Georgia State’s performance last Saturday against Charlotte was, in many ways, going to say a lot about how the whole 2021 season would go. After two disappointing outings and losses to mark those occasions, the room for error to make a bowl game, much less achieve the loftiest of preseason goals, was getting smaller and smaller and nothing short of a bounceback win would do against the 49ers. Fortunately for the Panthers, they got the job done and looked good in both phases of the game doing it. What can we take away from this 20-9 win? This is Upon Further Review.
Grainger’s Got Your Back
The biggest story heading into kickoff was the late announcement that Furman transfer Darren Grainger would be making his first career start at QB, replacing the scuffling Quad Brown. Panther fans’ only previous on-field memories of Grainger to that point would have been the 311-yard, 4-TD passing performance he had as a Paladin in Furman’s 48-42 loss to Georgia State in 2019, but the Darren Grainger story on Saturday was about his impact on the run game. He tapped into good partnerships with WRs Ja’Cyais Credle and Jamari Thrash to be sure, connecting with each on a long touchdown pass, but from the opening drive it was clear he was willing and able to call his own number on the ground – and this is what changed the tenor of the Panthers’ offense.
Grainger ended up with the second-most rushing attempts on the team with 16 behind starting RB Tucker Gregg and Charlotte’s defense truly had to honor the quarterback in the run game for the first time since Dan Ellington played his last game for the Panthers. As a result, everyone benefited – Grainger, Gregg, Destin Coates and Jamyest Williams all finished north of 60 rushing yards apiece and the team finished with 298 total, the seventh-highest mark in school history. There’s still things to clean up on offense, like fixing the fumble problem and tapping into a more diverse passing attack than go routes all night. Indeed, some of each might have meant Georgia State would have scored more than 20 last Saturday. But re-establishing this team’s identity as a smash-mouth running team, something that had been missing through two games, was the prime goal against Charlotte. They achieved it emphatically with the help of Darren Grainger.
And So Does The Defense
The defense for Georgia State similarly had a bounceback game, and it started with limiting the big plays. The numbers look good at base level – 276 yards allowed on 67 plays, good for 4.0 yards per play. But when you look under the hood, there’s even more to like. Georgia State gave up just two plays all night of 20 yards or more – a zone-busting slant route by Elijah Spencer got Charlotte 36 yards and their only touchdown of the night in the 2nd quarter and Shadrick Byrd got a 25-yard run in the 3rd quarter. Excepting those plays, the Panthers defense allowed just 218 yards on 65 plays, 3.36 yards per play. Obviously those plays did happen, but the point is that except for the two (2) plays where they managed to bust a long gain, the Charlotte offense spent a lot of the night spinning their wheels and failing to move the ball. Short gains and tackles for losses on run plays on 1st and 2nd down often set them back in 3rd-and-longs, so it’s no surprise that the 49ers went 4-for-15 on 3rd down all night.
A lot of this was down to the run-stuffing ability of the front seven. Inside linebackers Blake Carroll and Jordan Veneziale pinned their ears back and got downhill, co-leading the team with 9 tackles and helping the D-line control the line of scrimmage. But the pass rush and the coverage on the back end also worked in tandem to make it an inefficient passing night for 49ers QB Chris Reynolds as well. Some plays, the coverage downfield was what won out – the Panthers had six pass breakups on the night, two each for newly-minted starters OLB Jacorey Crawford and CB Bryquice Brown. But on other plays, the pass rush got home and forced Reynolds to make an errant throw or make a throw earlier than the receiver was ready for. If there’s one potential growth area for the defense moving forward, it’s that there were easy opportunities on almost all the aforementioned PBUs for an interception and the game could have been in hand sooner than it was if one or two of those were hauled in by the defender.
Back to “Georgia State Football”
All of this had the combined effect of saying this – Georgia State won a football game and they did it in the ways we’ve become accustomed to seeing. They controlled both lines of scrimmage, they pounded the rock early and often on offense and took what they could get in the passing game and they limited the big plays on defense. It’s entirely possible that that Georgia State team hangs around with Army in Week 1 instead of losing by 33 and never being in the game. And that’s an important note to end on. The schedule doesn’t get any easier with a trip to #23 Auburn looming this weekend and a return home to host Appalachian State for the start of the conference slate the Saturday after, but the Georgia State team that beat Charlotte is good enough to compete in every game left on the schedule. The Panthers hit the reset button in Week 3 and now they have to capitalize on their newfound momentum and keep trending the right way for Sun Belt play.