“We got to do a lot of soul-searching in here” – those was the words of Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott after a 45-16 defeat at the hands of Appalachian State on October 2, a loss that dropped them to 1-4 on the season. But the flip switched from that point and the Panthers have won five of their last six games to clinch a third straight bowl appearance and a fourth in five seasons under Coach Elliott. It wasn’t always pretty today, but Georgia State found a way to put away a pesky Arkansas State team, 28-20, to improve to 6-5 on the season and 5-2 in Sun Belt play. The loss dropped the Red Wolves to 2-9 on the season and 1-6 in the conference.
The words after this win for Georgia State were much more positive from Coach Elliott. While acknowledging the team “struggled today…in a lot of different ways”, he said, “Sometimes the struggles we have are some of the best learning lessons we got.” He went on, “We came out on top and I’m very proud of how we played,” saying, “We made the plays to win this afternoon.”
Georgia State held a 14-13 lead at the break and finally added to it when Jamyest Williams turned the corner and scored on a 13-yard run on the first play of the 4th quarter to give the Panthers an eight-point advantage. It seemed like the game was going to be in hand and the bowl berth confirmed when Darren Grainger scored on a 35-yard QB keeper with 12:24 left and the defense was able to come up with two 4th down stops, the latter of them giving Georgia State prime field position at the Red Wolves’ 18. But disaster struck when TE Roger Carter fumbled on the first play and Kivon Bennett scooped it and scored on an 80-yard defensive touchdown with 4:22 left in the game. But the Georgia State offense, which tallied 282 yards on the ground on the afternoon, salted the game away when Tucker Gregg picked up 8 yards on a 3rd-and-7 run which forced Arkansas State head coach Butch Jones to burn his final timeout.
The offense managed 434 yards from scrimmage. Jamyest Williams led the Georgia State ground game with 125 yards and 2 rushing touchdowns. Tucker Gregg added 98 yards and a score, and in the receiving game, Jamari Thrash led the way with 103 yards on 4 catches. However, critical errors piled up to keep the result of the game in doubt. The team’s three turnovers tied a season high set in the App State loss and came at inopportune times. A Darren Grainger lost fumble on the opening drive was the team’s first since their last home game, against Texas State on October 23. And while the Red Wolves stalled outside the red zone, they still got on the board first with a 40-yard Blake Grupe field goal. Then, Grainger’s sole interception of the game negated a promising drive late in the 3rd quarter and the Carter fumble gave Arkansas State life right when the Panthers could have iced the game away.
The Georgia State defensive front lived in the backfield all game, finishing with 6 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. Including sack yardage, Arkansas State finished the game with -3 rushing yards, the lowest total the Panthers have ever allowed. That -3 surpasses the previous record, the -2 yards rushing the defense allowed to Western Kentucky in their 27-17 win in the 2017 Cure Bowl. As he said after the game, not even a 102-degree fever stopped DL Thomas Gore from a career day with 2 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss total. OLB Jontrey Hunter added 4 tackles for loss.
Coach Elliott gave all credit to the players for the team’s bounceback from 1-4 to clinching a bowl game today, saying, “We sat there at 1-4, we knew exactly what type of football team we had, we knew the growth we were going to continue to have, we knew we were getting better each and every week, and they just kept their heads down and worked.” He continued, “Everything about this win and about this season is about those men in that locker room right now.”
Georgia State trailed 3-0 early but used a pair of 11-play drives to take a double-digit lead in the game. When Tucker Gregg zoomed up the middle for a 6-yard touchdown run with 10:49 left in the 2nd quarter, it was a 14-3 Panthers lead and all looked to be in order for the 15.5-point favorites before kickoff. But Arkansas State hit pay dirt on a slip screen pass to Lincoln Pare on 3rd-and-17 at their own 17, as the freshman running back took off into wide open spaces and found his way into the end zone for an 83-yard score that made it a 14-10 game just 65 seconds after Georgia State had taken their two-score lead.
The upstart Red Wolves then almost took the lead just before the halftime whistle when Layne Hatcher threw to an open Te’Vailance Hunt in the end zone, but Hunt bobbled the would-be score all the way to the end line and couldn’t haul it in in bounds. The next play, Dontae Wilson got the Georgia State defense’s third sack of the half and Arkansas State were forced to settle for a 35-yard Blake Grupe field goal that cut the deficit to 1 as time expired in the 2nd quarter.
The Georgia State offense never fully got out of first gear in the game, but the team was able to rely on big plays by the defense to protect their one-point halftime lead. Arkansas State was just shy of the red zone when Bryquice Brown intercepted a Layne Hatcher pass intended for Jeff Foreman at the 1-yard-line on 3rd-and-9. The Panthers drove all the way into field goal range before Noel Ruiz missed from 47 yards, leaving Georgia State pointless from Brown’s takeaway. The defense did it again at the next time of asking, when Antavious Lane picked off Hatcher at the GSU 18-yard-line after the Red Wolves had driven into Panthers territory again and preserved the one-point lead. Lane’s interception was his 7th in a Georgia State uniform, tying him at the top of the Georgia State leaderboard with Panther Pro Chandon Sullivan and senior CB Qua White – who got his 7th in last Saturday’s win over Coastal Carolina.
The Panthers finish the season next Saturday at home on Senior Day against the Troy Trojans, who will themselves need a win to earn bowl eligibility. A win next week would give Georgia State a program-best conference record of 6-2. Kickoff at Center Parc Stadium is at 2pm and the game can be seen on ESPN+.