‘Improving’ Georgia State faces fierce test in Appalachian State

Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott reacts after the defense stops Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

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Georgia State coach Shawn Elliott reacts after the defense stops Auburn on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Credit: AP

The Georgia State football team that starts its Sun Belt Conference schedule Saturday is much better than the one that showed up in the season opener against Army. But just how much better?

The Panthers, who outplayed Auburn for 59 minutes Saturday in a near-upset win, will host perennial Sun Belt-power Appalachian State on Saturday at Center Parc Stadium. If Georgia State (1-3) is serious about contending for the conference championship, the road starts against the Mountaineers (3-1), a team the Panthers have not beaten in seven tries.

Kickoff is at 2 p.m. It will be televised on ESPN-Plus and can heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5.

The two areas of improvement that coach Shawn Elliott emphasized for his team were run defense and running the ball.

The run defense was outstanding against an Auburn team that averaged 342 pounds across the offensive line. Georgia State limited the Tigers to 166 rushing yards (4.74 yards per carry). Meanwhile, the Panthers ran for 257 yards, with Tucker Gregg picking up 150 of those.

“It’s great to see them flying around out there (on defense) and making play after play after play,” Elliott said. “Then to have the ability go to and rush the way we did. I think those are the two big areas of improvement that we’ve hit on, and we certainly got a lot more improvement to do.

“We’ve got other areas that need a little bit more improving than others, but we’ve addressed them, and we’ve started doing some things I feel are necessary to make us a better football heading into our conference play.”

Although Antavious Lane led the team with nine tackles and Jordan Veneziale had seven, Elliott pointed out that 22 Panthers made tackles against Auburn.

“When you go through the roster and you see the participation chart, anybody who played out there,” Elliott said. “You look at a guy like (sophomore defensive end) Javon Dennis. He’s a guy who rarely gets mentioned, and he goes out there and plays his tail off every week.” Dennis had two tackles and a quarterback hurry.

Elliott pointed to the safeties, where Lane, Chris Moore (six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss), Chris Bacon (two tackles) and Keon Carter help contain the Auburn running game and protect against the deep ball.

“You’ve got these guys that go out there … it’s kind of the no-name defense because nobody is a one-person show,” Elliott said. “I love to see a defense that can go out there and have that combination of great group tackling and an unselfish nature … and they’re doing that right now.”

The running game has looked better since Darren Grainger was moved to quarterback and Gregg became the primary ball carrier. Grainger kept it 17 times for 61 yards – there were 22 yards subtracted because of sacks. His passing touch wasn’t the best – there were some overthrows and some wrong decisions – but Elliott said, “His running game was on point.”

When Destin Coates struggled with ball security – he lost a fumble against Army and another one against Charlotte – Elliott turned to Gregg, who showed more speed than expected with a pair of plus-50-yard runs. The Panthers also continue to integrate the speedy Jamyest Williams in the rotation, giving GSU a solid inside-outside punch. Coates emerged from double-secret probation to carry eight times without incident and sophomore Marcus Carroll had three tough runs.

This week the GSU defense will be tasked with stopping a balanced App State attack led by Grayson native Chase Brice (1,034 yards, five touchdowns) and a running game spearheaded by sophomore Nate Noel (437 yards) and Camerun Peoples (353 yards, eight touchdowns). Noel ran for 87 yards on the game-clinching drive last week against Marshall and was named the Sun Belt offensive player of the week.

App State ranks third in the conference in rushing (205.8), one spot ahead of Georgia State (197).

Inside linebacker D’Marco Jackson leads the conference with 45 tackles and his 11.3 tackles per game is tied for second-best in the country. He earned a national player-of-the-week award a year ago when he had nine tackles, six for loss or no gain, in the 17-13 win over Georgia State in Boone, N.C.

“They set the standard in the Sun Belt Conference,” Elliott said. “They were setting the standard long before they even got into the Sun Belt Conference. We’re trying to catch up to them. We’re improving, and we’ll see where it all lays down on Saturday.”

There are deep ties between Georgia State and Appalachian State. That’s where Elliott played his college ball – where he was a teammate of current App State coach Shawn Clark -- and spent 13 seasons on the coaching staff. Georgia State athletic director Charlie Cobb held the same post for nine years with the Mountaineers.

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