FIU expected its running game to be its best asset going into this season, and through the first two games that has proved to be true.
More than even the past three seasons, everything the Panthers do offensively flows from the ground.
UCF’s strength on defense is defending the run, and it brings a similar defense to the one that finished No. 16 in rush defense last year.
And so sets the key matchup that could decide Saturday’s game in Orlando.
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The biggest drive in last year’s 17-10 win saw FIU march 85 yards to a field goal that put FIU up 17-7, gashing that UCF rush defense for four runs of more than 10 yards. FIU ran for 111 yards on 30 carries, a number swung by an 11-yard sack (colleges count sacks against the rush total while the NFL counts them against team passing yardage).
“They’re almost an oxymoron — they’re aggressive, but they’re very sound,” FIU offensive line coach Alex Mirabal said of UCF’s front seven. “They don’t let their aggression put them out of position. We’re going to have to be sound fundamentally against them being sound fundamentally.
“Different faces, different Jimmys and Joes, same concept.”
Same FIU offensive line, too, which is part of the reason FIU’s running backs and quarterbacks have run for 437 yards and five touchdowns on 93 carries — 4.7 per carry — in two games.
“Communication,” Mirabal said. “ ‘Five Men, One Mind’ is our motto. A higher level of physicalness. We concentrated in the offseason on short yardage and goal line. That was an issue for us last year. I think our mind-set is more determined to get those tough yards this year.”
Also, Mirabal said, “Our quarterback makes it nice because now defenses have to account for him.”
Akron didn’t early and redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock took care of the opening drive’s 73 yards himself on two carries, then finished with a school-record for quarterbacks with 141 yards on 23 carries. As a team, FIU ran for 232 yards on 50 carries, a total that includes a 23-yard bad snap fumble recovery.
FIU coach Mario Cristobal said senior left tackle Caylin Hauptmann played the best game of his career.
Although it would be inaccurate to compare FIU’s overall talent to Ohio State’s, Buckeyes quarterback Braxton Miller ran for 141 yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries last week against UCF. The Buckeyes from the Big Ten ground out 256 yards on 51 carries as a team.
If FIU has shown a weakness on the run, it’s sustaining early game dominance throughout.
“We have to get rid of that because the same thing happened against Duke,” FIU senior offensive right tackle Rupert Bryan said. “I’m not sure what’s going on.”
Mirabal thought Saturday it was a combination of near-miss execution and some canny coaching by Akron defensive coordinator Chuck Amato.
“A lot of those drives that didn’t get going in the right direction, it might’ve been just one guy breaking down,” he said. “On defense, you can have one guy doing it right, 10 guys doing it wrong and the ball still gets tackled.
“We just stayed with the process,” he continued. “The one thing we have is old eyes up front. There’s a lot of things they were throwing at us that even though we hadn’t seen it in practice during the week, we were able to make the proper adjustments for it.”