Upon Further Review: Ball State…and 2021

QB Darren Grainger celebrates a touchdown in Georgia State’s 28-20 win over Arkansas State. Grainger earned MVP honors for his performance in the 2021 Camellia Bowl. Photo: Jordan Crawford for THERSdayNight.com

Form followed function when Georgia State traveled over to Montgomery, AL for the 2021 Camellia Bowl, looking to earn a record-setting eighth win to finish the 2021 season. They did so in dominant fashion, overpowering Ball State 51-20 to complete a similarly commanding 7-1 closing stretch to turn what could have been a disastrous season into their best ever. What led the Panthers to such a convincing win? And just why were they so much better over the final eight games of 2021? For the final time this season, this is Upon Further Review.

One Last Ride

It was the final game at Georgia State for two stalwarts of the program – left guard Shamarious Gilmore and offensive coordinator Brad Glenn. The Panthers offense sent both out the right way with an elite all-around performance. QB Darren Grainger played the best game of his Georgia State career, completing 15 of his 19 pass attempts for 203 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for a game-high 122 yards and a score. Grainger earned the Camellia Bowl MVP award for his effort, though surely outgoing OC Coach Glenn and tight end Aubry Payne were the joint runners-up. Coach Glenn was the maestro of the Panthers’ attack, keeping Ball State’s defense guessing all day by mixing up the play calls and using play-action passing in particular to pick the Cardinals apart over the middle of the field. Payne was the main beneficiary, picking up a career-best 8 catches for 109 yards and 2 touchdowns, both of which came off of perfectly called play-action fakes. The lead was just 20-13 Georgia State at halftime, but three touchdowns on each of the offense’s three drives in the 3rd quarter quickly turned the game on its head.

Stellar play from the defense after conceding an early touchdown is what gave the Georgia State offense the opportunity to take over the game in the second half. After Jayshon Jackson’s 56-yard touchdown reception opened the scoring, Ball State didn’t find the end zone again until QB Drew Plitt snuck in for a 1-yard touchdown run with 3:13 to go in the game. By that time, the result was well in hand. In between those two touchdowns, the Cardinals had nine possessions, 243 yards from scrimmage and just 6 points to show for it. It was bend, don’t break at its finest, and Georgia State made Ball State pay for every mistake they made. OLB Jamil Muhammad forced a Plitt fumble late in the 1st quarter, and Javon Denis scooped it up for a 37-yard touchdown return which gave the Panthers a 14-7 lead. The next drive, Cardinals coach Mike Neu rolled the dice by going for it on 4th-and-1 at his own 29. Georgia State got the stop and turned it into a Noel Ruiz 27-yard field goal. And finally, after the offense’s dazzling 3rd-quarter performance, the cherry on the top of a very good day at the office for the Panthers’ defense was Antavious Lane’s 55-yard interception return for a touchdown on the final play of the quarter which made it a 48-13 GSU lead. And with that, a team which had made complementary football their calling card late in the season played their best game to close out the year.

A Start to Forget, A Season to Remember

As good as the season finished, it’s easy to forget just how bleak things once were for Georgia State. After coming so close to a second SEC upset in three seasons but falling short in the end at Auburn, the Panthers returned home and wilted in the second half in a 45-16 loss in their conference opener against Appalachian State. That disappointing loss dropped them to 1-4. A bowl game was no longer a certainty, but more than that, the level of performance had dropped way lower than well-earned expectations. The team needed to search inside and find answers fast, and eight games and a 7-1 record later, what looked like a lost season has turned into the best-ever in program history. How it happened is plain to see when you pull up the numbers:

Statistical categoryFirst 5 games (1-4)Final 8 games (7-1)Final stats (8-5)
Points per game17.4 ppg34.9 ppg28.2 ppg
Opponents’ points per game38 ppg20.3 ppg27.1 ppg
Rushing yards per game180.8 ypg252.3 ypg224.8 ypg
Passing yards per game144.2 ypg172.5 ypg161.6 ypg
Opponents’ rushing yards per game181.2 ypg115.5 ypg140.8 ypg
Opponents’ passing yards per game250.8 ypg268.6 ypg 261.8 ypg
Turnover margin-5 (4 forced, 9 given)+11 (17 forced, 6 given)+6 (21 forced, 15 given)
Sacks7 sacks (1.4 per game)31 sacks (3.9 per game)38 sacks (2.9 per game)

The simple answer is everyone played better and the Georgia State team that ran out of the tunnel in the final eight games of the season didn’t resemble the team that started 1-4. With their backs against the wall, the Panthers simply redefined who they were as a team overnight. The offense, aided by playing to the strengths of new starting QB Darren Grainger, improved on a moderately successful start to the season running the football and turned back into a top 10 FBS unit on the ground. The Panthers were held to less than 200 yards rushing in three of the first five games. The Coastal Carolina game was the only game in the final eight where that was the case – they got 175 yards that afternoon in Conway. The Panther Express averaged a yards-per-carry rate of 5 or more yards in all but two of the last eight games (at Louisiana and at Coastal), topping out with 6.32 ypc in the bowl win over Ball State.

The Georgia State offense made more modest gains in the passing game – that 172.5 passing yards per game average over the length of the full season would have been only 113th-best in FBS, out of 131 teams. But there’s one area where the passing offense clearly made significant improvements, maybe the singular most important improvement across the entire team – interceptions. Collectively between them in the first five games, Quad Brown and Darren Grainger threw 7 interceptions. Over the last eight, Grainger threw just one solitary INT. They never got back to the lofty passing numbers they had put up as a unit towards the end of the 2020 season, but cutting back on the picks meant the offense was able to stay on the field. And with as prolific a rushing attack as the offense managed down the stretch, that was good enough.

In contrast to the improvements in Georgia State’s rushing offense, only two opposing teams managed to rush for more than 200 yards against the Panthers in the final eight games – Georgia Southern and Coastal Carolina. Coastal’s 209 was the high watermark allowed by the Panthers in their closing 7-1 run, and they stopped each of their last three opponents from reaching 100 rushing yards. This included holding Arkansas State to a school record -3 yards rushing on November 20. The passing yardage opponents picked up against Georgia State over the final eight games was actually a tick higher than in the first five, but the improvements in stopping the run were so great that it didn’t matter. Opposing quarterbacks were able to pick up chunk plays against the Panthers’ pass defense here and there, but with no run game to rely on most weeks, drives more often than not fizzled out short of the goal line.

The other factor in the defense’s major improvement was in forcing turnovers. After they had managed just 4 in the first five games, the defense’s turnover rate exploded to more than 2 a game the rest of the season with the 17 they created over the last eight. All 11 of the team’s interceptions in 2021 came in that 7-1 stretch, starting when Antavious Lane finally snagged the team’s first in the 4th quarter of the ULM win on October 9. And from that point, every time it felt like the defense needed to make a play to get off the field, someone stepped up and made it happen. This is also reflected in the sack numbers, which almost tripled over the final eight games.

With trips to South Carolina and Army looming, as well as UNC making a return trip to Center Parc Stadium on September 10, the start of Georgia State’s 2022 season isn’t much easier on paper than the 2021 slate which led them to a 1-4 start. But what made the Panthers great to close out this season wasn’t to do with talent, it was about team cohesion and confidence. It was about not making mistakes and capitalizing every time the other team gave them an opportunity. That’s replicable regardless of opponent. And if they can tap into that formula from the jump next season, the sky’s the limit for this team on the rise.

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