Strong ground game gives Georgia State second consecutive win

Georgia State quarterback Darren Grainger. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

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Georgia State quarterback Darren Grainger. (Daniel Varnado/For the AJC)

Following the final play of the third quarter, the Georgia State football team was jumping around to celebrate a crucial first-down pickup. Right in the middle of the action was coach Shawn Elliott, who slapped running back Tucker Gregg hard enough to leave a handprint on his helmet.

There would be more. And quickly. On the next play, the first of the fourth quarter, quarterback Darren Grainger found tight end Aubry Payne for a wide-open 27-yard score and a two-score lead, and Georgia State went on for a 28-16 win Saturday on homecoming at Center Parc Stadium.

“Unbelievable,” Elliott said. “Talk about one play in that ballgame -- and there were a lot that I remember -- but that one play, to get stuffed at the line of scrimmage ... he willed himself to that first down. There were a lot of great plays out there, but if there was one thing I’d want my son to see, it would be that play.”

It was a much-needed victory for the Panthers (3-4, 2-1 Sun Belt), who face a string of three consecutive road games that starts with rival Georgia Southern on Saturday.

Gregg’s run was typical of the afternoon. Never pretty, but typically effective, the senior finished with 21 attempts for 115 yards, which put him over the 1,000 career rushing mark. The most celebrated carry Saturday came on a third-and-1, when Gregg was stopped twice behind the line, only to keep his legs moving until he had the yard needed to move the chains.

It was typical of Georgia State’s running game that it ignited the GSU effort. The Panthers ran for 298 yards, with Grainger carrying 14 times for 106 yards and Jamyest Williams adding 77 yards on eight carries. Grainger completed 16 of 25 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns.

“It was a lot of emotion,” Williams said. “I feel like all that passion we have for the game just came pouring out and were all just putting it together. We want to win because we’re winners.”

Texas State quarterback Brady McBride completed 27 of 47 passes for 268 yards, but was sacked three times and threw an interception, a fourth-quarter pick by Jaylon Jones.

The Georgia State defense held its own early and forced Texas State to settle for a pair of Seth Keller field goals for a 6-0 lead. The Panthers had to dig in again after Grainger fumbled the ball while trying to squeeze out an additional yard and gave the Bobcats the ball at the 38. Texas State ran five plays and had to punt, with the ball going over head of return man Quavian White and being downed at the 1.

“In these days, field goals don’t win a lot of games,” Elliott said. “That’s why I kind of go for it at times. When they did that, I put it in the back of my mind -- that’s three points, that’s six points. I’m not concerned. It was a great shot for our defense, and I knew we’re about to get rolling offensively and we’re about to put this in.”

Elliott was correct. The Panthers answered with a 99-yard scoring drive that equaled the school record set in 2020 against Arkansas State. A key play was a 21-yard carry from Gregg, which pushed him over the career 1,000-yard mark, and Georgia State scored on an 18-yard from Williams.

After forcing another three-and-out, Georgia State scored again for a 14-6 lead. Grainger found Jamari Thrash for a 35-yard touchdown, his third of the season.

Texas State answered with a 12-play drive that culminated in McBride’s 8-yard touchdown run and Georgia State led 14-13 at the half.

The Panthers extended the lead to 21-13 on a 21-yard run by Williams. The drive stayed alive when Georgia State converted a fourth-and-1, as Gregg took the handoff, appeared to be stopped before powering his way for 14 yards. Williams scored three plays later, finding a hole on the right side and running through a pair of arm tackles to score with 8:10 left in the third quarter.

The GSU defense limited the Bobcats to a 31-yard Keller field goal and held a 21-16 lead with 3:57 left in the third period.

Georgia State tight end Roger Carter had one catch for 16 yards and surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for his career.