It always hurts to lose a game with under a minute left in the game. It hurts even more when you held the lead for all but six minutes of the game. But heartbreak is not equivalent to poor play, especially when the team that ultimately came out on top was favored by three touchdowns.
Georgia State lost 34-24 to #24 Auburn on Saturday, a game in which many felt the Panthers wouldn’t even sniff the end zone. Despite taking their third loss in four games, GSU gave Auburn its hardest game of the year.
The Panthers held Auburn to its lowest rushing total of the year (the Tigers averaged 287.3 yards per game on the ground before Saturday), allowed just one offensive touchdown, and scored more points than any Auburn opponent this year.
“I couldn’t be more proud of our football team,” GSU HC Shawn Elliott said postgame. “Our football team played one unbelievable contest.”
But how does a team whose coach was visibly emotionally proud in his post-game presser and dominated the box score lose by ten?
Georgia State struck early and often in the game. The Panthers scored 24 points over their first six drives compared to the Tigers’ 12. Auburn sputtered out twice in the red zone, had to settle for a field goal both times, and went into the their halftime locker room in the hole.
But according to Elliott, that was not the real Auburn Tigers.
“We’re fixing to face their best shot,” Elliott told his team at half time.
He was right, but it wasn’t immediately evident. Auburn’s offense continued its slow chugging in the second half. The Tigers’ first five drives resulted in three punts, a missed field goal, and a lost fumble. The defense, however, performed like it did in the first three games. GSU punted on six consecutive drives to begin the first half. One of those punts was blocked by Caylin Newton and recovered by Barton Lester in the end zone for an Auburn touchdown.
That score was Auburn’s first touchdown of the game, and its first in over an hour of game time between its games against GSU and Penn State.
The ball exchanged hands a few more times before Auburn began what we now know was the game-winning drive. Following a 54-yard punt by GSU’s Michael Hayes, Auburn faced a 98-yard uphill march. The Tigers, down 24-19, had 3:23 on the clock to find the end zone.
Freshman QB TJ Finley strung together a few big throws and did some dirty work of his own on the ground (starter Bo Nix left the game after a minor injury). Finley and the Tigers moved down the field in chunks and entered the red zone with 1:02 remaining.
Following a one-yard rush and two incomplete passes, the Tigers had worked themselves into a fourth-and-nine on the opposing 10.
Finley took the snap in the gun, dropped nearly 15 yards thanks to the seven Panthers that breached the offensive line, evaded two tackles and sent a high jump ball to Shedrick Jackson. Jackson leaped in the air, brought down the Tigers’ only offensive touchdown of the game, and gave his team its first lead since the first quarter.
“[The Panthers] got amazing pressure on [Finley],” Elliott said in reference to that play, “and he delivers the game-winning touchdown.”
Finley finished the game 9/16 passing for 97 yards and added 15 extra ground yards; Nix was 13/17 for 156 yards before he took a seat. The completion was Jackson’s fourth catch of the game— he finished with 70 yards— and his first receiving touchdown of his career.
That touchdown gave Auburn a 27-24 lead after a successful two-point conversion. The score was quickly inflated to the 34-24 final by a Smoke Monday pick six while the Panthers were trying to find their own miraculous end-of-game score.
No single GSU defensive player had a uniquely exceptional game, as is now becoming the norm for the Panthers.
“Our entire defense played one hell of a game,” Elliott said. “The entire defense, without a doubt, they’re the players of the game.”
Chris Moore was one statistical standout, however. Moore was the only Panther to record more than one tackle for loss. He had 2.5, and tallied his first career solo sack.
While the offense did stall in the second half, the GSU attack looked near unstoppable in the first half. It gained 309 total yards and scored three touchdowns on three consecutive drives.
QB Darren Grainger, who won the starting job leading up to last week’s game against Charlotte, looked wobbly at times but finished the game 12/24 for 117 yards and two touchdowns. He started the game 1/5 with three very ugly incompletions, but quickly made up for it on the ground; Grainger gained 61 yards on seventeen carries.
For the second game in a row Tucker Gregg played the role of cowbell back— he was the only player other than Grainger to record double-digit carries— and did so with great success. Gregg had two rushes gain 50+ yards and finished the game with 150 yards total. He also recorded his first touchdown of the season.
Gregg’s 150 yards were the most on the team, but Jam Williams and Destin Coates combined for 50 yards to make up the backup tandem.
Elliott was not satisfied by his team’s 267 combined rushing yards, however. When asked his thoughts on the number, he simply replied with “not enough.”
Coach Elliott was emotional following the game, noting that he was most disappointed that his players put on an incredible performance but fell just short of GSU’s first victory over a ranked FBS opponent in program history.
“Tonight it was disappointing to see a team that had given everything they had,” he said, “and came up on the short end. Sports can rip you apart, and that was a tough one tonight.”
Elliott concluded his opening remarks to the media after the game with some bulletin board material: “Auburn has a good football team. We have a good football team as well.”
Despite the strong play, Georgia State was dealt its third loss in four games. The Panthers are now 1-3, their worst start since 2018. They are tied with Georgia Southern for worst record in the Sun Belt’s East Division, although the Eagles are 0-1 in conference play. GSU is yet to begin its conference schedule but will do so in week five; it hosts 3-1 App State at 2:00 pm on October 2.
Auburn was ranked #24 in the AP Poll prior to Saturday’s game but will likely slip out of the top-25. This is the Tigers’ second consecutive loss and are now 2-2 on the season. They begin their conference schedule next week as well when they visit SEC rival LSU at 9:00 pm on October 2.