First-year Georgia Southern coach Clay Helton has embraced the notion that the rivalry is alive and well between the two programs.
“We’re in the same state. Obviously, there are recruiting battles within this state, and this is a rivalry, without question,” Helton said. “It does have significance and our kids know that. They’re smart, and Shawn’s (Elliott, Georgia State coach) kids are smart, too. This is a special game to both sides, and we look forward to the opportunity – my first opportunity – for that competition.”
Georgia State (1-4, 0-1 Sun Belt) and Georgia Southern (3-2, 0-1) play again at 2 p.m. Saturday at Center Parc Stadium. The game can be seen on ESPN3 and heard locally on WRAS-FM 88.5. With a favorable weather forecast, a large crowd is expected for the game.
It’s a new chapter in the sometimes chippy, sometimes frosty relationship between the programs. Few Georgia State fans can forget the year Southern fans hung a “Paulson Stadium North” sign in their ballpark -- or the glee they took in tearing it down after a GSU victory. And Southern fans still get steamed about Georgia State claiming to be the “Real GSU” and the oft-used “State Not Southern” Twitter hashtag.
Georgia Southern hammered Georgia State 69-31 in the first meeting in 2014 at the Georgia Dome. But since then, the Panthers have won five of the past seven games, including last year’s dramatic 21-14 contest in Statesboro.
The 2021 game had a wild finish. Southern tied the score with 1:39 to play, but Georgia State took the 21-14 lead when Jamyest Williams scored on a 23-yard run with 26 seconds remaining. Southern used two big plays to reach the GSU 21 with two seconds remaining, only to have GSU’s Jhi-Shawn Taylor sack Southern quarterback Justin Tomlin to end the game.
The same sort of action is expected this year between the teams, who both like to play at a quick pace. It will be a complete reversal for Georgia State, which faced a one-dimensional ground attack in Army last week.
“This week is going to be totally different,” Elliott said. “Army completed one pass for 11 yards. This week the ball may be in the air 35-40 times. Last week we had to be real physical and keep our eyes in good position. This week we’ll have to have great concentration and focus and our cover skills will come into play.
“They’re going to spread the field and play basketball. They’re going to pick and choose. They look like the Lakers coming down the field – a pass here, a pass there and then a drive-dunk in the middle.”
Helton has installed an offense that averages 37.3 points behind grad transfer quarterback Kyle Vantrease. A former three-year starter at Buffalo Vantrease is the No. 1 passer in the Sun Belt, with 1,574 yards and 10 touchdowns. He engineered Southern’s dramatic win at Nebraska and was named Sun Belt Player of the Week as a result.
Vantrease has outstanding receivers in Derwin Burgess, Khaleb Hood and Jeremy Singleton. Jalen White (450 yards, seven touchdowns) brings a balance with the rushing game.
Georgia State is a run-first team that has surpassed 200 yards in four of its five games and averages 214.5 yards on the ground. The Panthers have options with a line-pounder such as Tucker Gregg (349 yards), an elusive runner in Williams (274 yards) and a hybrid in Marcus Carroll (218). And quarterback Darren Grainger (233 yards) is a scary option when he decides to keep it.
Grainger has made strides this season getting the ball down the field. He has thrown for 1,028 yards and 10 touchdowns and has three speedy targets in Jamari Thrash (25 catches), Robert Lewis (14 catches) and Ja’Cyais Credle (13 catches).
“You have to choose: Are you going to stop the run? Or are you going to stop the pass,” Helton said. “It’s a little bit of chess match.”