2021 Game 2 Preview: UNC

Panthers celebrate Destin Coates’ 16-yard rushing touchdown in Georgia State’s 43-10 season-opening loss to Army last Saturday. Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com

Georgia State faces an internal inquisition after dropping their opening game convincingly to Army, 43-10, and things don’t get any easier this weekend as they head to Chapel Hill to face top 25 ACC foe North Carolina. The Panthers were hoping to be heading into this showdown with the Tar Heels off the back of a confidence-building win against a good Army team. Instead, the offense continually got in its own way and tallied less than 200 total yards for only the second time in offensive coordinator Brad Glenn’s time in Atlanta. The offensive firepower that has defined this Georgia State team over the past two seasons was nowhere to be seen last Saturday, and they’ll have to find it – and fast – against an angry UNC team coming off a season-opening loss of their own at the hands of Virginia Tech.

It’s hard to pinpoint any one reason to explain what went wrong for Georgia State’s offense in their loss to Army, but one thing that certainly didn’t help them was the fact that they could never get their run game going. Accounting for sack yardage, the Panthers finished with 48 net rushing yards. And even if you take the sacks out of the equation, it’s still a meager 75 yards rushing. Put simply, that’s unacceptable for a team who’s been over and around 200 yards rushing per game since Coach Glenn has been in his post. If nothing else happens during the 60 minutes, Georgia State can take away a major positive if they can get back on track running the football. That’s going to be easier said than done, though, against a stout UNC rush defense. Even in a defeat last Friday, the Tar Heels front seven put in work to stop Virginia Tech’s usually-impactful running game from taking over the game, holding the Hokies to 127 yards on the ground and 2.95 yards per carry. Still, it’s the offensive identity of this Panthers team and they can’t shy away from it, whether we’re talking about pulling off the big upset in this game or whether we’re talking about re-establishing your bread-and-butter for the whole of 2021.

For both teams, getting their quarterbacks in a rhythm after Week 1 struggles is going to be another key for short-term and long-term success. For the Panthers, Quad Brown never looked all that comfortable passing and never looked likely to impact the run game calling his own number. All Panthers who missed the season opener – including two potential targets for Quad on the outside, WRs Sam Pinckney and Ja’Cyais Credle – are expected to be cleared to return. Although Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott cautioned at the beginning of the week that he wasn’t sure those players would be 100% back to their starting roles yet, their presence just lining up on the formation could do wonders to help the sophomore signal-caller tap into the form he was in to end 2020.

As far as North Carolina goes, the preseason Heisman buzz for junior QB Sam Howell has faded a bit after a shaky performance in their loss to VT. Howell has topped 3500 passing yards and 30 touchdowns each of the past two seasons, but he only managed 208 yards and, worse, racked up 3 interceptions in the disappointing defeat in Blacksburg last week. The talent is undeniable, and Tar Heels coach Mack Brown will surely look to get his star QB back to his normal self as they look to get their season back on track. Expect UNC to get his confidence going early with easy throws and then look for them to open up the playbook and test the Panthers’ secondary. Sophomore WR Josh Downs – a Suwanee, Georgia native – nearly matched the entirety of his 2020 output with an 8-catch, 123-yard performance in what was largely the only bright spot for the Tar Heels offense in defeat last week. He’s fast and doesn’t need very much space to make a big play happen, so the Georgia State defensive backs are going to have to keep a close watch on #11 and bring their most sure tackling.

The odds are against the Panthers, literally – the betting line as of this article posting is UNC -26. The last time Georgia State was that heavy an underdog? The game was in Knoxville, Tennessee, and it didn’t go as the sportsbooks expected. Even as the fortunes of this program feel wildly different to that day in 2019 after last week’s loss, the formula for an improbable win is the same – the game can’t get out of hand early for the Panthers. The Georgia State defense forced a Volunteer turnover on the second play from scrimmage and the offense scored off that takeaway. They never trailed by more than one score and they kept matching any punch Tennessee threw with a punch of their own. If the Panthers can force Sam Howell into some of the same mistakes he made in UNC’s first game, if they can avoid falling into the double-digit hole they fell into against Army, if they play Georgia State football on offense, Kenan Stadium might turn a darker shade of blue when all is said and done. But it starts with execution and putting the home favorites in desperation mode, as they seek to avoid their CFP hopes ending after just two games. The action gets under way at 7:30pm Eastern and can be seen regionally on Bally Sports South and nationally online on ESPN3.

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