When Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston said after last year’s Rose Bowl that the blowout game could have gone either way, it was laughable. When Georgia State’s players and head coach talked after today’s game about having an opportunity in the second half to make a comeback against the Ducks, it was hard to deny. Though undone by four turnovers, the Panthers moved the ball against Oregon with enough regularity to be competitive.
Take the fumble by quarterback Nick Arbuckle late in the third quarter that Joe Walker returned for a 54-yard touchdown, which turned out to be a key moment.
“Just before that play I was a yard or two off on hitting Todd Boyd on a long touchdown,” recalled Arbuckle, who finished 25-of-35 for 318 yards. “That would have brought it to 35-47. We make that play and we don’t have that fumble on the next play, and we’re looking at a two-score game with the whole quarter to play.”
“You can’t turn the ball over the way we turned it over,” agreed head coach Trent Miles.
“Give all the credit to Oregon. They did a great job. But when you’re playing a team of their caliber and hand it to them on a silver platter, it doesn’t help your cause. Oregon’s got great talent, great program, but our kids are talented too. The big difference is all the turnovers.”
Indeed, the Panthers put up 431 yards (to Oregon’s 539) and accrued 22 first downs, just seven short of the Ducks.
Turnovers were the story from the first Georgia State drive of the game, which ended in a Tyree Robinson 41-yard interception return for a touchdown.
“It’s not the best-case scenario,” Miles said. “You start yourself in a hole. It’s tough enough when you’re playing on the road in a hostile environment against a team that played for the national championship.
“It’s hard when you basically spot them a seven-point head start. It’s an uphill battle the rest of the way. It’s very difficult to play catch-up against the way they are able to move the ball. But when we were doing things the right way, we were toe-to-toe.”
Georgia State entered the game with a high level of confidence, particularly after seeing the way another pass-oriented team, Eastern Washington, was able to score on the Ducks.
“Every hour we spent in the film room we got more excited, me and the receivers and the tight ends, because we saw how our game plan was going to work and that we were going to come out and make plays,” Arbuckle said of Georgia State’s pregame preparations, which helped give the quarterback a lot of open receivers to throw to.
“We expected a lot of man coverage and situations where receivers had to get open,” Arbuckle added.
“Our receivers learned to run routes like Eastern Washington did, because we saw how much success they had being able to get open.
“I give much of the credit to our receivers being able to emulate that stuff: the same kind of releases, the same kinds of head fakes on the top of the routes, to be able to create separation and get open.
“And we were able to do that. I’d come to the sideline and a receiver would say, ‘I just did that same thing I saw on film that Eastern Washington did. It got me open.’ It was so exciting. Against a defense that’s very, very good, we were able to move the ball.”
Coach Miles also took pride in how despite the 61 points given up to the Ducks, the Panthers had their moments. In particular, Oregon’s core offensive strength — getting speedy players in open space — was countered by Georgia State defenders who tackled well and prevented many explosion plays.
“Our kids do a great job of tackling. It’s hard to sit here and say your defense did a decent job. 61 points, you cringe. But when you look at the position they were put in by the offense, many came on a short field.”
When asked if there was anything that surprised them about the Ducks, either in terms of the X and O strategy or the Autzen environment, Miles said no.
“I don’t think they felt they needed to surprise us,” he explained. “They’ve got a really good offense and they’re not going to make up a new one for everybody. They’re going to run their system. They’re not going to change for everybody.”
He also says he wasn’t phased by Oregon’s quarterback change. “I’m sure there are some things Lockie does better than Adams and Adams does better than Lockie,” Miles continued. “I’m sure they played to Lockie’s strengths but it’s within their system.”
But, Miles allowed one thing caught him by surprise, adding, “Some of those linemen were taller and faster than I thought they’d be.”
Although Georgia State was making its first trip to Eugene, Miles, whose coaching career dates to the late 1980s, had been here as an assistant with Fresno State, Stanford and Washington (tasting victory with the Cardinal), and praised the Autzen Stadium environment.
“It’s one of the greatest venues in all of college football,” he said. “It’s great to be here. Look at this day. Look at the weather, the environment the crowd. It’s great for college football. All that’s fun. But it’s not great when you don’t take care of the ball and perform the way you are capable of performing.”
Even so, the Panthers hold their heads high as they make the long flight back to Georgia.
“We put ourselves in a position to be within striking distance in the fourth quarter against a team that played for the national championship,” Miles said. “That says a lot about our kids. Instead of caving in or giving in, they never stopped believing.”
Top photo by Kevin Cline