It’s the new FIU.
We’ll see how long it lasts, but the Panthers football team played with an edge in its first game under interim coach Ron Cooper, beating rival Florida Atlantic 33-31 in Saturday night’s Conference USA opener for both teams.
The new Panthers attitude started last week in practice, where the noise level was noticeably louder. The music was louder, the hits were louder and the players’ reactions were also more boisterous.
That was by design, said Cooper, who was promoted from defensive coordinator after coach Ron Turner was fired one week ago.
“The only thing I did different this week is that I put a little more contact in practice,” Cooper said. “I told the team, we better have some energy.”
That energy was evident even in warmups on Saturday night. When one FAU player crossed midfield to do his pregame stretching, the Panthers took it as a sign of disrespect.
Tight end Jonnu Smith, one of FIU’s senior leaders, let that FAU player know he had crossed the line — literally — and that he needed to retreat … or else.
“One thing we don’t tolerate is disrespect,” FIU running back Anthony Jones said. “[Director of strength and conditioning coach Chad Smith] told their guy he was stretching on our sideline. We didn’t feel [the FAU player] was right.
“[The FAU player] listened, I guess. He walked down a couple of feet. Jonnu, being the captain, he walked over there and told him a couple of words.”
After that, the teams bunched up a bit, but nothing much more than that happened … except this:
It was a message.
The Panthers were going to fight back this time, and that’s exactly what happened in the game. FIU fell behind three times and overcame those deficits, including a 24-14 hole in the third quarter and a 31-30 disadvantage in the fourth.
This new Panthers attitude doesn’t necessarily vindicate FIU athletic director Pete Garcia for firing Turner.
Anyone can make arguments questioning Garcia’s handling of the program over the past several years and whether it was right to fire Mario Cristobal, whether it was right to hire Turner or whether it was right to fire Turner.
All those decisions are open to debate. But there is no debate about this: The players responded well to Cooper’s leadership in this first week.
Now the Panthers (1-4, 1-0) must play two league games in a row on the road — at Texas-El Paso on Saturday and at Charlotte on Oct. 15.
Let’s see if that ability to overcome adversity continues. After all, it was just a few days ago when FIU defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury said the following about the Panthers’ early season attitude: “Our response to adversity hasn’t been good.”
That certainly wasn’t the case against FAU. The Panthers pounded the Owls on the ground, getting 27 carries for 119 yards and a 4.4 average from Alex Gardner and 15 carries, a career-high 90 yards and a 6.0 average from Jones.
Quarterback Alex McGough chipped in with two TD runs — a 17-yarder and a career-high 35-yarder.
Among the other positives for the Panthers: they didn’t fumble, they committed just one penalty for 5 yards, and they held FAU to 92 yards passing. In addition, the Panthers converted 12 of 20 on third down and dominated time of possession with 36 minutes.
FIU has to clean up its run defense, which gave up 236 yards and a 6.6 average. And McGough was intercepted twice, one that was his fault and another that went through the hands of receiver Austin Maloney.
But when you win, there are smiles all around, and that was certainly the case for FIU.
McGough, who had made 26 consecutive starts until Turner benched him the previous game, has the support of Cooper, and the junior quarterback seemed relieved to finally win again.
He was so loose after the game, that he even referenced a Tom Hanks movie character when asked about his 35-yard TD run.
“On my second [touchdown], I looked, and there was no one there, and I thought, ‘I better start moving.’ In the heat of the moment, it was ‘Run, Forrest, Run.’ ”