2021 Game 8 Preview: Georgia Southern

RB Tucker Gregg rushes against Georgia Southern during the Panthers’ last visit to Paulson Stadium. Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com

This Saturday brings a chance to return to .500 for the 3-4 Georgia State Panthers and the opportunity comes in the form of an in-state rivalry showdown with the 2-5 Georgia Southern Eagles. The rivalry game is back in October for the first time since the teams first met in 2014, a forgettable 69-31 Panthers loss inside the Georgia Dome – though Southern fans may also wish to forget their overzealous post-game celebrations on that autumn afternoon, unfurling a “Paulson Stadium North” banner after the clock hit zeroes and making present-day claims of this matchup not being a rivalry rather dubious. Since that day over seven years ago, Georgia State has led the head-to-head on the football field 4-2, including winning two of the three matchups at Paulson Stadium. The Panthers will look to make it three of four road successes on Saturday when they trek down I-16 and seek a three-game winning streak to end the month of October.

Georgia State’s offense has gotten back on track in its last two games, and it’s in no small part due to the ground game getting going. After managing just 135 yards rushing in their loss to Appalachian State on October 2, the Panthers averaged 312 in its wins over ULM and Texas State. Part of this is QB Darren Grainger taking the reins and, no pun intended, running with it – he picked up 84 and 106 yards rushing in those two wins. But the other part of the equation is that the offensive line played two clean games and kept creating the holes for Grainger and the running backs to run through. Georgia Southern is in the top half of the Sun Belt in total rushing yards allowed, though the 4.1 yards per carry they’re allowing is actually 7th in the league. Defending against the run is what the Eagles do better on that side of the ball, but it’s not such a fortress of a defensive front that the Panthers are going to shy away from running the football. Destin Coates’ departure into the transfer portal leaves the running back room a guy short this week, so expect to see a little more of sophomore Marcus Carroll. However, with how well Tucker Gregg and Jamyest Williams have played recently, you’re still going to see heavy doses of #26 and #21 toting the rock on Saturday.

Part of why Georgia Southern rates so well in defending the run has to do with how poorly they’ve defended against the passing game in 2021. The Eagles have seen the fewest rushing attempts against them in the conference this season, and that’s because they rank last in passing defense and passing defense efficiency. They’re giving up 346.4 yards a game through the air at a completion rate of 64.2%. For that reason, Georgia State should look for passing opportunities even as they look to establish the run. Darren Grainger attempted 25 passes in each of the last two wins, completing 18 of them against ULM and 16 against Texas State for a combined 430 yards, 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. It’s still been the secondary option in this run-first attack, but it’s been an efficient one the last two games. Another key factor in this success again goes back to the guys up front. The Panthers OL have allowed zero sacks during this two-game winning streak, affording Grainger the time to hang in the pocket and find an open receiver. Georgia Southern’s defense is tied for second in the Sun Belt with 20 sacks, so getting pressure has been one thing they’ve done well in 2021, but if Georgia State can win in the trenches and keep their signal-caller upright, it might be a long day for the Eagles’ secondary.

As has been the case for almost all of their history, Georgia Southern’s offense is predicated on running the football. However, it’s been an up-and-down year for the Eagles in that regard, contributing to the 2-5 record that they hold. They’ve passed the 200-yard plateau in rushing yards three times in 2021, including exploding for a season-high 503 yards, 9.9 yards per carry and 7 touchdowns in a 59-33 win over Arkansas State last month. In their other four games, their highest tally is 152 against Arkansas, 75 of which came on one Justin Tomlin TD run. This isn’t an offense that can turn on a dime to dropping dimes in the passing games, so if the Georgia State defensive front can be stout against the run and get the Eagles behind schedule, it might be a lot of short drives and a long night of punts for Anthony Beck. The quarterback running the show for Southern will be either Tomlin or Cam Ransom, and neither have had a stellar year passing the ball. The team is averaging just 125 yards per game passing and neither QB has a completion percentage over 50%. The Panthers defense is going to have to be alert to designed quarterback runs and scrambles out of the pocket, something that caught them out at times during last week’s win over Texas State, but if they’re preventing the big plays downfield and maintaining their coverage assignments in the secondary, Georgia Southern isn’t suited to march down the field 10-yard completions at a time.

All of this analysis points to an advantage for the Panthers, something which is mirrored in the current Vegas line for this game. But the old cliche is true – in rivalry games like this, you can throw out the book. Georgia Southern lost their head coach this season and are staring down a December without a bowl appearance. This might be their last and best chance to put a smile on their fans’ faces in 2021, and winning against the in-state foe and levelling the all-time series would at least be some small consolation to the Georgia Southern faithful after a dark season. Georgia State can’t go into this game thinking it’s won or thinking any weaknesses the Eagles have shown this year mean anything unless they’re able to exploit them themselves. The rivalry factor can’t be ignored for the Panthers, but this would complete an impressive October comeback and set them back at 4-4 for the final month of the season, ahead of tough games on the road against Louisiana and Coastal Carolina. Letting this occasion get to them might mean joining Southern on the couch this bowl season. The action can be seen on ESPN+ when it gets underway from Paulson Stadium at 6pm Eastern.

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