College Football (Div-I)

The AutoNation Cure Bowl: Football for a Cause

Orlando, FL — When someone references the AutoNation Cure Bowl, it may seem like just a lower-level bowl played by so-called “less established” college football programs.

But not only has it been a stepping stone for schools’ teams, such as 2017’s only remaining team undefeated UCF who was a 2016 participant, it also brings 91 percent of the funds raised to the directly to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Two rising star organizations look to add a legacy to this event’s short, three-year history. The Western Kentucky Hilltoppers will battle the Georgia State Panthers in order to unite in support of the #WeCanTackleThis campaign to fight breast cancer.

The fledgling Panthers football program was recently founded at Georgia State University in 2010 and has only been in the FBS since 2013. With only four years of competition in the Sun Belt Conference, GSU will be making their second Cure Bowl appearance after being an inaugural participant in 2015.  First-year Panthers Head Coach Shawn Elliott said this of the school’s evolving status, “We’re very young.”

Georgia State Coach Shawn Elliot signing a Panther helmet. Photo by Kyle Nash

Elliot went on, “if you look at a lot of the programs that have made the transition [to the FBS] – the success, two bowl games in four years of existence at this level is unheard of. If we are able to go out and put together a great game plan and execute well, it would mean the world to our football program, it would set the stage for future endeavors like bigger bowl games, conference championships. For our players, every single day is about setting standards and doing things you’ll remember for the rest of your life, and for Georgia State University to take the field and pull out a win would be an amazing accomplishment for us.”

The top players for Georgia State players include 1,000-yard wide receiver Penny Hart, quarterback Conner Manning and the team’s leading tackler, linebacker Trey Payne. Turning in 61 total tackles on the year, Payne echoed his signal caller’s sentiment on the goal of winning the team’s first bowl game.

It definitely sets a standard, winning the first one is always the toughest, because you’ll start the ball and get things rolling,” he stated. “Coach Elliot is doing a great job of getting us prepared but it’ll definitely set a standard by winning this bowl game.”

Left to Right: QB Conner Manning, LB Trey Payne, and DB Bryan Williams. Photo by Kyle Nash

While GSU is returning to participate in the Cure Bowl for the second time, part of the story for Western Kentucky is appearing in their fourth-straight bowl game with hopes of tallying their fourth consecutive bowl win. Despite his squad’s postseason streak, rookie Hilltoppers Head Coach Mike Sanford still showed respect for what he’s seen from GSU on film so far.

“You just have to put on the film and see how motivated a team they are in general,” he added. “They play with a lot of excitement. They play with a lot of passion. You guys will see on third down, it’ll be a conglomeration of roughly eight to thirty-five members of their sideline jumping up and down around the signal caller on third down. We love that challenge. We love playing that kind of football. Our team brings a lot of passion the way we play. We expect nothing less from Georgia State to have a fully motivated football team. The key to this game really, what I’ve been challenging our team is, we have to play harder. We have to play the hardest we’ve played all year and our effort has to surpass that of our opponents.”

Georgia State Head Coach Shawn Elliot (left) visits with Western Kentucky Head Coach Mike Sanford. Photo by Kyle Nash

In what further adds to the theme of returns, the Toppers field general, Mike White, was a transfer from the University of South Florida who has found success in his senior year posting 3,826 passing yards. White said he’s trying to take it all in.

“I’m embracing every single second of it. Whether it’s waking up early with my guys or walking to the elevator when everybody’s tired and I’m kind of messing with everybody trying to wake everybody up. Just trying to get the most I can out of my guys, just because I know come Saturday about seven o’clock I won’t be able to suit up with some of these guys anymore. Hopefully, maybe down the road something could work out and that would be pretty cool, but just every little moment like that I cherish. After that FIU game, it was kind of up in the air and we didn’t know if we were going to get here. I told myself after that game on that on that long flight home that if we get one more that I’m going to make the most out of it and I think we’ve done that as a team.”

The contest begins at Camping World Stadium at 2:30 pm EST on Saturday, Dec. 16.

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