Ball State stands in way of Georgia State’s best year

Field Level Media

December 22, 2021 at 6:59 am.

Georgia State will look to post the winningest season in school history when it faces Ball State in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday in Montgomery, Ala.

The Panthers (7-5) overcame a 1-4 start by winning six of their last seven games to position themselves to earn their first eight-win season.

Georgia State, which placed second in the Sun Belt Conference East, is in a bowl game for a third straight season. The Panthers defeated Western Kentucky 39-21 in the LendingTree Bowl last year after falling to Wyoming 38-17 in the Arizona Bowl in 2019.

Now, the Panthers get the chance to cap the best season in school history in front of a national television audience as the Camellia Bowl is the only college football game on Christmas Day.

“It’s the most wonderful week there is — Christmas week and bowl week — and we’re fortunate to be practicing and getting ready for a trip to Montgomery for the Camellia Bowl,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said. “We get to play one last time and try to finish this thing the right way on what I call the happiest day of the year.”

Ball State (6-6) is happy to be sharing the national spotlight with the Panthers. The Cardinals, who play in the Mid-American Conference, lost three of their final five games and didn’t clinch bowl eligibility until posting a 20-3 win over Buffalo in their regular-season finale.

The Cardinals won a bowl game for the first time in school history last year, 34-13 over Mountain West champion San Jose State in the Arizona Bowl. Ball State is playing in a bowl game in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2012-13.

“Back-to-back wins is a phenomenal accomplishment, even greater than just going to the bowl game,” Ball State quarterback Drew Plitt said. “To have that opportunity is tremendous, and we’re going to do everything we can to prepare and come out with a win.”

The Panthers and Cardinals appear to be very evenly matched.

Georgia State is ranked 83rd in points per game (26.2) and Ball State is ranked 94th (24.4) out of 130 FBS teams. On defense, Ball State is 70th in points yielded (26.5) while Georgia State is 81st (27.7).

The Cardinals are led by Plitt, who has completed 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,248 yards, 17 touchdowns and five interceptions. Carson Steele has rushed for 829 yards and six scores on 177 carries.

Jayshon Jackson (57 catches, 683 yards, four TDs), Justin Hall (61 catches, 613 yards, five TDs) and Yo’Heinz Tyler (44 catches, 435 yards, six TDs) are Pitt’s favorite targets.

Georgia State’s defense limited five teams to one offensive touchdown and made a school-record 84 tackles behind the line of scrimmage this season. The Panthers feature two-time All-Sun Belt Conference defensive back Antavious Lane, who has four interceptions, six pass breakups, a forced fumble and 72 tackles.

The Panthers’ offense will look to quarterback Darren Grainger, who has completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 1,512 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions, in addition to running for 524 yards and two scores on 123 carries.

Tucker Gregg has rushed for 899 yards and nine touchdowns on 176 carries, while Jamyest Williams has 120 carries for 810 yards — an average of 6.8 yards an attempt — to go along with nine touchdowns.

Jamari Thrash leads the team with 31 receptions and 447 yards, though he has scored just three times. Tight ends Roger Carter (20 receptions, 323 yards, two TDs) and Aubry Payne (17 catches, 142 yards, five TDs) have emerged as goal-line targets, while Ja’Cyais Credle has 20 receptions for 269 yards and three scores.