Cajun Field will set the backdrop for Thursday night action in the Sun Belt, as the No. 24-ranked Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns take on the Georgia State Panthers for a pivotal cross-conference matchup.
Georgia State has bounced back nicely from its disappointing 1-4 start. The Panthers knocked off budding rival Georgia Southern 21-14 last Saturday, courtesy of a 23-yard touchdown run by Jamyest Williams with 26 seconds remaining in the game. It marked their third consecutive win, all in conference play, to improve to 4-4 overall and 3-1 in the SBC. The surging Panthers also find themselves in a three-way tie for first place in the Sun Belt East, although Appalachian State still has the edge with tie-breaking wins over both Georgia State and Coastal Carolina. The good news is that GSU is still very much in the hunt. Head coach Shawn Elliott and his Panthers will look to keep the momentum rolling on Thursday night, as they go in search of their first win against a ranked opponent in program history.
It's been a banner week for the red-hot Ragin' Cajuns, who improved their winning streak to seven games with a 45-0 victory over Texas State last Saturday. Louisiana quarterback Levi Lewis tossed three touchdown passes in the shutout win, surpassing Jake Delhomme for the most in program history. Head coach Billy Napier improved his record against Sun Belt West opponents to a perfect 15-0. And the Ragin' Cajuns now find themselves with a three-game lead in their division and ranked in the top 25 nationally at 7-1 overall and 5-0 in the Sun Belt. They will look to keep their unblemished conference record intact on Thursday night against the upset-minded Panthers.
Louisiana is 5-0 all-time in matchups against Georgia State. That said, there have been some close calls, including last year's 34-31 overtime win over the Panthers in Atlanta.
Georgia State at No. 24 Louisiana
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Louisiana -12
When Georgia State Has the Ball
A Panther offense that is averaging 384.1 yards and 23.9 points per game isn't exactly explosive. But this unit has shown considerable improvement over the last few weeks. Much of that improvement can be linked to Darren Grainger, who took over sole possession of the starting quarterback job after splitting time with Cornelious "Quad" Brown earlier in the season. Grainger hasn't transformed the Georgia State passing attack into a juggernaut by any means. But the dual-threat signal-caller has proven to be a significant upgrade, leading the Panthers to three straight wins. Meanwhile, Brown entered his name into the transfer portal earlier this week and is no longer on the roster.
For the season, Grainger has completed 60.2 percent of his passes for 924 yards with 11 touchdowns and three interceptions. Wide receiver Jamari Thrash leads the team in receptions (25) and receiving yards (326). Thrash is tied with Ja'Cyais Credle and tight end Aubry Payne for the team lead in touchdown catches with three. The offensive line has been respectable in pass protection, allowing 15 sacks in eight games. But they will need to keep close tabs on all-conference defensive tackle Zi'Yon Hill, who leads the Ragin' Cajuns in sacks (4) and tackles for a loss (7). Grainger and the GSU passing game will be tested by a solid Louisiana pass defense that ranks fourth in the Sun Belt and 42nd nationally, giving up 206.9 yards per game through the air.
While the Georgia State passing game doesn't pose a huge threat in this matchup, a Panther rushing attack that ranks 16th nationally presents a big challenge for the Louisiana defense. The Panthers are averaging 220.6 rushing yards per game. And they have been hitting on all cylinders of late, averaging 294 yards on the ground over their last three contests. Running backs Tucker Gregg (96 att., 552 yds., 4 TDs) and Williams (63, 413, 5), along with Grainger (80, 374, TD), lead the dangerous Georgia State ground attack. The Panthers should be able to find some semblance of success against a middling Louisiana run defense that allows 153.1 rushing yards per game, which ranks fifth in the conference and 70th nationally.
When Louisiana Has the Ball
Quarterback Levi Lewis leads a Louisiana offense that averages 425.1 yards and 32 points per contest. Lewis hasn't put up monster numbers so far this season — completing 62.6 percent of his pass attempts for 1,655 yards with 11 touchdowns against three interceptions. But he is certainly capable of putting up big numbers, as he's the school's all-time leader in touchdown passes and is second in passing yards.
Lewis does not have a favorite target, instead relying on a collective effort from his receiving corps. Wide receiver Dontae Fleming leads the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (266) by a small margin, while TCU transfer John Stephens Jr. leads the team with three touchdown receptions. All-conference tackle Max Mitchell headlines a stout Louisiana offensive line that has given up just 12 sacks all season. Success through the air shouldn't be too difficult to come by against a Georgia State defense that ranks 99th in the FBS against the pass (253.1 ypg).
Much like Georgia State, the strength of the Louisiana offense lies in the run game. The Ragin' Cajuns employ a potent four-pronged attack, consisting of running backs Chris Smith (98 att., 621 yds., 8 TDs), Montrell Johnson (86, 512, 7), and Emani Bailey (45, 310, 3), to go along with Lewis (57, 165, 2). Bailey's availability for Thursday night is still up in the air after missing last week's game with a lower-body injury. But his absence shouldn't have a significant impact on a rushing attack that ranks 23rd nationally, averaging 208.1 yards per game. In their last four games alone, the Ragin' Cajuns have racked up 1,063 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. And they are sure to be a handful for a Georgia State run defense that ranks 88th nationally, giving up 169.5 yards per contest. The Panthers are led defensively by linebacker and all-conference candidate Blake Carroll (59 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble).
This will be a dangerous matchup for Louisiana. The Panthers have won three straight in conference play and put a real scare into Auburn on the road earlier this season. They also gave Louisiana all it could handle last season, coming up just short in overtime. And as great as the Ragin' Cajuns have been this season, they have shown a tendency to play down to their competition.
That being said, almost all of Louisiana's close calls have come on the road. And despite Georgia State's recent winning streak, the Panthers really haven't beaten anyone of note. The Panthers also seem to struggle defensively in big games. Georgia State should be able to keep it interesting, by way of its strong running game and a red zone offense that ranks among the top five nationally. However, a more complete Louisiana team has the edge at home.
Prediction: Louisiana 34, Georgia State 24
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.