Georgia State came into the 2021 Camellia Bowl with an opportunity to set a new program high in wins and did so emphatically, outscoring Ball State 31-7 in the second half and pulling away 51-20 in the end. Today’s 8th win of the season is a new best, topping the 7 the team reached in the 2019 season. Georgia State also improves to 3-2 in bowl games all-time and 3-1 under head coach Shawn Elliott with today’s win. The 51 points scored are a bowl record for the Panthers, topping the previous high of 39 scored in last year’s LendingTree Bowl win over Western Kentucky. The 71 total points scored in the game is also a Camellia Bowl record.
Quarterback Darren Grainger was the star on offense, winning Camellia Bowl MVP honors for his complete performance. He finished with 203 passing yards and a team-leading 122 yards on the ground, completing 79% of his passes and scoring 4 total touchdowns. In his final game at Georgia State, Aubry Payne stepped up in the absence of fellow senior tight end Roger Carter, who missed today’s game, with team-leading and career-high totals of 8 catches and 109 receiving yards. He also equalled a single-game best with 2 receiving touchdowns.
On defense, safety Antavious Lane led with 10 tackles and set a new single-season record at Georgia State with his 5th interception of 2021 when he got his second career pick-six on the final snap of the 3rd quarter. Outside linebacker Jamil Muhammad had both of Georgia State’s sacks on the afternoon and forced a fumble. Those sacks got the Panthers over the top in setting a new season sacks record in 2021 with 36 in 13 games.
It was just a 20-13 lead for Georgia State at the break, but the Panthers came out playing with their hair on fire in the second half. A Robert Lewis 10-yard touchdown reception, the first of his collegiate career, capped off the opening drive of the 3rd quarter with a score that gave Georgia State their largest lead so far. And after forcing a Ball State three-and-out on their first drive of the half, they added onto that lead when Darren Grainger tucked it and ran for a 34-yard score which gave him 1,000 career rushing yards and his first 100-yard rushing performance in college. It also pushed the Georgia State lead to 34-13 with 7:08 left in the 3rd quarter.
And it got tougher for the Cardinals when a missed Jacob Lewis 46-yard field goal on Ball State’s following drive kept their second-half scoring drought going. Grainger and Payne connected once more, a 16-yard score that stretched the lead to 28 and gave Payne the all-time record for touchdown receptions and a new single-game high in receptions in his career, 8. And the final exclamation point of a dominant 3rd quarter came on the last play, when Antavious Lane picked off a Plitt pass after it had bounced off the hands of Jayshon Jackson and returned it 55 yards for the team’s second defensive touchdown of the game to make it a commanding 48-13 Georgia State lead. Noel Ruiz added a 45-yard field goal to make it a perfect 3-for-3 performance on his birthday after the Panthers defense forced their second turnover on downs of the game early in the 4th quarter. With 3:13 to go in the game, Drew Plitt scored on a 1-yard QB sneak to end what had grown to a 31-0 Georgia State run and avoid getting shut out in the second half.
After opening his postgame remarks with a hearty “Merry Christmas!”, Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott said, “I think we finished Christmas Day with one of the best presents we could have ever asked for, and that’s a commanding, dominating win today.” He credited the team’s approach to Bowl Week and the experience in Montgomery, saying, “We were going to work, we weren’t going to overwork. We were going to enjoy ourselves and make this a rewarding experience, and if you watched our out there team play, they played exactly like that, like the way the game is supposed to be played.”
Coach Elliott referred to the team marking their program-best eighth win with this victory “setting another standard” and called it “an awesome step.” He went on, “Every single player and coach in that locker room just did something for the first time. No one ever before has experienced what we just experienced.”
Ball State struck first when Jayshon Jackson got behind Antavious Lane in coverage and Drew Plitt found him for a 56-yard touchdown catch with 8:59 left in the 1st quarter. But the Panthers’ offense was quick to match with a score of their own and level the scores again with an 18-yard Aubry Payne touchdown reception capped off a 10-play, 75-yard drive that lasted 4:04. That touchdown gave Payne 12 for his career at Georgia State, tying his team-mate Roger Carter for the most by a tight end in school history.
The GSU defense then got in on the scoring fun when Jamil Muhammad stripped Plitt on his second sack of the afternoon and Javon Denis picked up the loose ball and returned it 37 yards for a touchdown. That gave the Panthers their second defensive touchdown in as many games, after Muhammad’s 72-yard scoop-and-score in their 37-10 win over Troy in the regular season finale, and it made it a 14-7 Georgia State lead with 2:02 to go in the opening frame. And the goings got even better for the Panthers when they stuffed Ball State on 3rd-and-1 and 4th-and-1 on back-to-back plays. When a Plitt QB sneak was stopped for no gain on the 4th down, the Georgia State offense took over on the Cardinals’ 29-yard-line.
A blindside block penalty on WR Jamari Thrash on the first play of the ensuing drive wiped out what would have been a 1st-and-goal at the 1 after a Terrance Dixon catch-and-run, and the Panthers ultimately had to settle for a 27-yard Noel Ruiz field goal to cap off a run of 17 unanswered points. Both teams went deep into enemy territory on their remaining drives in the first half, but each time had to settle for field goals – two for Ball State, one for Georgia State. After Jacob Lewis connected with his second field goal of the quarter with 18 seconds to go, this time from 43 yards out, the Panthers took a slim 20-13 lead into the locker room.
From the doldrums of a 1-4 start and lots of questions on where the 2021 season was going to go, today’s bowl win cements a 7-1 turnaround of the final eight games of the season that leads Georgia State to their 8-5 final record. With today’s win, the Panthers took back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history and Coach Elliott improved to 30-30 overall after five seasons in Atlanta. Keep it locked to THERSdayNight.com as we keep the coverage going into spring practice and beyond for the 2022 football season.