Georgia State looks to make school history in Camellia Bowl

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Eight wins in a football season doesn’t seem like that big a deal. It is for a program that’s never done it before. It is for Georgia State.

The Panthers, who have been playing FBS football full-time only since 2014, will try to reach that mark and make some school history when they play Ball State in the Camellia Bowl in Montgomery, Ala., on Christmas.

“It would be another signature win, something we’ve never done before,” Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott said. “Win No. 8 would be the best senior class in school history. It’s something to be very, very proud of.”

Kickoff is at 2:30 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN and can be heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5.

Georgia State already has set a record for the program’s most Sun Belt Conference wins (six) and tied for second place in the league, which is the best finish in program history. The Panthers also scored their first win over a ranked opponent when they beat then-Associated Press No. 22 Coastal Carolina.

“We’ve made another step in the right direction for the growth of this football program,” Elliott said. “It’s really moving forward, and it’s something to watch out for.”

Five “super seniors” will play their final game for Georgia State: five-time all-conference guard Shamarious Gilmore, tight end Roger Carter, nose guard Dontae Wilson, kicker Noel Ruiz and safety Chris Moore. That group is especially keen to leave a legacy.

“We’ve got seven wins twice since I’ve been here, so I’m trying to get that eighth win in my last season,” Gilmore said. “It would be huge to walk out as the best class.”

Moore said, “It would definitely be a big thing for us because it would be the most wins in program history. That’s a big priority for us and something we’re working hard to accomplish.”

All signs point to a close game.

Georgia State (7-5) is the No. 8-ranked FBS team in rushing at 224.5 yards per game, and running back Tucker Gregg needs 101 yards to become the second player to break 1,000 yards. Jamyest Williams has rushed for 810 yards and quarterback Darren Grainger has run for 548 yards and thrown for 1,512 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The group of receivers finally is healthy, with veterans Sam Pinckney and Cornelius McCoy recovered from bothersome hamstring ailments. Their absence allowed Jamari Thrash, Ja’Cyais Credle and Robert Lewis to log considerable experience.

The GSU defense has been crucial in the drive that has seen the Panthers win six of their past seven games. Only one opponent has scored more than 21 points during that stretch, and Georgia State won that game. The run defense has been especially stout, allowing a combined 54 yards rushing in the final two games. The Panthers set a school record with 84 tackles for loss and has 34 sacks, one shy of last year’s record total.

“I think early on this year, with the tough schedule we had, everybody was trying to do everybody else’s job,” Moore said. “We weren’t coming together as a unit. Seeing that we were one stop away, like in the Auburn game, of being a great team kind of brought us together to get ready for conference play.”

Ball State (6-6) brings a balanced attack. Quarterback Drew Plitt has thrown for 2,248 yards and 17 tournaments, and workhorse running back Carson Steel has rushed for 829 yards and six touchdowns. All-MAC receiver Justin Hall has 61 catches for 613 yards and five touchdown, averages 12 yards per punt return and averages 34.5 yards on kickoff returns, one going for a touchdown.

“They’re going to be well-balanced, and they’re probably going to be really similar to us,” Elliott said. “Once they find their niche, they probably going to stick with that niche. We have to be prepared for them to come out and be really, really physical against us.”

The Ball State defense is led by all-conference defensive backs Jaylin Thomas, who has a team-high 107 total tackles and four interceptions, and Bryce Cosby, who has 103 tackles, 9.5 for loss, four sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. The defense has 23 sacks, 15 interceptions, nine forced fumbles and three blocked kicks.

Georgia State has played the more difficult schedule; the Panthers were the only team in the nation to face four ranked teams on the road. They lost to Power Five schools North Carolina and Auburn, while Ball State’s only Power Five opponent was Penn State, a 44-13 loss.

The only common opponent is Army. Georgia State was beaten 43-10 by the Cadets in the season opener, but Ball State stopped them 28-16 in October.