Upon Further Review: Auburn

Tucker Gregg’s explosive performance Saturday against the #23 Auburn Tigers shattered a Jordan-Hare Stadium record for rushing yards allowed by an opponent in the first half dating back to 2002. Photo: Daniel Wilson via GSU Sports Communications

Georgia State went over to The Plains and did battle with the Auburn Tigers for the first time in program history. With fond memories of their last trip through SEC land, the Panthers came out in their blue helmets and white jerseys ready to show the world that they mean business. They gave a ranked opponent a much bigger scare than they likely expected and showed the promise of a young and scrappy Sun Belt program. Despite not finishing the job, the Panthers’ season trajectory looks much different now than it did two weeks ago. So how did they do it? What was it that forced the Tigers to mount a spirited comeback? This is Upon Further Review.

One Brick Short of a Brick Wall

There are no moral victories in college football but the Georgia State defense has absolutely nothing to hang their heads about. Holding the Tigers – a team who came into the contest averaging 47 points and 283 rushing yards per game – to 20 offensive points and 166 rushing yards is incredible. The defense kept the Tigers out of the endzone on several occasions, and forced them to attempt five field goals on the afternoon. Despite the offense being effective in the first half and then nonexistent in the second, the defense remained strong, forcing the Tigers to throw their backup QB in the game to see if that would spark anything. At first, it did not seem as if the change to QB TJ Finley made a difference, as the Panther defense continued to make play after play after play, keeping Georgia State’s upset bid hopes alive. Whether it was a Jordan Veneziale fumble recovery or the continued drives that stalled out, the Panthers made a ton of plays, giving the TIgers offense fits for most of the second half – even after Auburn gained some momentum on a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. The game’s first turnover at the 6:43 mark in the 4th was a crucial blow to the Tigers’ win probability and set up Georgia State with decent field position to attempt to put the game on ice. The Panthers could not move the chains, however, and were forced to punt the ball away. Even then, a perfectly placed Michael Hayes punt put the ball on the Auburn 2-yard line, meaning they needed to go 98 yards in 3:23 seconds to win the football game.

For 59:07, Georgia State defense was the perfect bend-don’t-break defensive unit. On the game-winning drive, the Tigers tested this moniker by getting several clutch conversions on 3rd down, including two 3rd downs over 9 or more yards. It seemed as if Finley doused himself in a stick of butter, as the Panthers lost their ability to make tackles when he had the ball. He was able to escape pressure multiple times and found his receivers just before the pass rush could bring him down. Even so, Georgia State needed one final tackle on 4th and 9 from their own 10 yard line to more than likely complete the upset, but defending for 8 seconds against an SEC school is really hard. Jontrey Hunter was right there but couldn’t bring Finley down. Jordan Veneziale was coming in fast too but was half a second too slow. Touchdown Auburn. Ballgame. The defense only allowed 19 points on the road in SEC country. Just one more stop, and the performance would have been cemented in the history books.

Blown Calls and Missed Opportunities

It is impossible to discuss the final Auburn drive of the game without at least mentioning the questionable call that helped extend the Tigers’ chances of winning. When Finley hit TE John Samuel Shenker with 1:02 to play, the live feed looked as if Shenker snuck his hands underneath the ball and secured a catch. After multiple replays, it looked as if this was not the case and the football touched the ground underneath his hands. The officiating crew did not agree and maintained that Shenker did complete the catch, so the call stood as called. Even after the call didn’t go their way, the Panthers had an opportunity to hold the line but couldn’t couldn’t quite come up with a stop, as four plays later, the Tigers found the endzone for their first and only offensive touchdown of the game. Georgia State did not lose the football game because of one call, regardless of how important it was at the time. SEC home cooking or otherwise, laughing in the face of adversity makes a group tougher and stronger. And if that’s what Georgia State takes away from the final possession, it will help them going forward. 

The Offense is Back

The offense looked like a well-oiled machine in the first half, and with QB Darren Grainger under center, the Panthers finally look like themselves again. For the third consecutive week, the offense scored more points than they did the previous week. Tucker Gregg in particular had a phenomenal game against Auburn, and the zone run scheme worked to perfection in the first half. The Tigers made adjustments to neutralize Gregg in the second half, but his two 50+ yard runs in the game’s opening half gave Georgia State’s offense the jolt it needed to get going. The passing numbers for Grainger still aren’t where they should be, but his ability to use his legs to gain positive yards helps offset things. The Panthers were creative in getting Grainger and his receivers in space, and they utilized the quick passing game to force 1-on-1 matchups with Auburn players throughout the contest. If the offensive line held up a little bit better in the second half, it is likely that Grainger’s passing numbers would have looked even better. The QB was under duress for most of the second half, and the Panther offense was unable to get the train moving again after the intermission. The games ahead matter more for their season goals, so fixing this is important from here on out.

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