A lot can be said about a team who plays close games that don’t translate to wins. We’ve seen that same script before with this Georgia State team, who have found themselves in the position of a spunky road underdog up late against an opposing team a few times this season. It happened with Auburn back in September, it happened with Louisiana just last week, and it looked as if it was headed that direction against #22 Coastal Carolina as well. After Georgia State played well in all three phases of the game for a considerable amount of time, like their previous two attempts at a ranked win this season, it looked as if the wheels on the Panther Express would come off before time expired. Something about the usual formula changed, however, and the Panthers walked out of Brooks Stadium with their first win against a ranked opponent in school history. So what kept them on the tracks to victory, and what does this mean going forward? This is Upon Further Review.
Putting the Offense Together
It’s no secret that the key to defeating Coastal was a near perfectly executed offensive game plan for the Panthers. Georgia State’s game plan was relatively simple – run the ball like the top 20 rushing offense that they are and force Coastal to honor it by using play action on nearly every passing attempt. Spoiler alert – it worked. The 42 points is the most Coastal Carolina have given up this season. While Panthers quarterback Darren Grainger did not eclipse the 200-yard passing mark for a fourth consecutive week, this was one of his best games since becoming starter. Not only did he go through his progressions well, finding his second or third read on a play, he was incredibly poised in the pocket or when he needed to evade a would-be tackler and gain a few extra yards. It was a homecoming for the QB, who grew up about 5 miles outside of Conway, and his statline of 18-for-24, 198 passing yards and 2 touchdowns showed he was feeling right at home. Grainger hasn’t thrown an interception since Week 5 and didn’t turn it over the ball at all in this game. He was just a QB playing catch in his backyard.
To complement Grainger’s passing, the Panthers rushed for a hair under 200 yards. The final tally officially was 175, which did break a four-game streak for Georgia State of eclipsing a double century. However, they moved the ball on the ground well and it set up the play action part of the passing game. The tape is simple. Georgia State will run draws, dives, and off tackle until a team stops it. Coastal Carolina was unable to do so for a majority of the game. Jam Williams was the leading rusher and used his breakaway speed to hit one of those home run-type touchdowns he has been known for this season. Tucker Gregg did his bruising, hard-nosed rushing thing as well and finished with a season-high three touchdowns. This marks his second multi-touchdown effort in three games. Grainger had been quiet on the ground of late. However, late in the 4th, he did gain eight yards on a key rush which continued a drive, and his second passing touchdown of the game then gave them a lead they would never relent.
Broken Walls Can Be Rebuilt
It’s hard to feel good about a defense that gave up 40 points and were a 2-point conversion away from likely needing overtime, but Georgia State’s defense made the plays that needed to be made to come away with a win. Qua White’s interception, the goal line stand in the 3rd quarter and Jamil Muhammad’s forced fumble were all key plays and sequences that directly contributed to the win for the Panthers. The interception led to a Georgia State touchdown when White’s return gave the offense primo starting field position on the 1. Had Coastal scored a touchdown on that drive in the second half, they would have been up two points with the 4th quarter looming. And the fumble recovery gave the Panthers the ball deep in Coastal territory and the offense was able to add on to extend their late lead. Credit goes to the defensive line, which was disruptive and battered quarterback Bryce Carpenter all day. The line got 4 QB hurries and 4 sacks, but their pressure and awareness led to 4 pass breakups in the secondary and on the line itself.
One play doesn’t necessarily decide the fate of a game, but Georgia State’s continued success at preventing touchdowns was key in coming away with the victory. On that fateful final drive, Georgia State put their best defenders against Coastal Carolina’s best receiving weapons and forced them to make a play. Georgia State has been very good recently at playing man-to-man defense on the outside and allowing the numbers game in the trenches to stop opposing teams from converting short downs and distances in the red zone, which is exactly how the 2-point attempt was stopped. Coastal wanted to use their passing game to find the end zone and tie the game, which they did when Carpenter threw it up to Isaiah Likely for a 17-yard touchdown pass on 3rd-and-9. They went back to their matchup nightmare of a tight end for their first 2-point attempt and he drew a defensive pass interference penalty that moved them closer to the goal line. But then the Chants inexplicably went away from what worked, deciding instead to run with Shermari Jones right up the middle, and Georgia State was ready for it. It wasn’t a turnover or a pass broken up in the end zone, but it was another example of Georgia State’s defense finding a way to sure up exactly when the moment called for it, something they’ve excelled at of late. They gave up the touchdown and yet found one last play to get off the field, something they had not done in their prior upset bids this season.
One Pin to Fall
The goal every year is to play for a Sun Belt championship and the Panthers are unlikely to do that in 2021. That being said, the gap between the Sun Belt’s best and Georgia State is shrinking. With two opportunities at home to secure their third consecutive bowl eligible season, Georgia State’s season is headed towards looking like a success. The season was going to be make-or-break during this tough three-game stretch, and the Panthers came out of it 2-1. They were a couple of plays away from going a perfect 3-0 as well. Given where they started both in non-conference play and after the first week of conference play, their turnaround is remarkable. The defense might not be as lock-down as some would have hoped, but they are doing enough when it matters most, especially in the red zone. There is still plenty of work to be done in the passing game, but with most of Grainger showing real improvement and with his weapons getting healthier by the week, things should continue to get better heading into the final weeks of the season.