2021 Game 4 Preview: #23 Auburn

Jam Williams scored his first points as a Panther in last week’s 20-9 win over the Charlotte 49ers. Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com

The Georgia State Panthers (1-2) head back out on the road for their final out of conference contest against the #23 Auburn Tigers (2-1). The Panthers head over to Auburn fresh off securing their first win of the season, a 20-9 defeat against Charlotte a week prior. The Tigers return home after heading up north and dropping their first game of the year losing a close game to Penn State 28-20. The Tigers are coached by Bryan Harsin, who is in his first year at Auburn after seven seasons coaching Boise State. Harsin is 2-1 as the head man of the Tigers. This is the first matchup between these two schools in football. 

The Panthers got off the schneid a week ago against Charlotte and have a tall task this week with Auburn. Senior quarterback Darren Grainger was announced as the starter before last week’s game and is expected to be under center this week as well. Grainger and company excelled at running the ball and found ways to burn Charlotte with timely deep passes whenever they got too close to the line of scrimmage, and the game plan this week is going to be more or less the same. The Panthers’ running back committee got major contributions from running backs Tucker Gregg, Jam Williams and Destin Coates and helped the team to their best rushing performance of the year. Including Grainger’s yards, the Panthers rushed for over 200 yards for the first time this season. Although Grainger only completed 6 passes, he threw for 139 yards and had 2 passing touchdowns. The same type of routes will not work versus the Tigers, but finding ways to supplement a strong rushing attack with key passes will help Georgia State move the chains and get in the end zone. 

Defensively, the Panthers are facing another tough task, as they seemingly get no breaks during this early season run. Auburn runs a relatively balanced offense, although like most SEC programs they run a touch more than they pass, which they have done so with great success in 2021. The Panthers’ front seven held Charlotte to their season low in rushing yards at just 118 and are hoping for a repeat performance against the Tigers. Georgia State currently ranks 73rd in the country in rushing yards allowed per play at 3.95 yards allowed per play, but that doesn’t tell the full story. The Panthers have only allowed three rushes for over 20 yards, two of which resulted in Sam Howell touchdowns for North Carolina. The numbers might still be ugly, but if the Panthers can minimize the big play against the Tigers, they will remain in the game. Another thing to watch is if the Panthers can secure their first interception of the season. Senior outside linebacker Jacorey Crawford came close to snagging two different passes from Charlotte but couldn’t hang onto either ball. Regardless of who on the defense steps up, a timely Georgia State turnover that gets the Panthers’ defense off the field will be key to keeping pace with the Tigers. 

On offense, the Tigers have had success running the ball and will continue to utilize their two dynamic tailbacks to put up points. That ground attack is led by running backs Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter, a sophomore and freshman respectively. Each are averaging over 100 yards per game, with Bigsby getting the majority of the touches at just under 16 carries a game. Both are the stereotypical bruising physical SEC running backs and have helped Auburn lead the country in with 7.77 yards per carry. The Auburn running back room has contributed to the 7th ranked rushing offense in the country as the Tigers have rushed for 862 yards through three games. While focusing on Bigsby and Hunter will be key, Georgia State can’t forget about the Tigers junior QB Bo Nix. Nix is completing 66% of his passes and is throwing for about 190 yards a game. He’s done a good job of spreading the ball around as well, as 11 different Tigers receivers, tight ends and running backs have caught a reception from the quarterback. Nix’s favorite targets so far this season have been a pair of seniors, wide receiver Demetrieus Robertson and tight end John Samuel Shenker. Each are tied for the team lead in receptions with 11. If Auburn is able to stretch the field vertically on the Panthers, it could spell a long afternoon for the visiting team. 

On the flip side, the Tigers are the 13th-ranked scoring defense in the country. While they have shown to be workable in the passing game, they have been stingy and stout in the running game. Opposing teams are averaging 1.33 yards per run against the Auburn front seven, and neither Akron, Alabama State or Penn State touched 100 yards on the ground. That front seven includes edge rushers T.D. Moultry and Derick Hall, who will feature in the Panthers’ backfield if Georgia State isn’t careful. Moultry leads the Tigers with 4 tackles for a loss as the Tigers’ defense has already secured 33 tackles behind the line of scrimmage during the 2021 season, good for 2nd in the country. The defense has gotten at least one fumble in each of their last two games as well, so ball security needs to be an emphasis for Georgia State this week. 

The final non-conference game for the Panthers comes in the heart of SEC territory, but that should not deter them going forward. Keeping the game competitive for as long as possible and forcing Auburn to play their starters well into the 4th quarter would be a huge win for Georgia State going forward. Kickoff from Jordan Hare Stadium is at 4pm EDT and the game can be seen on the SEC Network and on the Watch ESPN app.

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