FIU’s defense has not had an easy time of it this season. In the first three games, the Panthers have given up, in order: 420 yards against Duke, 411 against Akron and 431 against UCF.
That’s an average of 421 yards per game, which is hard to figure out because it was the defense that FIU went into the season thinking would be the team’s strength. So far, instead of doing the bruising, the Panthers’ defense has been absorbing the bruises.
And matters don’t get easier. This week, the Panthers (1-2) take on what likely could be the most prolific offensive team on their schedule in 3-0 Louisville, which is No. 20 in the nation.
“It’s a helluva challenge for us,” defensive coordinator Todd Orlando said of the game at 7 p.m. Saturday at FIU Stadium. “But there will be no flinching from our standpoint. Nobody is going to back down from anybody. We’re a 1-2 football team, and we’re trying hard to get better.”
Leading the Cardinals is quarterback Teddy Bridgewater (Miami Northwestern), who has put together some mind-numbing statistics and even has had the words “Heisman candidate” appear near his name.
Bridgewater has completed 72 of 88 passes (yes, an 81.8 completion rate) for an average of 285 yards per game with five touchdowns.
“He’s a heckuva player,” Orlando said. “Everybody is raving about the kid.”
Orlando knows what was expected of his defense before the season and also knows that high expectations have not been reached at this point.
“Obviously, we have not achieved what we wanted,” he said. “Expectations are expectations, and we’re working every day to change the mental mistakes we have been making.”
Slow starts have plagued FIU. It trailed Duke in the opener 37-14 at halftime, giving up 30 points in the second quarter. The Panthers won the second half 12-9. In the second game, FIU trailed Akron 20-14 at halftime before winning the second half 24-18 and then pulling out an overtime win. Against UCF, FIU trailed 23-0 at halftime before winning the second half 20-10.
But the Panthers are well aware that winning a second half doesn’t necessarily mean winning a game.
“I would say our woes have been mainly around the second quarter,” Orlando said. “The majority of our mistakes are mental mistakes. Our kids understand the deal. They know what they have to do. They are strong-minded kids.”
Coach Mario Cristobal agreed about the mental toughness of his players.
“The one thing in football you can’t fix is heart,” he said. “If you don’t have heart, you can’t play this game. That is not a problem with us.”
Cristobal is aware of the first halves that have kept his team constantly fighting from behind.
“Central Florida was a tale of two halves,” Cristobal said. “In the first half we allowed them to convert on eight of 11 third downs, and they held the ball for 21 1/2 minutes. We did show flashes of what we can be in the second half. It’s a matter of consistency and continued improvement.”
“Certainly our guys are busting their butts. You grade effort and you grade performance. Performance on several occasions was very good. The effort has always been extremely good.”