Football’s missing heart. Will they find it?

Georgia State quarterback Dan Ellington rushes against Western Michigan on Saturday, Sept. 22 at the Georgia State Stadium. Photo by Chris Young | The Signal

Georgia State head coach Shawn Elliott has never had one of his teams quit during his coaching career. Yet, his Panthers (1-3) did just that during their 34-15 loss to the Western Michigan Broncos (2-2) last Saturday.

Numerous opportunities presented themselves, but the Panthers weren’t consistent in most areas, and a lot of that can be attributed to a lack of effort. They’re on a three-game losing streak and simply aren’t playing good football.

Elliott has challenged his team to step up and grow up as their Sun Belt Conference schedule begins.

“In my entire career I’ve never thought that it would come to a day where you see the fight really taken out of our football team,” Elliott said. “It’s one of the things that we talk about a lot, is having tremendous fight and there wasn’t a whole lot of fight out there.

“If there was, it was that other team, ‘cause our fight wasn’t there. Ultimately, I’ve got to take control of that and it’s got to go from myself to our coaches and then to our players. If they ultimately don’t know how to fight, then we have to teach them that and I’ve addressed that with them,” Elliott said.

Quarterback Dan Ellington had more passing yards than Western Michigan signal caller Jon Wassink, but Ellington didn’t throw any touchdowns compared to Wassink’s three. That was one of the few positives for Georgia State, but the negatives overshadowed them by a significant margin.

Stopping the run was a huge struggle for Georgia State for the second straight week after solid showings in its first two games. Jamauri Bogan and LeVante Bellamy each eclipsed 100 yards rushing and had runs of 58 and 71 yards, respectively. The Broncos ran for 294 yards, and the Panthers had just 58.

Not only was their run defense shoddy, the Panthers’ three-week plague of no notable pass rush grew to four weeks. It didn’t register any sacks for the second time this season, and it only has two on the year. Because four freshmen in the secondary are playing heavy minutes due to injuries, the problem is enhanced.

Just as concerning as their nearly nonexistent pass rush was the Panthers’ offensive blocking. Two freshmen at right guard and left guard started, and the offensive line allowed two free rushers to strip-sack Ellington, and Western Michigan recovered both times.

“Early on, he (Ellington) was comfortable in the pocket,” Western Michigan head coach Tim Lester said. “And we were planning on playing some coverage and seeing if he could throw it and beat us, and he did. The first couple balls (he threw) were nice, and so we started bringing some pressure, and the tides started turning after that.”

“We’ve got guys on our football team that fight, but we don’t have enough of them that fight right now,” Elliott said.

A bright spot for the Panthers was their perfect 3-3 redzone mark. Ellington ran for two touchdowns, and Barry Brown, who filled in for an injured Brandon Wright, made a 36-yard field goal despite missing both extra points attempts. Wright can still handle punting duties, where he is averaging 52.8 yards per punt, second-best in the nation.

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The Panthers have eight games left on their schedule, and they want to leave habits they’ve built so far this season in the past for the most part. Winning a Sun Belt Conference title and making a bowl game are still possibilities with sharper execution.

“We have an opportunity to go out there and play for a conference title,” Elliott said. “It starts next week, it actually starts immediately with the mindset of some of our players and our coaches and myself.”

Georgia State was on the hunt for a conference title with two games left last season. They played focused football to be in that position, and they’ll have to start playing it again to make their goal of being champions realistic.

“This is championship football that we’re fixing to go play, and it certainly raises the level. Not that these weren’t important … but it is conference season now that awards you at the end,” Elliott said.

Players such as Shaw and Allen are a few veterans that Elliott wants to see more enthusiasm from. Ellington is in his first year at Georgia State, but he is already a leader of the team, and he is taking charge to keep the team’s spirits together.

“We gotta do better,” Ellington said. “We got a lot of young guys on the team. We as leaders gotta make sure that we keep their heads up and make sure that we push ourselves and push the team and make sure we just finish to triple zeros in the fourth quarter.”

Penny Hart caught five passes for 91 yards against Western Michigan, 38 yards more than his previous season high. Hart is the best playmaker on the roster, and the offense runs better when he is active.

It’s encouraging for Georgia State that Hart had a strong game before they enter conference play, where he performs well.

“Penny is a huge competitor and when you look around, he was the guy who wanted the football, he wanted the ball in his hands,” Elliott said. “He was about the only guy that we had that was going to make an exciting play other than Ellington on some scrambles. When you got a guy like him, you gotta feed him the football, and we certainly gotta do that.”

Injuries and youth are having a heavy impact on Georgia State, but the team is still talented and seen as one of the better programs in the Sun Belt. Neither the defense nor offense has shown its full potential yet.

“We’re fine,” Ellington said. “We’re gonna continue to get better each and every week and I’m not down on our guys one bit.”

Georgia State plays University of Louisiana at Monroe (2-2, 0-1) on Saturday, Sept. 29 at 2 p.m. at Georgia State Stadium. Both teams are on losing skids, and one of them will be winless in the conference after the game’s final whistle.

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