Georgia State’s passing offense hits a new gear

Georgia State will face Ball State on Saturday. (Georgia State)

Georgia State will face Arkansas State on Saturday. (Georgia State)

That Georgia State has one of the best passing attacks in the nation this season with an average of 326.8 yards per game is impressive because:

  • Quarterback Nick Arbuckle started the year with leading receiver Donovan Harden on the sidelines because of injury;
  • Starting tight end Joel Ruiz, possibly an NFL draft pick, was trying to overcome offseason knee surgery;
  • The offensive line was still settling on starters;
  • The running game was a mystery after averaging less than 100 yards per game last season;

Six games into the season and the with the Panthers headed to Arkansas State on Saturday for the first of six consecutive Sun Belt Conference games, Arbuckle and Georgia State’s offense is on pace to shatter most of the school’s single-season passing records that he set just last year.

“He’s a guy I love to follow,” Harden said or Arbuckle. “He gets us going. He makes great decisions out there. I love calling him my quarterback.”

The wide receivers are now mostly healthy and have found new weapons such as Penny Hart, one of the best freshman receivers in FBS and a player Arbuckle said is difficult to cover one-on-one. Though Ruiz is now out for the season, Keith Rucker has stepped into the role and Arbuckle says is playing better than Ruiz did last year. While the running game seems to be getting worse and is also dealing with injuries, nothing seems to be slowing Arbuckle down even though defenses know he’s going to drop back and throw.

Arbuckle has thrown 27 passes of at least 20 yards. He has completed eight passes of at least 50 yards, spreading them around to four receivers. He leads the conference and is eighth in FBS with 326.8 passing yards per game. He is also the Sun Belt leader in total offense (317.3) and completion percentage (66.2).

“I give Nick a lot of credit as a player and competitor,” quarterbacks coach Luke Huard said. “He has a tremendous amount of buy in and studying the game. He puts forth the type of effort it takes to play good football.”

Arbuckle is quick to praise the offensive line, which has settled into a rotation. During the bye last week, Arbuckle said he watched a lot of college football and was able to better appreciate the time that the Panthers’ line gives him to throw. He has been sacked 16 times, but has dropped back to pass at least 233 times.

Arbuckle also credited the receivers, who he said do a good job of getting open and seldom drop passes. During one NFL game on Sunday, Arbuckle said one team had between 11-12 drops. He doesn’t think his receivers have had that many this season.

“It’s easy to throw to open receivers,” Arbuckle said. “If I do throw a bad ball they are good enough to make the catch.”

But if the ball isn’t getting there it doesn’t matter how open they are, and that’s where Arbuckle comes in.

Arbuckle has become one of FBS’ most-effective quarterbacks this season because of the work he put in during the offseason. After throwing 17 interceptions last season, he committed to fine-tuning his footwork and decision-making to reduce the chances of poor throws. He studied Tom Brady’s movement in the pocket and Aaron Rodgers’ skill at throwing accurately when his feet aren’t quite right.

The work has been evident this season. He has thrown six interceptions, at least two of which came on tipped passes, something he can’t do much about. Arbuckle said he is completing 61 percent of his passes this season when he is moving because of pressure or after he has been hit.

Against Liberty, he avoided a rusher, ran forward and threw a 61-yard touchdown pass to Davis. That’s not a throw that Arbuckle thinks he could have made last year because he wasn’t as comfortable throwing while running. He said he’s almost more comfortable throwing while moving because he has learned how to better use his hips and stay balanced he is standing in the pocket.

A senior, he’s also more patient.

Two throws made in the victory over Ball State exemplified his growth. Feeling pressure on one play, Arbuckle moved in the pocket to buy time, and eventually found running back Demarcus Kirk, his safety outlet. Last season, Arbuckle might have felt the pressure and tried to gun the ball to a covered receiver. Arbuckle said those check-down passes to running backs are another weapon in the passing game.

“Last year, he made a variety of throws,” Huard said. “Difference is just the discipline he is playing with. He’s making very, very good decisions.”

Keeping the attack going against Arkansas State will be a challenge.

The Red Wolves have a ball-hawking secondary that limits offenses to a Sun Belt-best 51.1-percent passing and also leads the conference with 15 interceptions, four more than the next best team.

Huard said they key will be for Arbuckle to continue to make good decisions and put the ball where only Georgia State’s players can make a play on it.

It’s something Arbuckle has been doing most of the season.

“He’s just doing his job and doing it well,” Huard said. “As a quarterback, when you have good players around you on the perimeter that have experience and can do things with the ball, it makes your job easier.”

Arbuckle’s season records (all set in 2014)

Yards passing: 3,283

Pass completions: 259

Pass attempts: 429

TD passes: 23

Total offense: 3,293


2016 stats (through six games with six remaining)

Yards passing: 1,961, on pace for 3,922

Pass completions: 149, on pace for 298

Pass attempts: 233, on pace for 466

TD passes: 11, on pace for 22

Total offense: 1,904, on pace for 3,808




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