Apart from the inevitable championship matchup between the Mountaineers and Ragin’ Cajuns, the Sun Belt is a conference of unrepentant chaos, upsetting the natural balance of things with unscripted victories. For example, though the 5-5 Georgia State Panthers are an up-arrow program, a win over Coastal Carolina in Conway simply wasn’t on the conference’s agenda. One has to believe that Keith Gill, seated in his mahogany paneled office, crushed a glass of milk in his hand while watching the Panthers dispatch one of two AP ranked Sun Belt teams into the Phantom Zone.
Georgia State head football coach Shawn Elliot, one of only two men in the Sun Belt licensed to out-pizza the Hut (the other being Lincoln Pare), does not care about the approved storyline. Georgia State, not yet elite but wonderfully balanced on both sides of the ball, is far more concerned with collecting that bowl-required sixth victory than preserving the Sun Belt’s carefully constructed Jenga tower.
The Panthers have embraced sweet empathy, slowly (sometimes painfully slowly) reversing the narrative from Sun Belt punching bag to the conference’s most enigmatic program. Are the Panthers ready to upend the Coastals and Appalachian States of their division? Or are they the same old Georgia State screw-ups, failing to find the incremental ingredients necessary to close out games?
“It’s Starting to Work. I See the Culture Kicking In.”
The Red Wolves rolled into Jonesboro late Saturday evening with its first FBS victory, taking a W from a motivated Warhawks team in Malone. During Tuesday’s team presser, Coach Butch Jones said he had witnessed junior defensive lineman Vidal Scott shedding tears on the sideline.
“You know why I was crying, Coach,” asked Scott. “It’s starting to work. I see the culture kicking in.”
Butch Jones has made culture the foundation of his rebuild of Arkansas State, which hasn’t provided immediate dividends in the win column, but we’re beginning to see appear in elements of the game. For example, the Red Wolves special teams began the season solid and are finishing the season as among the best squads in college football.
But where we’re seeing an essential difference is on defense. Since giving up 52 points against Coastal Carolina, the defense as averaged a surrender of less than 30. That’s not terrific, but a vast improvement over a squad that was allowing 50 points nearly every game. Guys like junior DL John Mincey and junior DE Thurman Gaethers have elevated their games, and we’re seeing more three-and-outs. The defense is still susceptible to big plays (see the 75-yard TD run from ULM’s Malik Jackson), but they’re making stops – sometimes with increasingly competent coverage from the secondary.
Stopping the Warhawks offense is one thing; slowing down Georgia State is another. The Panther’s run game ranks 18th nationally and is led by the big-boned running back Tucker Gregg – and amplified by the speedy Jamyest Williams. The tandem boasts 14 rushing TDs on the year. Starting QB Darren Grainger averages better than 4 yards per carry. The Red Wolves defense will be busy in the trenches all afternoon long.
Dr. Hatcher Is Back Maybe!
After tossing two miserable picks to start the game, Layne Hatcher does what Layne Hatcher tends to do, and that’s keep throwing. Two touchdowns and 444 passing yards later, Hatcher emerged with a victory and maybe his old mojo, too.
That leaves us with Wyatt Begeal, the hyperactive freshman QB who did’t record a passing stat on Saturday but did deliver a 7-yard run. Butch Jones introduced a wild concept during his Tuesday presser
That’s an interesting idea. However, Lincoln Pare finally delivered a decent run game for the offense against the Warhawks, grinding out 73 Pizza Inn-quality yards. With longtime but sparingly used Red Wolves RB Marcel Murray entering the transfer portal (“I wish him all the best,” – Coach Jones), the running backs room could probably use another warm body.
Panthers Trimmed Down (and Played Up)
At the beginning of the season, Panther’s QB Cornelius Brown IV was receiving All-Sun Belt Team accolades and was fully expected to lead the team’s offense with his dual-threat capabilities. Similarly, veteran running back Destin Coates was also expected to ring bells in the back field. After a 1-4 start, both entered the transfer portal at midseason.
