Georgia State won its eighth game of the season and second bowl game in as many seasons, beating Ball State 51-20 in the TaxAct Camellia Bowl on Christmas Day. The Panthers did so in dominating fashion, toppling the Cardinals by the largest deficit in Camellia Bowl history.
The game was even from the gun, GSU led by just seven at halftime, but the game came unraveled quickly in the third quarter. The Panthers scored 28 unanswered points in that period alone and held the Cardinals to just 41 total yards.
“We started getting that ball in the end zone and the points started coming,” GSU head coach Shawn Elliott said.
QB Darren Grainger was the engine behind the Panthers’ offensive efforts. He passed for 203 yards and three touchdowns (he completed ten straight passes in a streak that lasted the second to fourth quarters) and rushed for 122 yards for a score. During the trophy presentation Grainger was named the game’s Most Valuable Player.
“I really just wanted to win,” Grainger said of his performance, “really wanted to get the win and contribute how much I could [sic].”
In that one-sided third quarter, Grainger passed for 115 yards and completed all seven of his throws. He added 57 rushing yards on five carries, as well.
“We scored 28 unanswered,” Grainger said about the team’s performance that period with a slight grin, “it was great to just get that momentum, get that ball rolling, get the game out of reach and play our butts off.”
Grainger is just the second player in Camellia Bowl history to both rush and pass for at least 100 yards.
With a few key receivers missing out, Aubry Payne assumed the role of primary target. Payne caught eight balls for 109 yards, both career highs, for two scores. Those touchdowns give him the GSU record for touchdown catches in a season by a tight end.
“Big Aubry,” Grainger laughed, “always finds a way to get wide-open. I don’t know how he does it but it is great to have a big target like that… Those are easy pass and catches.”
Despite a season of offensive efficiency, Ball State was incapable of creating meaningful drives. Only two of its possessions went for more than 50 yards, one involving a blown coverage-induced 56-yard passing touchdown.
Of the eight BSU drives that did not end in a score, four resulted in either a touchdown or strong GSU field position.
Linebacker Jamil Muhammad recorded two of the Panthers’ three sacks, including one Ball State’s first play from scrimmage. He hit the opposing QB an additional time and, between those three contacts, forced two fumbles.
Antavious Lane led the team in tackles and broke his own record for career interceptions at GSU after coming down with an interception that he returned for a 55-yard pick six.
“There were some guys that stepped in and took their first snaps of the year,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said about his offensive’s stagnation. “Georgia State is really good from a defensive standpoint… and they’re going to make you earn it.”
QB Drew Plitt’s arm was relied on for a brunt of the offensive effort, as the Cardinals’ running backs combined for just 93 yards. Plitt completed 59% of his 46 passes and gained 293 yards. He threw to WR Jayshon Jackson at least 17 times; Jackson caught 12 of those targets, a Camellia Bowl receptions record.
Plitt did turn the ball over twice, however. His fumble and interception were both returned for touchdowns by Javon Denis and Lane, respectively.
This win is the Panthers’ eighth of the season, the most in program history, and second consecutive bowl win in in a run of three consecutive postseason games.
“We’d never won eight games. Never won eight games, never won back-to-back bowl games. I say this a lot… anytime you do something for the first time, do you know what that’s like? Do you know what that feels like? Every single player and coach in that locker room just did something for the first time. No one ever before has experienced what we just experienced.”
While GSU has much to celebrate, Ball State’s season comes to a disappointing end. The loss puts the Cardinals on the sour side of .500, the fifth time in the six year tenure of HC Mike Neu.