Photo credit: Sam Roberts, Freeze Frame
Hopefully this isn’t the only time a team named the Panthers wins in Charlotte this week.
Charlotte fell to the Georgia State Panthers 41-25 on Saturday evening, dropping the Niners record to 1-2 on the season.
The story of the game for me was the quarterback battle that bled from the practice field to the main stage in Jerry Richardson Stadium. After forcing a Panthers’ punt, incumbent starter Jalon Jones got the first crack at leading the offense. He failed to pick up a first down.
Enter redshirt sophomore Texler Ivey.
Ivey got into a rhythm as he completed the first four passes of his 2023 campaign. An incompletion on third down led to a punt which Georgia State turned into a field goal to extend their lead to 10-0.
Ivey was at the controls again for a second drive, and he uncorked a beauty of a deep ball to Jairus Mack for 32 yards, and it seemed for a second that the deep passing game Charlotte had lacked had life. Well, Ivey had too much dip on his chip and he tried another deep ball which ended up being intercepted by Gavin Pringle at the Panthers’ three yard line.
Georgia State’s next play was a 97 yard passing touchdown and the rout was on. Charlotte got down 17-0 and the flashbacks of 2022’s defense ran rampant in the minds of the 49er faithful.
After losing possession on downs, Charlotte forced a punt, kicked a field goal, forced another punt, and then scored a touchdown to cut the deficit to seven points. A last second Georgia State field goal brought the halftime score to 20-10 in favor of the visiting team. Then the fireworks really got started.
Georgia State scored touchdowns on it’s first two drives in pretty opposite fashions. A 78-yard passing touchdown from Darren Grainger to Tallique Williams, and a one-yard run by Marcus Carroll (that was set up by a 59-yard pass to the one-yard line from Grainger to Robert Lewis – sense a problem here?).
Ivey mustered two first downs total on his first two drives of the second half, but lost a combined 25 yards in sacks as the Charlotte offense sputtered.
Enter Jalon Jones again.
Jones took his moment and didn’t let it slip this time. An electrifying 58-yard touchdown run put Jones’ tantalizing talent on full display. He showed speed, power, agility and an ability to create in the open field that Charlotte has yet to see from the quarterback position in its short history.
The defense held its ground for the first time in the half, and Henry Rutledge took a punt return to the crib, the first punt return touchdown in Charlotte history to cut Georgia State’s lead to nine, 34-25, the closest Charlotte had been since midway through the second quarter.
Georgia State, feeling pressure for the first time in awhile, responded quickly. Robert Lewis capped his monster game (six catches, 220 yards, two touchdowns) with a 35-yard score to put Georgia State up 41-25, and the Panthers’ never looked back.
Charlotte failed to move the ball on their final two drives of the game, and the Lewis touchdown ended up being the nail in the coffin in the Niner’s hopes.
Two big takeaways from this game.
The quarterback position needs to be figured out. If you think you have two quarterbacks, you really have none. Both Ivey and Jones showed flashes, but neither was able to consistently make an impression against Georgia State’s defense. Biff Poggi’s motivation tactic of challenging the offense with a bunch of “ors” on the depth chart didn’t end up working great. Charlotte wants to be a power running team, but they only gained 88 yards on the ground at three yards a clip. The lack of identity on offense is very obvious, and it needs to be figured out. Poggi agrees. He said this in his post game press conference: “I’m absolutely beside myself right now. What I’m going to do is tear it apart. We’re going to come out with something that I like, and here’s why. It’s on me anyways. If it’s on me, I’m not going to let you do what you want to do.”
The defense still gives up too many big plays. Georgia State scored touchdowns of 97, 78, and 38 yards. Darren Grainger has only thrown for 300+ yards twice in his Georgia State career. Tonight, when he threw for 466 yards (a career high by 120), and in 2022 against, you guessed it, Charlotte. Just like last year, opposing teams can take the top off of this defense too easily, and the offense doesn’t have enough firepower to match as it is currently constructed. Change needs to happen, and Biff may not be scared to make it. “This all falls squarely on me. I’m the head coach. I’m the guy that hired these guys. I’m the guys that set the vision. I’m the guy that brought the players in. I’m going to change my approach going forward. They’re going to be on a much tighter leash.” A clear message to his staff that the status quo is no longer acceptable.
Charlotte faces another stiff test as they travel to the swamp to take on the Florida Gators (who are kneeling out a win against #11 Tennessee as I type this). It may get ugly in Gainesville, but it’s Charlotte’s last chance to iron out some kinks before they open up conference play at SMU on September 30th. For all of the talk of this being a new era of Charlotte football, those of us who sat through a brutal 2022 season were met with an all too familiar feeling: disappointment after our team looks completely unmatched against an opponent with similar skill. They say there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but as of now that light is dim, and it may be a minute before it gets much brighter.