In college football’s second Christmas Day game since 2003, Ball State couldn’t open the gift it desired most. After winning its first bowl game in school history last December, the Cardinals were unable complete the follow-up act in the TaxAct Camellia Bowl.
Georgia State routed Ball State in the second half to secure a 51-20 victory in Montgomery, AL. The Panthers utilized a pair of defensive touchdowns and phenomenal two-way play by dual threat quarterback Darren Grainger to lock up their their second consecutive bowl trophy and third in program history. Grainger claimed MVP honors behind a season-high 122 rushing yards and 203 passing yards on an accurate 15-of-19 showing.
The Cardinals senior-heavy roster operated without their main star, five-time All-MAC selection Justin Hall. Hall was a catch away from becoming the standalone leader for most consecutive games with a reception in college football history, but an injury kept him sidelined from attaining that feat in Montgomery. Even without the FBS active leader in receptions, Ball State managed to jump-start the passing attack early. Longtime quarterback Drew Plitt opened his final game with a 56-yard touchdown pass to Jayshon Jackson to hand the Cardinals an early 7-0 advantage.
Ball State’s edge didn’t last long. Georgia State instantly responded with an 18-yard touchdown pass to tight end Aubry Payne, his first of two scores on the afternoon. After providing the tying score, the Panthers regained control through a potent defensive effort. Pressure in the trenches was a deciding factor, as Georgia State recorded four sacks compared to Ball State’s zero. The most notable sack transpired when Georgia State spun around Plitt in the backfield and the bar jarred loose in the first quarter. Defensive end Javon Denis scooped up the pigskin for a 37-yard uncontested trot to the end zone.
The Cardinals maintained a 7-point deficit heading into halftime thanks to the teams trading two field goals apiece in the second frame. But as soon as halftime concluded, every wish on the Panthers’ Christmas list was granted.
Georgia State notched points on its first possession of the second half with a 10-yard touchdown strike from Grainger to wide receiver Robert Lewis. Grainger then showcased his mobility by flying 34 yards to the end zone, untouched, on a zone read. The quarterback then reverted to the aerial attack to find Payne for another touchdown connection. Grainger accounted for four touchdowns in total, including three in a game-altering third quarter.
As if the Grainger-led 21-0 run by Georgia State wasn’t deflating enough for Ball State, things only got worse. Attempting to stage a comeback, Plitt’s pass on the final play of the third quarter deflected off his receiver and landed into the waiting arms of free safety Antavious Lane, who recorded his Sun Belt-best fifth interception of the season. Lane fittingly found an open lane to the house for a 55-yard return. With two touchdowns, Georgia State’s defense totaled as many end zone appearances as Ball State on the afternoon.
Plitt capped off a storied tenure at Ball State — which featured a MAC championship and an Arizona Bowl win — with a QB sneak touchdown in the final four minutes of his collegiate career. It was a bitter end for a senior class, headlined by Plitt, Bryce Cosby, and others who accounted for many historic accomplishments at Ball State.
Positives for Ball State in the 31-point loss included the stellar play of Jackson. In the absence of Hall, the Cincinnati transfer receiver recorded a career-high 146 yards on 12 receptions. Due to Jackson’s presence, Ball State out-gained Georgia State through the air, 293-205, but the rushing disparity overwhelmingly favored the Panthers at 259-74.
Georgia State finishes the 2021 campaign as winners of seven of its last eight contests, resulting in an 8-5 record. Ball State falls to 6-7 with the program’s first bowl defeat since 2013. Following the lopsided result in Montgomery, the MAC’s bowl record was rewritten to 1-5 for the 2021 season.