Georgia State faces biggest challenge in defensive monster James Madison

Georgia State running back Marcus Carroll (23) runs for yards behind offensive lineman Avery Reece (65) during their game against Rhode Island at Center Parc Stadium, Thursday, August 31, 2023, in Atlanta. Carroll had a career-high 184 yards and three touchdowns. Georgia State won 42-35. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia State running back Marcus Carroll (23) runs for yards behind offensive lineman Avery Reece (65) during their game against Rhode Island at Center Parc Stadium, Thursday, August 31, 2023, in Atlanta. Carroll had a career-high 184 yards and three touchdowns. Georgia State won 42-35. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Expect Georgia State’s Marcus Carroll to be a marked man this week.

He’s the latest big-time Sun Belt Conference running back who will be targeted by the super-stingy James Madison defense when the Dukes come to town Saturday. And the ability to spring their league-leading back will help determine whether the Panthers are able to bounce back from a mistake-laden loss at Georgia Southern on Thursday.

The Panthers (6-2, 3-2 Sun Belt) will have their biggest challenge of the season when they host No. 23-ranked James Madison (8-0, 5-0). The game will kick off at 3:30 p.m. at Center Parc Stadium and will be carried on ESPNU, the fourth consecutive game in which the team has been on national television. The game can be heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5.

JMU’s strength is on defense, particularly against the run. The Dukes allow an FBS-best 48.9 yards per game on the ground. They have allowed only 391 yards, an average of 1.6 yards per carry. The group is led by defensive end Jalen Green, who had five sacks against Marshall on Oct. 19 and was national player of the week.

That leaves Carroll, who leads the Sun Belt with 1,006 rushing yards, as the man in the spotlight.

“If you look at (James Madison’s) front four, they play hard and they play with extreme effort,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said. “We all the see the same schemes week-in and week-out, but their guys just get off the blocks and make plays. They play extremely hard and that’s the difference. They’re the standard in our league.”

And the Dukes love to take down the conference’s big backs. Troy’s Kimani Vidal, second in the conference with 994 rushing yards, managed only 27 against JMU. South Alabama’s La’Damian Webb, a preseason all-conference pick, was limited to 36, Georgia Southern’s Jalen White, who ran for 116 yards last week against the Panthers, was held to 50 by JMU.

But Carroll will be a challenge for James Madison, too. He ran 28 times for 208 yards against Georgia Southern, the second-most in school history. He has six 100-yard games and became the second Panther to run for 1,000 yards in a season. He ran for two touchdowns against the Eagles, giving him 12 touchdowns, tied for second-best in the conference.

Factor in that James Madison leads the Sun Belt with 39 sacks – 13 more than second-place Louisiana-Lafayette – for minus-283 yards – and it becomes obvious that the Georgia State offensive line has a big challenge to meet.

“We’re going up against the No. 1-ranked rushing defense in the country,” Elliott said. “This has got to be a challenge or something is wrong with you. We’re going to go out and do what we do. We’ve just got to do it a lot better than we’ve done it. I think we will be up to the task, but they’re a very talented football team, a very tough bunch.”

Carroll was only a supporting player a year ago against James Madison but carried 14 times for 41 yards and one touchdown. Quarterback Darren Grainger threw for 175 yards and one touchdown and ran 10 times for 22 yards and one score against the Dukes.

“For them, it all starts with their running game,” James Madison coach Curt Cignetti said. “They’re very explosive at receiver, and you’ve got to keep Grainger in the pocket.”

If there is a chink in the James Madison defense, it’s on pass defense. The Dukes rank last in the conference, allowing 288.9 yards per game through the air – one spot better that Georgia State, which allows 282.8 yards passing.

Elliott takes no solace in the fact that Georgia State lost 42-40 at James Madison a year ago, one of three season-ending defeats by a total of 10 points.

“It means nothing that we may have played them close and almost came away with a win,” Elliott said. “I think ‘almost’ may be the dumbest word in the dictionary. But here we are playing the 23rd-ranked team in the country, and they are really good, and that’s motivation enough.”