the ball himself, getting a block from freshman right guard Alex Stoehr to spring him.
“When I took (the defensive tackle) out, and I see (Arbuckle) running through the hole,” Stoehr said. “He put his heart out there.”
That left the outcome up to Lutz, who was unfazed by Abeline Christian’s attempt to freeze him with a time out and split the uprights from 26 yard out with four seconds on the clock to provide the game-winning margin and send the GSU bench and what was left of the crowd of 10,140 into celebration.
“It’s amazing,” the junior kicker said. “Being able to pull out a win in that fashion is just awesome. I told Nick, ‘Just get me down there. That’s all I want (is a chance).’”
The kick, and the win, gave a huge emotional boost to a program that has one just one other game over its last 22 outings.
“We finally got the monkey off our backs,” Arbuckle said. “We worked really hard. We knew we were winners coming into the game. The team was going to find a way to win. That’s what winners do.
“Individually, we didn’t play perfect. But as team, we’re 1-0 … and that’s the important thing.”
Also with a big night for the Panthers were receivers Blair (eight receptions, 118 yards, TD), Robert Davis (8-90) and Joel Ruiz (7-111, 2 TDs), while Krysten Hammon and Kyler Neal combined to run for 120 yards on 21 carries.
Trailing 3-0 late in the first quarter, Arbuckle faked the quick pass out to the right flat and found a wide open Ruiz behind the defense for a 33-yard touchdown that put the Panthers in front 7-3 with 2:41 left in the opening frame.
GSU was a little more methodical on its next possession.
This time, the Panthers drove 73 yards over 12 plays, picking up three third-down conversions along the way, before Jonathan Lytle rumbled in from 2 yards out to push the GSU lead to 14-3 with 12:00 left in the first half.
But just when it seemed like the Panthers were in control, Abilene Christian fought back late in the first half.
A pair of Nik Grau field goals — the latter coming after a GSU fumble near midfield — sandwiched a 60-yard scoring strike from McKenzie to Cedric Gilbert and vaulted the Wildcats into a 16-14 lead with 1:11 left in the first half.
But GSU reached back for a response just before the half behind the arm of Arbuckle.
The 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior completed four straight passes to move the Panthers to the Abilene Christian 38.
Then after being sacked for a 3-yard loss, Arbuckle stayed in the pocket and delivered a strike to Avery Sweeting, who had gained a step on two Wildcat defenders to reach the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown with 14 seconds left, sending the Panthers into intermission with a 21-16 lead.
Georgia State 38, Abilene Christian 37
Abilene Christian 3 13 14 7 ― 37
Georgia State 7 14 0 17 ― 38
ACU: Nik Grau 25 FG, 8:58
GSU: Joel Ruiz 33 pass from Nick Arbuckle (Will Lutz kick), 2:41
GSU: Jonathan Lylte 2 run (Lutz kick), 12:00
ACU: Grau 42 FG, 7:31
ACU: Cedric Gilbert 60 pass from Parker McKenzie (Grau kick), 3:52
ACU: Grau 33 FG, 1:11
GSU: Avery Sweeting 41 pass from Arbuckle (Lutz kick), 0:14
ACU: Jamie Walker 23 pass from McKenzie (Grau kick), 6:27
ACU: Jace Hudson 24 pass from McKenzie (Grau kick), 1:41
GSU: Lynquez Blair 27 pass from Arbuckle (Lutz kick), 10:42
ACU: Cade Stone 7 pass from McKenzie (Grau kick), 6:36
GSU: Ruiz 14 pass from Arbuckle (Lutz kick), 4:31
GSU: Lutz 26 FG, 0:04
First downs 26 33
Rushes-yards 36-95 33-153
Passing yards 403 413
Att.-Comp.-INT 30-40-1 31-49-2
Fumbles-lost 1-0 2-1
Penalties-yards 9-86 12-99
Rushing — Abilene Christian: Herschel Sims 14-37, De’Andre Brown 12-34, Demarcus Thompson 2-17, McKenzie 7-8, TEAM 1-(-1). Georgia State: Krysten Hammon 13-74, Kyler Neal 8-46, Arbuckle 5-2, Duvall Smith 5-4, Donovan Harden 1-2, Lytle 1-2.
Passing — Abilene Christian: McKenzie 30-40-1, 403. Georgia State: Arbuckle 31-47-2, 413.
Receiving — Abilene Christian: Thompson 9-156, Hudson 5-47, Stone 4-60, Sims 4-6, Walker 3-41, Noah Cheshier 2-14, Gilbert 1-60, Monte Green-Avery 1-10, Jonathan Parker 1-9. Georgia State: Blair 8-118, Robert Davis 8-90, Ruiz 7-11, Harden 3-27, Sweeting 2-46, Neal 1-11, Smith 1-5, Todd Boyd 1-5.
Attendance — 10,140