MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Darren Grainger and Georgia State saved their best for the last game of the season — and especially for a thoroughly dominating third quarter.
Grainger passed for 203 yards and three touchdowns and ran for 122 yards and a fourth TD to lead Georgia State to a 51-20 victory over Ball State in the Camellia Bowl on Saturday.
The Panthers (8-5) finished with their seventh win in eight games, dominated the lone bowl played on Christmas Day and set a season record for wins.
Coach Shawn Elliott called it “the best performance Georgia State football has had this year.”
“I think we finished Christmas Day with one of the best presents we could have ever asked for and that’s a commanding, dominating win,” Elliott said. It was the first time the program had won back-to-back bowl games.
His team was up 20-13 at halftime but scored the next 31 points.
Grainger completed 15 of 19 passes and carried 11 times, including a play fake midway through the third quarter when he scampered 34 yards untouched into the end zone. It was the first 100-yard rushing game of his career, and he was named the game MVP.
Ball State (6-7) couldn’t summon up many big plays after Drew Plitt’s 56-yard touchdown bomb to Jayshon Jackson for an early lead.
The Cardinals finished with a losing record a year after coach Mike Neu led his alma mater to its first Mid-American Conference championship since 1996.
“This group of young men has changed our program, and I mean that,” Neu said. “A few years ago, we were struggling, we were down and out. These guys stuck together.”
Tight end Aubrey Payne had two touchdown catches for Georgia State, along with career-highs of eight catches and 109 yards.
The Panthers defense also supplied two touchdowns: a 37-yard fumble recovery by defensive end Javon Denis and a 55-yard interception return by Antavious Lane that ended the team’s 28-point third quarter.
“I really just wanted to win,” Grainger said. “It didn’t really matter how it came. We were talking so much about getting the eighth win this week.”
Plitt completed 27 of 46 passes for 293 yards with a touchdown and an interception for Ball State, which was without injured leading receiver Justin Hall. Jackson caught 12 passes for 146 yards.
It was Plitt’s last game of his career at Ball State, but afterward, he was looking ahead to how his returning teammates can bounce back.
“I feel like this team is going to surprise a lot of people,” Plitt said.
Georgia State: Completed a dramatic turnaround after a 1-4 start that included losses to Army, North Carolina, Auburn and Appalachian State. The nation’s No. 8 ground game dominated Saturday, churning out 259 yards.
Ball State: Had a disappointing ending after gaining bowl eligibility with a 20-3 win over Buffalo in the regular-season finale. A failed fourth-and-1 try from its own 34 in the first half led to a field goal. The Cardinals fell to 1-9-1 in bowl games.
Ball State was without two offensive line starters —left guard Anthony Todd (injury) and right tackle Damon Kaylor (COVID-19 protocol) — along with Hall.
“We had some moving parts on the offensive line,” Neu said. “We had a few adjustments we had to make throughout the week. That’s part of it. There’s some guys who stepped in and played their first snaps this week.”
Georgia State starting noseguard Dontae Wilson also didn’t play for undisclosed reasons, and tight end Roger Carter was out with an injury.
Ball State: Opens next season at Tennessee, and must replace Plitt and had 32 seniors/grad students.
Georgia State: Will have Grainger back next season and also starts on the road against an SEC team — South Carolina. “This team is growing, and I think it’s going to continuously grow under Coach Elliott,” Payne said.