The 2017 regular season didn’t end quite as well as it started for first-year Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford, but the Hilltoppers overcame four losses in their last five games and picked up their sixth win of the year when they needed it most. As a result of that triple-OT thriller against Middle Tennessee State, the Toppers will get a shot to send senior quarterback Mike White off in postseason glory as WKU heads to Orlando on December 17th to take on the Georgia State Panthers in the Cure Bowl. With both teams coming in just barely meeting the threshold of bowl eligibility, what kind of matchup are the Hilltoppers in for?
GEORGIA STATE: WHO THEY ARE
The Panthers are newcomers to college football, with a program that was first established in 2010 by former Kentucky head coach Bill Curry. They spent their first three seasons as an FCS independent squad before making the leap to FBS status as a member of the Sun Belt Conference. They went 3-9 in 2016, leading to the firing of then-coach Trent Miles and the hiring of Shawn Elliott, who has Georgia State in a bowl game for just the second time in school history right off the bat.
The Panthers are no strangers to the Cure Bowl, having gone there in 2015 in their only other bowl appearance. If Georgia State were to win, it would mark an all-time single season high for the school; neither Curry nor Miles ever won more than six games, with Miles losing the 2015 Cure Bowl to San Jose State.
ROAD TO THE BOWL
Both the Hilltoppers and Panthers followed a similar pattern this season; they both won six games against inferior opponents, lost a couple of games to much stronger teams, and dropped a pair of contests to teams with losing records. But where Western Kentucky played a much stronger schedule that included more contests against Power Five opponents, Georgia State had a weaker conference schedule and a loss to an FCS opponent, Tennessee State. While each team has had to earn their appearance in this game the hard way, WKU has demonstrated much more of the resiliency needed to win primetime matchups.
The Panthers are a high-scoring unit, having only failed to score 20-plus points in the loss to Tennessee State. They’re centrally focused around their passing game, led by Utah transfer Conner Manning at quarterback. Manning averages a respectable 270 yards per game, and at 7.7 yards per attempt, he has the ability to make the most out of every throw. Most of his attempts will be aimed at junior receiver Penny Hart, who comes in with 30 more catches and 750 more yards than the next closest player, running back Glenn Smith. That lack of diversity in terms of his targets likely explains why Manning only has 13 touchdowns through the air this season, as Hart has been responsible for eight of those.
Although Georgia State has four players, including Smith, who have split up the carries fairly evenly this season, Smith’s pedestrian rushing total–524 yards–is far and away the highest on the team. The Panthers aren’t likely to lean too heavily on that ground game, except in short-yardage situations or in the red zone. That’s good news for the Hilltoppers, whose defense has been far more successful against the pass than the run in 2017. If the WKU secondary–which has shown a knack for forcing interceptions this seasons–can keep Hart occupied, and put the onus on Manning to find other targets, then Georgia State will have an incredibly difficult time scoring points.
The Panthers, like the Toppers, are far more vulnerable to the run (149 yards per game) than the pass (242 yards per game). Ordinarily, that wouldn’t bode well for WKU; their lead rusher, DeAndre Ferby, has only 363 yards this season. There is less of a gap between Ferby and his teammates than what Georgia State has–two other Hilltoppers are within 100 yards or less of Ferby’s total–but overall, WKU is still far more one-dimensional.
Part of the reason for that, however, is the fact that Western will roll into this game with the 19th-ranked passing attack in all of FBS football. White, the senior who has done a fantastic job of taking the reins from Brandon Doughty, is completing 66% of his passes for 3,823 yards with a very impressive 3.5-to-1 TD/INT ratio. Where White really surpasses Manning, though, is his ability to spread the wealth. Five WKU receivers have at least 35 receptions this year, and a whopping 17 different players have caught at least one pass this season. That, combined with White’s low turnover rate, is indicative of a team that’s giving a smart passer plenty of time to find the best option and make the connection.
Speaking of time to throw, White should have plenty against a Georgia State defense that barely averages a sack per game and doesn’t feature a pass rusher with more than four total this year. They also have an astonishingly low turnover rate, with safety Brian Williams (four interceptions) posing the only real threat in that department. They’ll try to compensate with limited rushes and coverage sacks, hoping to catch White napping. But as long as the Hilltoppers’ line holds up, their aerial assault should have another typical day at the office.
WKU 30, Georgia State 21. The Toppers’ deficiencies against the run will tempt Elliott to do more with his ground game, leading to just enough coverage gaps that Manning and Hart can put two or three touchdowns up. That said, whatever damage Manning can do, White can do more. Expect the Toppers’ senior star to ride off into the sunset on the heels of 400-plus yards and four touchdowns.
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