Penny Hart punches in Georgia State’s first touchdown. (Staff Photos by Christopher Dunn)

A new rivalry was born on Thursday night as the Georgia State Panthers and Kennesaw State Owls faced off in their inaugural matchup. In front of 23,088 fans, the Panthers upended the Owls 24-20 to kick off their 2018 campaign on a high note.

The hype around the programs fueled the first-time matchup at Georgia State Stadium. Both football programs are still in their infancy as the Panthers started play in 2010 and the Owls started in 2015.

Georgia State got off to a slow start and spotted Kennesaw State an early lead. They battled back into the game behind dual-threat quarterback Dan Ellington, who was making his first start. He left an immediate impression as he guided the Panthers back from a 14-0 deficit with a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter.

After the Panthers defense stopped the Owls with 2:01 left in the game, Ellington went to work as he captained a 73-yard drive in nine plays. He got the Panthers to the eight-yard line, before hitting junior Diondre Champaigne with a late touchdown seal the victory.

“I can’t say enough with the way our football team finished,” Panthers head coach Shawn Elliott said. “To have the opportunity to go down there, take a lead and win the football game in the last seconds, with that pass, is a testament to how they fought and how they never give up.”

Ellington ignited the Panthers offense as he went 20-of-28, throwing for 187 yards and three touchdowns. He also led the Panthers with 77 yards on the ground.
In the second quarter, he found junior Penny Hart on a three-yard touchdown and then hit junior Christian Owens with a six-yard touchdown to end the half. The last-minute scores lifted the Panthers defense, who had trouble dealing with the Owls triple option offense all night.

“What a gutsy performance,” Elliot said of Ellington. “He laid it on the line and did everything in his power. He willed his self to make plays, and he willed that football team to move down there offensively and get that winning score.”

Kennesaw State wasted no time jumping out to an early lead. After forcing a three-and-out, the Owls went on an 11 play, 86-yard drive to take a 7-0 advantage. Shaquil Terry capped the drive with a five-yard touchdown run.

The Owls held onto the slim lead throughout the first quarter. The offense outgained the Panthers and held the ball for over eight minutes. Defensively, Kennesaw State kept the Georgia State attack grounded for just 70 yards in the first quarter.

The big play was a fumble recovery by Le’Vonte Larry. His return gave the Owls good field position and led to their second touchdown of the night. Senior quarterback Chandler Burks capped the drive by hitting Justin Sumpter on a 23-yard pass.

(L to R) Sandy Creek alums Javonte Lain, Justin Sumpter, and Ryan Warrior all played pivotal roles in Thursday night’s game between Georgia State and Kennesaw State.

The senior duo was one of the bright spots for the Owls. Burks was 12-for-19 and threw for 201 yards. His lone touchdown was to Sumpter, who was targeted 11 times, and he also threw an interception.

Sumpter, a Sandy Creek product, hauled in 7 catches for 95 yards. Fellow Patriot Ryan Warrior anchored the Owls line from his right tackle spot as they piled up 187 yards on the ground.

Georgia State got their own key contribution from a Sandy Creek alum as defensive end Javonte Lain racked up 6 tackles with a crucial sack on Kennesaw State’s last offensive possession.

After halftime, the teams continued to trade possessions. Kennesaw State regained its offensive rhythm but settled for two field goals in the third quarter. Senior kicker Justin Thompson was true from 32 and 24 yards out to give the Owls a 20-14 advantage.

The Owls also snuffed out a crucial 13-play drive that limited the Panthers to a 35-yard field goal. The defense got a big sack from senior lineman McKenzie Billingslea that ended the drive. He finished with five tackles. Senior Anthony Gore Jr. led the team with nine tackles.

The Owls held a slim three-point lead as the game entered the fourth quarter. They held the ball most of the final frame, even connecting on a 4th and 1 with 6:50 left, but fullback Jake McKenzie fumbled on the next play to force the Owls defense back onto the field.

The Owls defense had an opportunity to make two clutch stops. They were successful on one defensive series, but couldn’t close it out in the final moments. Ellington’s heroics fueled the Panthers comeback home victory.

“It really boosted our guys,” Elliott said. “They took the field right there with a mindset to get it done.”

Georgia State ended up with 315 yards of total offense and scored on four of their last seven possessions. Kennesaw State ended with 382 yards.

Both teams showed that this could develop into a big rivalry in the state. In five years, the Panthers made the leap to Division I football and won a bowl game. They defeated Western Kentucky 27-17 in the AutoNation Cure Bowl last season.

Kennesaw State made it to the quarterfinals of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoffs and are came into the game ranked number five in the country.

If this game proves anything, it showed that both teams could make this a big-time rivalry as the future unfolds.

“I think it is a good football game,” Elliott said. “I respect their football program, their coaching staff, and what they are trying to do. Playing that type of offense probably isn’t the best thing, but I can see a little spark in the future.”


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