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South Alabama vs. Georgia State Preview

Can the Panthers pick up their first win at Georgia State Stadium?

Scott Donaldson/South Alabama Athletics
The South Alabama offense has found its quarterback.

Start Time: Thursday, October 26th, 7:30 PM ET

TV: ESPNU

Streaming: WatchESPN.com

Announcers: Mark Neely (play-by-play) and Ray Bentley (analyst)

Location: Pete Petit Field at Georgia State Stadium (23,000)

Series: South Alabama leads 4-2

Odds: South Alabama (-1) 49 total


South Alabama Outlook

Ever since Joey Jones got rid of offensive coordinator Bryant Vincent and promoted offensive line coach Richard Owens, the Jags have been playing excellent football. South Alabama played Louisiana Tech tough in Ruston, beat Troy on the road, and just had their best offensive performance in a home win over ULM. Dallas Davis has taken over behind center and has given this offense some stability.

Davis, who was the primary starter last season, lost the job to Cole Garvin in training camp before the two begin to trade snaps once Garvin was injured in the Oklahoma State loss. Slowly, but surely, Davis has proven to be the better player and he is giving the Jags some excellent quarterback play. For the season, Davis is averaging nine yards per pass attempt and has been outstanding in the wins over Troy and ULM. After a slow start, the Jags have figured out their quarterback situation.

Xavier Johnson is officially a South Alabama great.
Bobby McDuffie/South Alabama Athletics

Xavier Johnson became the program’s all-time leading rusher in the victory over ULM as the senior has now ran for 2,673 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career. Johnson is having a very solid year averaging six yards per carry and the offense began to play better when he started to get more touches.

After Johnson, however, the running game dips off. It is obvious that the coaching staff is trying to get sophomore Tra Minter going. The junior college transfer is only averaging 3.8 yards per carry and has looked very pedestrian since putting up 83 yards on 12 carries in the opener against Ole Miss. However, Minter is coming off his best game of the season against ULM and we’ll see if he can continue the momentum.

It’s been a very balanced passing attack for the Jags and they are still waiting for a clear number one option to emerge. Sam Harris and Jamarius Way lead the team in targets and these two have done the most damage as they are each averaging around 15 yards per catch. Tra Minter has been a very viable receiving option out of the backfield.

The defense was burned on the ground last week as ULM ran for 307 yards and three touchdowns on a seven yards per carry average. A week after totally shutting down Troy’s ground game, the Jags took a big step back. However, this was their worst performance of the season and should hopefully just be a blip on the radar.

The defense did force two takeaways in the win and now has 12 for the season and a plus-five turnover margin. Safeties Nigel Lawrence and Jeremy Reaves lead the team in tackles while freshman linebacker Riley Cole has been a pleasant surprise.

The Jags are continuing their strong special teams play as kicker Gavin Patterson is 12 of 14 on field goals and Corliss Waitman continues to be the best punter in the Sun Belt. Meanwhile, running back Deonta Moore has been a monster on kick coverage as he’s recorded 11 special teams tackles.


Georgia State Outlook

After winning three consecutive road games, the Panthers returned home to a big opportunity as they would be hosting Troy with a chance to become 3-0 in Sun Belt play and become a legit contender for a conference crown.

The Panthers weren’t ready for the stage.

Georgia State caught Troy at the absolute worst time and they were smacked by an experienced Trojans squad. There were some positive things to build on and the Panthers will enter Thursday’s contest looking for their first win in their brand new stadium.

Georgia State Athletics
Conner Manning is playing at a very high level.

Quarterback Conner Manning has completed at least 60% of his passes against everyone not named Penn State on the schedule. The senior has thrown for at least 250 yards in four consecutive games and is averaging a very healthy 8.1 yards per attempt. In this four-game streak, Manning has thrown seven touchdowns to go with only two interceptions. This passing game is really strong.

Where this offense is struggling is on the ground and that comes as a surprise to no one. S&P+ currently has this rushing attack ranked as the worst in the country as the Panthers are averaging just under three yards per carry and have yet to find a running back. Taz Bateman, Kyler Neal, and Glenn Smith have received the lion’s share of the carries and the trio is putting up 93.7 yards per game on 32.3 carries. For you math majors at home, that is 2.9 yards per carry.

That is just not going to cut it. Add in the fact that Manning gives you no run threat whatsoever and this offense can be bogged down when the passing game is not crisp. With the lack of running game, the red zone offense has taken a major hit. Due to an inability to run the football, Georgia State only scored twice on five possessions against Troy. For the year, they are only converting possessions into scores 61% of the time. That is not going to cut it.

The coaching staff is doing all it can to get the run game going, but the personnel just does not seem to be there. Don’t be surprised if we see some wildcat packages with back-up quarterback Aaron Winchester as the season rolls on.

You know the numbers Manning is putting up, but this offense goes as Penny Hart goes. The sophomore has 47 receptions for 587 yards and six touchdowns on the season. He’s been targeted on over a third of Georgia State’s pass attempts. Stop him and you stop the Panthers.

That’s exactly what Troy did as Hart only had five catches for 32 yards. Finding a backup option is imperative for this offense. Freshman Tamir Jones had five catches for 75 yards in the loss to Troy and we’ll see if he can build off of that moving forward.

Entering the year, the expectations were high for Georgia State’s secondary as they returned a ton of talent including corners Jerome Smith and Chandon Sullivan. It was thought that this group could be one of the best in the conference. That hasn’t happened yet.

For the second game in a row, the Panthers gave up over 300 yards passing and three straight opponents have allowed at least 8.5 yards per attempt. Georgia State has given up 13 passing touchdowns on the season and has only been able to record three interceptions. This has been a surprise.

After a horrible performance against Tennessee State, the rush defense has come along nicely as the Panthers have held five straight opponents under 200 yards rushing. This past week against Troy was the first time an opponent averaged over five yards per carry as a team. Nose tackle Julien Laurent has been a big reason for that as he’s posted 4.5 non-sack tackles for loss and has been one of the best run stuffers in the Sun Belt. Ed Curney and Trey Payne have been excellent from their inside linebacker spots. This has been a nice development for Nate Fuqua’s defense.

Special teams continue to be an issue in 2017 for Georgia State. Brandon Wright continues to struggle and he missed two more field goals on Saturday. For the season Wright is 4-for-10 and this is adding to Georgia State’s red zone woes. The Panthers have yet to record a touchback on kickoffs but punting has improved since Wright took over.

Overall, this has been a struggle.


Prediction

It’s a weekday night, ESPN is in town, and Georgia State will get to show off their new stadium. This is a big game for Shawn Elliott.

The Panthers need a bounce-back performance after getting smashed by Troy and desperately need a home win in their new stadium. It’s going to be a long night for this rushing attack, but Manning should have some success in the air.

All of a sudden, South Alabama should be considered a threat in the Sun Belt as they have a 2-1 record in Sun Belt with a win over Troy. The Jags are a couple of victories away from being considered a serious contender for a league title.

South Alabama has a big edge in special teams play and turnover margin. The improved play of Dallas Davis should allow South Alabama to have a big night through the air against Georgia State’s leaky pass defense. Conner Manning will have another big day but this ground game continues to struggle. South Alabama wins a close one.

South Alabama 23, Georgia State 20