2021 Game 13 Preview: Ball State in the 2021 Camellia Bowl

Darren Grainger dives towards the pylon in Georgia State’s victory over Arkansas State. Photo by Jordan Crawford of THERSday Night

It’s bowl season for the Georgia State Panthers (7-5, 6-2 in Sun Belt) as they scoot over to Montgomery, Alabama to face the Ball State Cardinals (6-6, 4-4 in Mid-American) in the 2021 TaxAct Camellia Bowl. Ball State is coached by Mike Neu who is in his 6th season in Muncie. His record at Ball State is 28-40 which includes leading the Cardinals to the 2020 Mid-American Championship, as well as the program’s first ever bowl victory in that same season. The two teams met twice prior in a home-and-home series that took place during the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Georgia State won the opener of the series in Muncie, Indiana, while Ball State returned the favor and beat the Panthers in Atlanta the following year. In 8 prior bowl games, Ball State has a combined record of 1-7 with the Camellia Bowl being their 9th bowl appearance all time and 2nd under head coach Mike Neu. In 4 prior bowl games, Georgia State has compiled a 2-2 record, with the Camellia Bowl being their 5th bowl appearance all-time and 4th under current head coach Shawn Elliott. 

Georgia State will be playing their first game since the announcement that offensive coordinator Brad Glenn will be departing the program to be an assistant on the West Virginia staff. Glenn will be coaching in the bowl game, which means the offensive game plan for Georgia State will mirror much of what it did during the regular season: they’re going to run the football. When teams have beaten Ball State this season it was because of a strong rushing attack, something the 10th-ranked rushing team in Georgia State excels at. As far as we know, there have not been any Panthers who have indicated they are hurt or will be sitting out the bowl game, so the usual suspects of Tucker Gregg and Jam Williams will get the majority of the carries in this one. 

In Georgia State’s 7 wins, they averaged 264 rushing yards per game. This season, when Ball State gave up 200 yards or more on the ground they were 1-4, with their sole win in this grouping coming against Army who was without their starting quarterback. Panthers quarterback Darren Grainger will also be an important factor, as his ability to supplement the ground game and keep the ball out of Ball State’s hands will be necessary to move the Panther Express. Ball State has had a penchant for forcing opponent mistakes, and were tied for 10th in the nation having secured 15 interceptions. Georgia State has only thrown one interception since the Appalachian State contest in October, so it would behoove them to continue this trend.

Georgia State’s defense has an interesting task ahead of them. Ball State has shown a willingness to both throw and run all over teams, so the Georgia State defense has to be on their toes. The Cardinals were one of the better teams preventing sacks this season, so guys like Blake Carroll and Jordan Veneziale might not feature in the backfield like they are used to. If Georgia State is to win, their secondary will need to remain effective. Senior QB Drew Plitt has some gunslinger tendencies, and while he was without a 200 yard passing game for the final 6 games of the season, he still averaged 30 pass attempts per game and had a 61% completion percentage this season. Although he did not average over 200 passing yards a game, he was great at protecting the football, only throwing 5 interceptions this year. If the Panthers secondary can force longer down and distances and keep Plitt from finding his receivers in the end zone, Georgia State will be in a good spot. It’s clear teams let him throw frequently or prevented touchdowns and way they could, and that is something Georgia State had great success doing as the season went on.

The other part of the offensive equation for Ball State will be freshman RB Carson Steele. Steele was the feature back this season, running for a team lead 829 yards, and averaging the most touches at 15 carries per game. Ball State normally has some combination of seniors Will Jones and WR Justin Hall take up the carries behind Steele, but Hall is unlikely to play as he missed the penultimate game for the Cardinals this season, and is dealing with an injury. Between Jones and Steele, Georgia State will have their work cut out for them in terms of stopping the run. As the season went on, Ball State was much better at running the football. Ironically Georgia State was much better at defending the run, so something will need to give as the Panthers look to secure the win. 

Georgia State has an opportunity to set a program record of wins in a season should they win today’s contest. They also have an opportunity to improve their program bowl record above the .500 mark. If they do win, it would signify the end of a remarkable turnaround for the 2021 Panthers. The 2021 TaxAct Camellia Bowl kicks off at 2:30 EST and can be caught on ESPN. 

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