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Georgia State scores first season-opening win in four years with dramatic finish against Kennesaw State
Diondre Champaigne
Georgia State receiver Diondre Champaigne goes up for the game-winning scoring grab with 41 seconds left in Thursday night 24-20 Panthers win over Kennesaw State. - photo by Matthew Grimes

ATLANTA — It would take a gutsy game-winning drive for the Georgia State Panthers to fend off the Kennesaw State Owls, 24-20, notching their first win of the season in dramatic fashion Thursday night at “Pete” Petit Field.

Quarterback Dan Ellington showed off his legs, along with his arm during some late-game heroics that lead the Panthers back from an early 14-point deficit, and would most notably become the hero of the game for the Panthers, leading them on a nine-play, 73-yard drive and throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass to Diondre Champaigne with 41 seconds left. 

Ellington finished 20-of-28 passing with 187 yards and three touchdowns as well as 77 yards on 18 carries.

It was a night of firsts between the end zones of “Pete” Petit Field at Georgia State Stadium as the Panthers hosted the young Kennesaw State Owls program for the first time ever. 

Coming off a rather successful 7-5 campaign that was capped off with the program’s first ever bowl win in the Cure Bowl, Georgia State knew it needed a win against the red-hot Owls, who made it to the elite eight in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs a season ago.

Penny Hart, who had a quiet start to the game, hauled in the first two completions of the game-winning drive before Christian Owens, the team’s leading receiver for the night hauled in two big completions to put the Panthers in prime scoring position before Ellington tossed the game winning touchdown to Champaigne. 

The Panthers started slow, however, with their first possession of the season ending in three plays. The Owls would strike first in a methodical way, marching 86 yards on 11 plays on a scoring drive capped off by Shaquil Terry finding the pylon from five yards out. 

And just as the Panthers seemed to be getting a rhythm on offense, Kennesaw State’s Le’Vonte Larry found a way to pop the ball out of Devin Gentry’s hands. The Owls would capitalize on the turnover by once again marching down the field in 15 plays and scoring on a Justin Sumpter 23-yard reception. 

However, the Panthers fought back in the last five minutes of the first half and were finally able to put some points on the board when Hart came to life catching a dump pass in motion from Ellington for a three-yard touchdown. 

The highlight of the scoring drive came seven plays earlier, when Ellington shook off a hit-stick attempt and scrambled down the field for 19 yards to keep the drive alive. 

On the first play of the Owls’ ensuing drive, Chandler Burks, who had been sharp all night, threw his first interception straight into the hands of DeAndre Applin near midfield. It only took five plays after the turnover for Ellington to find Christian Owens for a six-yard score, tying the game and getting the fans back into it in the process. 

Out of the half, the Owls would jump back out in front after draining eight minutes off the clock with a 16-play, 60-yard scoring drive that resulted in a 32-yard field goal from Justin Thompson. 

Later, Burks was able to find a wide open Shaquil Terry who got loose for a 60-yard catch-and-run which would become his career long reception. The reception, combined with a horse collar penalty, would set KSU up in prime position to add on another field goal, giving them a 20-14 lead. 

The Panthers, primarily Ellington, would fight back. On their next drive Ellington would use his legs, much like he did all game, to make plays in crucial situations. One of these plays came when he would scramble right to miss a would-be linebacker’s tackle on a blitz to find Jonathan Ifedi at midfield for a first down. 

The critical third down conversion would allow the Panthers to march down the field and get a field goal of their own, inching closer to the Owls’ lead. 

Just as Kennesaw seemed to be in prime position to extend their lead, Terry Thomas forced a fumble that was recovered by Jordan Strachan, allowing the Panthers to have a shot at tying or winning the game.

However, as they began marching up the field, the drive stalled, leading to a fourth down attempt that was converted at first, but a holding penalty would bring the ball back, and the Panthers second attempt at the fourth down was unsuccessful, giving the Owls the ball back at Georgia State’s 36. 

The win gave the Panthers their first season-opening victory since beating Abilene Christian back on August 27, 2014. They’ll travel to take on North Carolina State next Saturday in a 12:30 p.m. kickoff in Raleigh, North Carolina.