ATLANTA - Outside the Georgia Dome, it was one of those typical Atlanta afternoons-- a late-summer slog of overbearing heat and rain, enveloping its inhabitants in a gray, 90+ degree blanket. The scene inside the Dome was much less inspiring.
The host Georgia State Panthers were defeated on Friday by FBS newbies Charlotte 23-20 in a sloppy, unappetizing display of football that saw the 49ers jump out to a 20-3 halftime lead on the back of three first-quarter GSU turnovers, each more ludicrous than the last.
On the Panthers' first possession, quarterback Nick Arbuckle found receiver Glenn Smith for a short gain over the middle, but the Niners' defense stripped the ball away, resulting in a huge pile-up that saw Charlotte's Terrance Winchester emerge from the scrum with the ball, dashing 43 yards untouched into the end zone.
Later, Arbuckle threw a beautiful back-shoulder fade to Todd Boyd that was initially ruled a touchdown before officials overruled it, claiming Boyd did not have full control of the ball. Arbuckle looked to the same corner of the end zone on the next play, where Winchester was waiting for an easy interception.
The cherry on top was a wild, Yakety Sax-type fumble sequence at the end of the first quarter, in which Panthers halfback Kyler Neal had the ball jarred from his hands after picking up a first down. The ball glanced off the hands off at least three Charlotte defenders before finally being trapped under a sea of green and white. It was an artistic display of foot-shooting, a practice that has become far too familiar to Panthers fans in the program's brief history.
The two-plus-year FBS era of Georgia State football has existed on a treadmill, such that every step forward has been countered by a resounding slip-and-slide off the back of a rotating belt. The Panthers' thrilling, season-opening win over Abilene Christian in 2014 was followed by a home loss to New Mexico State; a valiant effort on the road against South Alabama preceded a 69-31 thumping at the hands of rivals Georgia Southern.
This is the way new teams are supposed to grow up-- a combination of tough love and close-but-no-cigar moments that eventually give way to a breakthrough-- but three years into the Trent Miles era, the Panthers are still sliding backwards, desperately awaiting that breakthrough.
That moment could've been Friday afternoon. The Panthers had everything they could have wanted-- a national television slot against a thoroughly beatable opponent, a Charlotte team playing its very first game at the FBS level. Sixty minutes later, the 49ers had earned their first FBS win in their first try; Georgia State has still yet to beat an FBS opponent in over twenty attempts and fell to 1-24 under head coach Trent Miles.
It's difficult not to sympathize with Miles, a stocky, energetic man who aims to built a program in his own tough, no-frills image. He's no stranger to football necromancy projects, having previously resurrected a downtrodden Indiana State program before moving to GSU. He was at a loss for words in the press conference after Friday's game.
"You give up three turnovers in the first quarter for ten points and wind up losing by three..." His voice trailed off. There is no need to finish the sentence.
Miles swiftly brushed aside questions about his job security, temporarily squashing the discussion, but leaving one looming, unutterable fear: If Miles can't turn Georgia State football into a winner, just as well-tenured, former Georgia Tech and Alabama headman Bill Curry before him could not do, then who can?
State is far from a coaching graveyard-- it's located in one of the most talent-rich states in America and has punched well above its weight on the recruiting trail. Still, the returns on that potential are not there, and the comfortable excuse of youth for a program in its fifth year of existence was promptly snuffed out on Friday afternoon by a third-year Charlotte squad-- another shock to the system for a program that has not been able to get out of its own way.
On the way out of the Dome, a dejected State alum shook his head and turned to his friend. "They just weren't built for Division I," he said of his Panthers. "They just weren't built for this."
Miles and company have eleven games to prove otherwise.