Atkinson and his fellow offensive lineman detected some sluggishness, so they decided to stand to their feet and move around to get the blood flowing. That seemed to do the trick.
“Eventually we just started going and our legs felt good,” Atkinson said. “I mean, we just started out sluggish and you can’t do that in the game because the first two possessions can come down to wins or losses.”
Once the offensive line began to perform up to its standards, the yards began to pile up. Quarterback Dan Ellington ran for a career-best 128 yards. Tra Barnett rushed for 110 yards and two touchdowns and Seth Paige ran for 104 yards – his first game over 100 yards this season -- and one touchdown.
“With the backs and quarterback we have, it’s a lot of fun,” sophomore right guard Pat Bartlett said. “We’ve got a really deep running back room. Get them a little crease and it’s off to the races. It makes our job so much easier.”
Atkinson said, “We have a really special group in the backfield and at quarterback. They’re all really good on their feet. As long as we can get a hat on a hat and give them the slightest crease, they’ll fit through it. They really help us look good up front, and we help them as far as making the holes, but without the special backfield like we have, I don’t think 350 yards with three different people would have happened.”
The offensive line is a very experienced group, so it’s not a real surprise that the Panthers rank second in the Sun Belt and No. 8 in FBS with 253.5 yards rushing per game.
“Anytime you have a consistent group of offensive linemen coming back – and we had four of five returning starters – we knew it was going to be a good group,” Elliott said. “We had success running the football a year ago and we thought they’d continue to improve.”
Atkinson, a team captain, is a four-year starter who has started the past 42 games and was named to the preseason All-Sun Belt team. Bartlett made five starts in 2018 before becoming a full-time starter this season.
Junior left guard Shamarious Gilmore is a three-year starter who has been an honorable-mention all-conference choice the past two seasons. Sophomore Malik Sumter played 10 games in 2018 and started the last five when Jamal Paxton was injured. Redshirt freshman Travis Glover, the largest lineman at 6-foot-6, 330 pounds, starts at right tackle.
The offense will face a challenge Saturday when Army visits Georgia State Stadium for a 7 p.m. game. The Black Knights (3-3) have an opportunistic defense that has 12 takeaways, including eight fumble recoveries, and produced 54 points off those turnovers. They limited Michigan to 340 yards, 108 rushing, in 24-21 overtime loss in Ann Arbor on Sept. 7.
“They have discipline and definitely a great team chemistry,” Atkinson said. “I’m really looking forward to testing our team and what we’re building against a team that’s been around for so long.”