Georgia State still optimistic after tough loss to North Carolina

It’s going to take more than another close loss to a Power Five team for Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott to doubt that his team is headed in the right direction.

The Panthers may have lost a 35-28 decision to North Carolina on Saturday at Center Parc Stadium, but Elliott insisted afterward that his team played toe-to-toe with the Tar Heels for four quarters and that good things are ahead.

“I never question what we do as a football team as far as effort,” Elliott said. “Some of our execution could have been better at times, but what a team that we have. We have a strong football team. I’m very excited about where we are. We’re going to hold our heads up, we’re going to keep our chests out and we’re going to come back and be a better football team.”

Georgia State was hosting a team from a Power Five conference for the first time since the program started in 2010. The Panthers drew a crowd of 17,687 under threatening skies, its largest crowd since the 2021 season opener against Army.

The Tar Heels scored on their first possession when quarterback Drake Maye – who completed 19 of 24 passes for 284 yards -- found tight end Kamari Morales for a 55-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Georgia State answered with a 45-yard field goal by Michael Hayes to cut the lead to 7-3.

North Carolina scored two consecutive touchdowns, a 7-yard run by D.J. Jones and a 28-yard pass from Maye to Kobe Paysour. Georgia State cut the lead to 21-10 on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Darren Grainger to Kris Byrd.

Georgia State had one more chance before halftime when UNC gambled on fourth-and-2 at its own 39 and Maye was sacked by Jontrey Hunter. But the Panthers were unable to move the ball, and Hayes had his 44-yard field-goal try blocked by Myles Murphy.

“It’s a long game, and you’ve got to keep improving from start to finish,” said Hunter, who had 10 tackles, one sack and a fumble recovery. “Our mindset was just (to) keep improving and make plays.”

Georgia State scored 18 consecutive points to start the third quarter. Robert Lewis caught a 49-yard pass from Grainger, Hayes kicked a 45-yard field goal and Lewis caught a 29-yard pass to finish a 99-yard drive. The two-point conversion pass to Jamari Thrash gave GSU a 28-21 lead with 2:04 left in the third quarter.

“That third quarter was nice,” Elliott said. “It was easy flowing. We found a little rhythm; we found a couple plays in there that confused them a little bit. We saw some stuff and took it right down the field.”

North Carolina answered by scoring in four plays, with Omarion Hampton breaking the line and running for a 58-yard touchdown with 33 seconds left to tie the score at 28-28. The Tar Heels scored the go-ahead touchdown on Hampton’s 2-yard run with 10:42 remaining. Hampton finished with 16 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns.

GSU had three possessions after the Heels regained the lead, but had to punt each time. After the final punt, North Carolina was able to force the Panthers to burn their timeouts, and they picked up a first down and ran out the clock.

“I did consider going for it,” Elliott said. “I thought we were playing really well defensively. I thought we were going to get a stop and get the ball back about midfield, and we would have the opportunity to go in there again.”

Georgia State’s offense was more well-rounded than it was against South Carolina a week earlier in the season-opening loss. Grainger completed 16 of 24 passes for 186 yards and three touchdowns and ran 18 times for 75 yards. Tucker Gregg carried 18 times for 79 yards, and Jamyest Williams ran 15 times for 68 yards. Lewis caught 10 passes – one short of tying the school record -- for 115 yards and two touchdowns.

“This is not something that’s going to train-wreck our season,” Elliott said. “It’s something that we’re going to gain confidence from; we’re going to build on it. It’s almost going to inspire us to be a better football team because of how we’ve played the first two weeks.

“I’m a competitor, and it burns me, and it burns our football team. But if we manage these two losses the way I think we win, we will mature as a football team, and we’re going to grow and develop into a great team.”