Upon Further Review: Louisiana

TE Roger Carter scores against Lousiana in the 2020 matchup between the two teams in Atlanta.
Photo: Todd Drexler / Georgia State Sports Communications

It looked for much of the night like Georgia State was finally going to clear their largest remaining hurdle and beat a ranked Louisiana team, making a statement in the Sun Belt Conference in the process. Alas, when all was said and done and the clock read all zeroes, it was a 21-17 loss and another disappointing outcome. What to make of another instance of “Close but no cigar”? This is Upon Further Review.

Mistakes at the Worst Times

Any time you lose a game by 4, the result invariably will come down to just a handful of plays, and that was certainly the case with this loss for Georgia State. On Thursday, the plays that swung the game were:

  • A Darren Grainger incomplete pass intended for Roger Carter on the Panthers’ first drive that would have set them up with a 1st-and-goal or even a touchdown if it’s on target. A 7-0 lead at that stage would have been better than just 3-0 on a Noel Ruiz field goal, and it became obvious as the game went on that every point would matter.
  • The Georgia State offense had back-to-back forays into Louisiana territory end in no points after failing to convert manageable 3rd downs. With 12:36 left in the 2nd quarter, a 3rd-and-6 pass by Grainger at the UL 39 was batted up in the air at the line and fell incomplete. The punt team had to come out. On the following drive, on another 3rd-and-6 – this time at the UL 43 – Grainger took a sack when AJ Riley came completely unblocked from the left side. Picking up any positive yardage in either instance at least makes Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott think about going for it on 4th – and even eking out field goals in these two situations makes it a two-score game before the break.
  • Into the 3rd quarter and holding onto their largest lead of 10-0, the Georgia State defense needed a stop. Facing a 3rd-and-8 at the GSU 29, Louisiana needed points and they really needed a touchdown. LB Jordan Veneziale had a beat on Cajuns QB Levi Lewis in the backfield for what would have been a back breaking tackle for loss. But instead, Lewis stiff-armed him into the turf and took off for a 9-yard run and a 1st down. Four plays later, Louisiana found the end zone.
  • Following this score, the Georgia State offense had a disastrous three-and-out which featured two sacks allowed and Michael Hayes followed this with a 22-yard punt that set the Cajuns up at midfield for what would become their first go-ahead scoring drive.

After Louisiana took a 14-10 lead, the teams traded touchdown drives, but that was still advantage Cajuns since they were now in the lead, and Georgia State couldn’t make it two weeks in a row with a late game-winning touchdown drive. The Panthers couldn’t take advantage of pitching a first-half shutout and couldn’t make a double-digit lead in the 3rd quarter last, as Louisiana was the team to make the plays when it counted to secure their eighth straight win.

Bend, But Don’t You Break

It was another game where the Georgia State defense gave up some chunk plays and ended up allowing 430 yards in total but they made the plays where it counted and kept Louisiana off the scoreboard for almost three whole quarters. The Cajuns got touchdowns on either side of the 3rd quarter break and scored what would be the game-winning touchdown with 2:32 left in the game, but the defense had given the offense enough opportunities throughout to take a more commanding lead. They got backed up into their own red zone on two occasions, on Louisiana’s first and last drives of the first half, and held the Cajuns scoreless with two key 4th-down stops. Louisiana entered Thursday 13-of-16 on 4th downs in 2021 and finished 1-3 on the night. And, sure, the one conversion resulted in their first TD of the night, but those two stops early on set the tone for the game and kept Georgia State on the front foot. The Panthers are getting a penchant for timely stops deep in their own territory and it’s solidifying their “Bend, don’t break” mentality. They could make life easier for themselves by making more plays in the opponent’s territory, but the success in red zone defense is feeling like less of a coincidence with each passing week.

In a weird way, I would extend this point out to how the Georgia State offense played. Clearly, the offense didn’t do enough to win on Thursday, particularly the passing attack, but they stayed in it by playing a clean game. The team committed just three penalties for 12 yards, and just one of those – a false start on the offensive line – was on that side of the ball. Since the App State loss, Georgia State has a +6 turnover margin, in part because the offense has just one turnover in that four-game stretch. On Thursday, the offense didn’t have any and thus gave themselves and the team the chance to go win the game. It’s almost the offensive version of “Bend, don’t break” and it’s why the Panthers are 3-1 in that stretch since the conference opener. A lot has to be cleaned up to get more points on the board, but continuing to value the football and not cost yourself yardage with penalties will keep Georgia State in every remaining game.

A Foundation to Build On

The Panthers might be reeling after another close loss, but they’ll have to pick themselves off the carpet and finish 2-1 or better to get to a bowl game for the third straight year and for the fourth time in Coach Elliott’s five seasons in Atlanta. One bit of good news is that it’s becoming clear that Georgia State’s run game is fairly matchup-proof. The Panther Express became just the second team to rush for 200 or more yards in a game against the Louisiana defense, a week after they became the second team to rush for 200 or more against Georgia Southern in 2021. Coastal Carolina, this week’s opponent, has been allowing just 137.9 rushing yards per game and Troy, whom Georgia State will face in the season finale, is the conference’s best rush defense with 114.7 yards allowed a game and a sterling 3.0 yards per carry this season, so it won’t be any kind of cakerun. But the Panthers offensive line have been winning in the trenches for most of the season, a trend that continued for much of Thursday’s loss, and they aren’t going to get scared away from doing what they do best.

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