Georgia State (1-3) led 24-12 at halftime in the house of #23 Auburn (3-1) but couldn’t hold off their SEC foe as the Tigers rattled off 22 unanswered in the second half to escape the upset bid, 34-24. After allowing 299 yards – including 219 on the ground – in the first two quarters, Auburn’s defense gave the Panthers just 85 in the second half as they showed their prowess when it counted.
A Caylin Newton blocked punt was recovered in the end zone by Barton Lester for an Auburn touchdown to cut the Panthers’ lead to 5 with 4:44 left in the 3rd quarter. The Tigers blew some golden opportunities to cut into or take the lead, as Anders Carlson missed a 40-yard field goal that would have made it 24-22 early in the 4th quarter and Jordan Veneziale recovered a Tank Bigsby fumble deep in Panther territory with 6:43 left. But after a 54-yard punt by Michael Hayes backed Auburn up to their own 2, backup QB TJ Finley – an LSU transfer who replaced Bo Nix in the 3rd quarter – led the Tigers on a 98-yard scoring drive that was capped off by an 10-yard touchdown pass to Shedrick Jackson on 4th down with 45 seconds left. A Smoke Monday pick-six in the game’s final minute made the final result academic.
The Panthers ended up with 267 yards on the ground at a clip of 5.68 yards per carry against an Auburn defense that entered the game 2nd in the country in rush defense, having given up 130 rushing yards and 1.33 yards per carry in their first three games. Tucker Gregg led the charge with 152 yards and a touchdown. QB Darren Grainger added 61 yards on the ground of his own to go with 117 passing yards, two touchdowns and an interception. TE Roger Carter led the Panthers’ receiving corps with 51 yards.
The Georgia State defense held a vaunted Auburn rushing attack that had entered averaging 287 yards through three weeks to just 166 yards and 4.74 yards per carry. And a Tigers offense that has been predicated on explosive plays so far this season was largely held in check – their largest play from scrimmage was a 28-yard pass from Bo Nix to Kobe Hudson in the 2nd quarter. Safety Antavious Lane led the Panthers with 9 tackles and his counterpart Chris Moore led with 2.5 tackles for loss. Linebacker Jordan Veneziale added a sack and a forced fumble and recovery.
Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott started his postgame remarks by praising his team’s effort, saying, “I think our football team played one unbelievable contest.” He went on, “They played as hard as they could. They had some adversity and fought and dug,” ending by saying, “I couldn’t be more proud of our team.” He continued, “Sports can rip you apart and that was a tough one to lose tonight, it was, but, like I said, Auburn’s got a pretty good football team and they came out on top. But we’ll bounce back. We’ve got a pretty good football team as well.”
On the job the defense did in stopping the run, Coach Elliott said, “Our entire defense played one hell of a game,” calling them collectively ‘the players of the game.” He continued, ”They controlled the line of scrimmage, they controlled the passing attack. It was a great defensive performance. I loved standing over there and just seeing the opposing offense struggle to do things they normally can do.”
The first half was all Georgia State and the fun started for Georgia State when Tucker Gregg cut to the outside and burst down the field for a 57-yard gain to the Auburn 13. The offense stalled out and they were forced to settle for a 32-yard Noel Ruiz field goal, but the Panthers drew first blood in the feline encounter with 8:39 in the first quarter. From that point in the half, though, Georgia State wouldn’t be held out of the end zone when finding their way into Tiger territory. Auburn answered with a pair of Anders Carlson field goals to take their first lead of the game, but Darren Grainger found his feet in the game on the next Georgia State drive. After missing on his first three throws of the afternoon, Grainger went 4-7 for 37 yards, including a 12-yard pass to a wide-open Jamari Thrash to restore the Panthers’ advantage with 12:45 left in the first half.
A 27-yard run by freshman Jarquez Hunter set Auburn up in the red zone once again, but for the second time in as many trips, they came out of it with just a Carlson field goal after the Panthers defense stood firm in the shadow of their own end zone to preserve their lead. Grainger was again in a rhythm when the Georgia State offense retook the field, finding Roger Carter twice, including on a 7-yard touchdown that gave the Panthers a 17-9 lead with 7:29 remaining in the 2nd quarter. As had become the norm for Auburn in the first half, a drive deep into Georgia State territory once again only netted them a Carlson field goal and it was a 17-12 Panthers lead with 2:54 to go until halftime. But when Gregg got his second 50-yard run of the half, this time he took it all the way into the end zone and the 27.5-point underdog Panthers led by 12 at halftime.
The Panthers finish non-conference play at 1-3 and will start Sun Belt play next week when they host the Mountaineers of Appalachian State. Kickoff at Center Parc Stadium is at 2pm Eastern and the game can be seen on ESPN+.