Vols stunned in season opening loss to Georgia State
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia State was the unlikeliest of candidates to produce one of the signature victories in this college football season’s opening Saturday.
The Panthers never had beaten a Power Five team since launching their program in 2010. The Sun Belt program was coming off a 2-10 season in which it lost its last seven games.
None of that mattered Saturday as Dan Ellington threw two touchdown passes and ran for a third score to help 26-point underdog Georgia State shock Tennessee 38-30 and produce one of the biggest stunners in the nearly century-long history of Neyland Stadium.
Just don’t tell the Panthers it was an upset.
“One of the happiest days of my life by far,” Georgia State linebacker Ed Curney said. “We knew it was going to happen. We prepared all week. Coaches told us all week if we do what we are coached to do, we play fast, have fun, play our game, this would be the outcome.”
Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott certainly knows about upsets.
He was an assistant coach at Appalachian State when the Mountaineers – a Football Championship Subdivision program at the time – stunned a fifth-ranked Michigan squad in the first week of the 2007 season.
“Two totally different scenarios,” Elliott said. “We had 63 scholarships (then), going to play the Michigan Wolverines with 85. We walked in here with 83 scholarships. They possibly had 85, I’m not sure. We were on an even scale, so to speak.”
The hard times for Tennessee were evident from a look at the Neyland Stadium stands. Although the announced attendance was 85,503, thousands of fans apparently left at halftime and others headed for shaded areas, leaving plenty of sections of the 102,455-seat facility virtually empty as Georgia State celebrated its victory.
The closest Georgia State had come to beating a Power Five team before Saturday was in 2016, when the Panthers lost 23-17 to Wisconsin after leading in the fourth quarter. This time, they closed the deal and left the remaining fans in stunned silence.
“I’m disgusted, to be honest,” said Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who threw for 311 yards but had two fourth-quarter turnovers. “I’m not going to sugarcoat this. I’m really upset right now. I’m (ticked) and all those types of things. Why shouldn’t we be?”
The embarrassing loss followed an offseason in which Tennessee spent big to upgrade its staff after Jeremy Pruitt went 5-7 in his debut year. New offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is making $1.5 million this season, while new defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley is earning $1 million.
One other notable price tag: Georgia State received $950,000 for making the trip to Knoxville.
“To me, the best team out there won the game today,” Pruitt said. “The team that played the best, executed the best, outcoached us. It starts with that, let’s start there.”
Tra Barnett put Georgia State ahead for good 28-23 when he raced untouched around the right side with 8:56 remaining. Barnett ended up rushing for 95 yards on 21 carries.
Tennessee crossed midfield on its next possession before Evan Jones came in from Guarantano’s blind side and sacked him, forcing a fumble that Georgia State’s Jhi’Shawn Taylor recovered at the Vols’ 39 with 7:10 left.
That led to Ellington’s game-clinching touchdown.
Ellington faked a handoff and then made multiple moves to elude defenders before running into the left corner of the end zone for a 22-yard score that put Georgia State up 38-23 with 4:45 left. That essentially put the game out of reach, though Georgia State would add a field goal and Tennessee would score one final touchdown in the closing seconds.
“We wanted to come out and prove everybody wrong,” Ellington said.
That’s just what they did.
Georgia State: Ellington’s a senior quarterback who showed the kind of veteran moxie that’s needed to produce this kind of upset. After completing just one of his first nine passes, Ellington ended up going 11 of 24 for 139 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 61 yards on 14 carries. Ellington also found a way to bounce back from a huge momentum swing. Georgia State led 21-20 and was in field-goal range early in the fourth quarter when Ellington fumbled. Tennessee kicked a field goal on its next series to pull ahead. Ellington responded by leading Georgia State to 17 points on its next three series.
Tennessee: The Vols entered the season with plenty of uncertainty on both their offensive and defensive lines, and that showed Saturday. They shuffled offensive linemen in and out of the game but couldn’t establish any kind of rhythm. The defensive line couldn’t slow down Georgia State when it mattered.
VOL NAVY FIRE
The bad news for Tennessee started several hours before kickoff as a 42-foot cabin cruiser docked along the Tennessee River near Neyland Stadium caught fire at 7 a.m. and eventually sank.
Knoxville assistant fire chief Mark Wilbanks said the four people and one dog aboard the boat weren’t injured.
The cabin cruiser was part of the “Vol Navy,” a Tennessee pregame tradition in which fans travel by boat to games.
Former Tennessee quarterback and five-time NFL MVP Peyton Manning, attended Saturday’s game. Ryan Leaf was also here as part of the ESPNU broadcast crew.
Manning was the No. 1 overall pick and Leaf was taken second overall in the 1998 draft. The two former quarterbacks were chatting on the field before the game.
“I’ve got one word – flabbergasted,” Tennessee safety Nigel Warrior said after the game.
Tennessee hosts Brigham Young on Saturday.