By Barry Allen
MONTGOMERY – In the blink of an eye, Georgia State turned a one-score game into a second-half blowout.
The Panthers scored 31 unanswered points in the second half and defeated Ball State 51-20 in the most lopsided game in TaxAct Camellia Bowl history. The 71 combined points and 31-point margin of victory were both bowl records. The previous seven Camellia Bowl games had been decided by 32 total points.
Georgia State (8-5) also set the Camellia Bowl record with 51 points, which currently stands as the fourth-most points by a team in the 2021-22 bowl season. The eight wins are the most in school history for the Panthers, who are only in their 12th year of football.
Redshirt junior quarterback, Darren Grainger accounted for 325 total yards and four touchdowns to earn the Bart Starr Most Valuable Player award. Grainger completed 15-of-19 passes for 203 yards and three touchdowns. At one point, he completed 11 straight passes. He also ran 11 times for 122 yards and one touchdown to become the second quarterback in Camellia Bowl history with 100 or more rushing yards.
“I think we finished Christmas Day, Darren (Grainger), with one of the best presents we could have ever asked for and that’s a commanding, dominating win today,” Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott said. “For our conference (Sun Belt) and our football program, it’s nice to call ourselves the TaxAct Camellia Bowl champions. That’s something you’ll never get tired of hearing.”
Georgia State held a narrow 20-13 lead at halftime, tying the Camellia Bowl record for highest scoring first half.
The second half was a runaway.
GSU scored on its first four offensive possessions and even got a “pick 6” from the defense to turn a close game into a rout.
The Panthers took the second half kickoff and marched 75 yards in eight plays to extend its lead to 27-13. Grainger capped the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Robert Lewis. Running back Jaymest Williams had four carries for 30 yards on the drive, including a 17-yard burst to set up first-and-goal.
Grainger added a 34-yard touchdown run on the next possession to stretch the lead to 34-13.
Grainger and tight end Aubry Payne hooked up for the second touchdown of the game on the next possession with a 19-yard touchdown pass to push the lead to 41-13. Payne had a big day from his tight end position with eight catches for 109 yards and two touchdowns, all career highs for the senior.
The defense added its second touchdown of the day when sophomore safety Antavious Lane had a 55-yard interception return to give the Panthers a 48-13 lead at the end of three quarters. It was the longest interception return in Camellia Bowl history.
Senior Noel Ruiz capped the scoring for GSU with a 45-yard field goal with just over nine minutes left in the game. Ruiz celebrated a bowl win on Christmas afternoon, but also his birthday. Ruiz made all three field goal attempts and finished the game with 15 points.
When it was all finished, Georgia State had reeled off 31 unanswered points, including a Camellia Bowl record 28 points in the first quarter.
“Obviously, a tough night for us,” Ball State head coach Mike Neu said. “First and foremost, I tip my hat to Georgia State. They played an excellent football game. They beat us. Came back out, had a one-possession game at halftime and really just struggled to get anything going, struggled to slow them down offensively, so you’ve got to tip your hat to them. They came out here and they earned it.”
The Georgia State defense was just as lethal as the offense, with eight tackles for loss, three sacks, two turnovers and two defensive touchdowns. The two defensive scores tied Ohio (2015) for the most in Camellia Bowl history. Lane was the leading tackler with 10 stops, one TFL and one interception return for a touchdown. Linebacker Jamil Muhammad, a native of Madison, Ala., recorded five tackles, two sacks (one on first play of the game) and forced fumble that resulted in a touchdown.
Ball State (6-7) quarterback Drew Plitt scored on a 1-yard run with three minutes left to make the final 52-20. He finished 27-fo-46 for 294 yards and one touchdown. He also had two turnovers and was sacked three times, including the very first play of the game.
After an exchange of punts to begin the game, Ball State struck quickly on its next possession, scoring in two plays to grab a 7-0 lead. Plitt found a wide open Jayshon Jackson on a 56-yards TD strike to give the Cardinals the lead with 8:59 left in the first quarter.
Jackson had a stellar day for the Cardinals with a Camellia Bowl record 12 receptions for 146 yards and one touchdown. The 56-yard TD reception in the first quarter was the third-longest in bowl history.
Georgia State answered with a 10-play scoring drive to the tie the game at 7-7. Grainger completed all four passes on the drive, including three passes Payne. He hauled in a 19-yard catch to convert and third-and-6 early in the drive and then capped the 75-yard march with an 18-yard touchdown reception to tie the game.
The Panthers defense got into the scoring column on the next possession when Muhammad forced a fumble from Plitt, and defensive end Javon Denis scooped up the loose football and raced 37 yards for the go-ahead touchdown to put the Panthers in front 14-7.
The GSU defense set up the next score with a fourth-down stop at the Ball State 34-yard line. Facing third-and-one from the 34-yard line Carson Steele was stopped by safety Chris Moore. On fourth down, Plitt came up short on a quarterback sneak as linebacker Blake Carroll stuffed the play.
Despite the short field, GSU had to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Noel Ruiz to extend the lead to 17-7 with 14:11 left in the first half.
Ball State kicker Jacob Lewis hit a 34-yard field goal with 9:20 remaining in the half to cut the lead to 17-10.
Georgia State moved the ball into the red zone on its next possession, set up by Grainger’s 47-yrd run to the Cardinals 11-yard. However, the drive stalled, and the Panthers settled for a 28-yard field goal by Ruiz to double its lead to 20-10.
Ball State used a 13-play, 53-yard drive just before halftime to cut the lead to 20-13 on Lewis’ 43-yard field goal.