Since the disappointing start, the Panthers’ have completely reversed fortune behind Darren Grainger and Tucker Gregg, highlighted by victories over Coastal Carolina, ULM and Georgia Southern. Sometimes, you have to remove the chaff to receive the wheat.
How to You Skin a Panther?
The offense is humming in Atlanta, but the Panther’s defense still gives up 30 points per game and is ranked 98th nationally. Georgia State generally breaks down against an air attacking, having given up 18 passing touchdowns and surrendering 255 passing yards per game.
While this appears to be in the hands of Hatcher and his go-to guys Corey Rucker and Te’Vailence Hunt, keep in mind that the Panthers also gave up more than 200 yards on the ground to Coastal Carolina. Perhaps this is why Jones is considering giving more run opportunities to Begeal.
Offense alone won’t beat the Panthers at home in Atlanta. A-State linebackers must keep Grainger in check and prevent him from picking up chunks of keeper yards. It’s essential that Joe Ozgouwu – who ranks in the top 10 nationally for sacks – apply pressure in the backfield while LB Caleb Bonner is in position to clean up Grainger at the line of scrimmage.
Ben Moore Says to Beat the Panthers You Gotta…
I asked my FunBelt Podcast co-host Ben Moore of Panther Talk how to neutralize the Panthers, and he said it all starts with Grainger. “When Grainger struggles, things slow down for The Panther Express.”
Yeah, they call their run game “The Panther Express,” and yes, they’re gonna blast that choo-choo horn as often as the neighbors allow it.
Going Deep on the Two Deep
|QB||Layne Hatcher||Wyatt Begeal|
|RB||Alan Lamar||Lincoln Pare|
|TE||Reed Tyler||Emmanuel Stevenson|
|WR||Jeff Foreman||Adam Jones|
|WR||Corey Rucker||Reagan Ealy|
|WR||Te’Vailance Hunt||Dahu Green|
|LT||Andre Harris||Noah Smith|
|LG||Ethan Miner||Ernesto Ramirez|
|C||Jacob Still||Makilan Thomas|
|RG||Ivory Scott||Christian Hoz|
|RT||Wyatt Luebke||Avery Demmons|
|DE||Joe Ozougwu||Thurman Geathers|
|DE||Kivon Bennet||TW Ayers|
|DT||Sosaia Tuitavake||Quay Mays|
|DT||Vidal Scott||John Mincey|
|LB||Anthony Switzer||Cam Jeffery||or Melique Straker|
|LB||Caleb Bonner||Derrick Bean|
|LB||Jaden Harris||Jeffmario Brown||or Dane Motley|
|S||Elery Aldexander||Antonio Fletcher|
|S||Taylon Doss||Trevian Thomas|
|CB||Jarius Reimonenq||Denzel Blackwell|
|CB||Leon Jones||Samy Johnson|
|K||Blake Grupe||Aidan Ellison|
|KR||Marcel Murray||Lincoln Pare|
|PR||Johnnie Lang||Lincoln Pare|
The depth chart is without change, but it is worth noting that Begeal remains the back-up even though former starting QB James Blackman appears to be healthy enough to at least appear dressed on the sidelines.
On with the prediction, numbskull!
The Panthers are one win away from achieving the minimum requirements for receiving a bowl bid. They enter this game on a 4-1 roll, and they’re feeling pretty damn good after punting Coastal Carolina out of the college football spotlight.
But the Red Wolves are not without their own moxie. Arkansas State has won 6 of 7 meetings with Georgia State, including last year’s 59-52 slugfest in Jonesboro. They’ve finally recorded an FBS win in 2021 (also on the road), and there is growing evidence that the team – while far from perfect – is gelling into a lasting program.
I think we’re in for a Rocky-type football battle at the baseball stadium in Atlanta.
PHOTO: Mine, it’s mine, mine