After practice earlier this week, FIU center Michael Montero politely declined to shake hands with a reporter because, well, the lineman had a bloody right hand.
That’s just part of the down-and-dirty job of a football team’s blocking wall — getting bloody so that their quarterback and running backs don’t have to do the same.
Lately, that plan has been working for FIU.
After an 0-4 start, the Panthers have rallied around those 1,478 pounds of grit, determination and muscle — otherwise known as their starting offensive line.
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In victories over FAU and UTEP, the Panthers have averaged an impressive 264 yards rushing and 484 yards in total offense.
At 6 p.m. Saturday, FIU (2-4, 2-0), which is in a three-way tie for the lead in Conference-USA’s East Division, will visit Charlotte (2-4, 1-1).
Montero indicated that FIU, which features a lot of misdirection running plays, will throw not only the proverbial kitchen sink at Charlotte but also the bathtub, towel racks and just about everything else they can use to disrupt the 49ers’ defense.
“We do one formation, but we throw a lot of things at them at once,” Montero said. “We’ve got misleading things. We’ve got people flying across. We’ve got a lot of little zone concepts.”
All that has helped FIU put together its two-game win streak, which has coincided with the firing of coach Ron Turner and the installation of ex-defensive coordinator Ron Cooper as the new coach.
To be fair, FIU’s scheduled has softened the past two weeks, and the Panthers are favored by five points over Charlotte on Saturday.
Consider that the 49ers had never won a Conference USA game — going 0-8 — before beating FAU last Sunday in a victory that required a video reversal of a Hail Mary TD pass that would have doomed Charlotte.
Meanwhile, credit Cooper for committing to the running game in a way that was not happening earlier this season.
Since Cooper took over, Alex Gardner has 48 carries for 260 yards (5.4 average) in two games. Anthony Jones has produced 218 yards on 35 carries (6.2 average) after totaling just 110 yards in his first four games.
The Panthers have relied on a blocking wall that looks like this:
Left tackle Dieugot Joseph, a 6-6, 297-pound senior from Orlando, has 20 career starts.
“He’s an NFL guy in the flesh — look at him,” Montero said. “I look to my left, and I don’t have to worry about him.”
Left guard Neal Mars, a 6-3, 287-pound sophomore from Fleming Island, has just three starts. But FIU is 2-1 since he took over for injured starter Daquane Wilkie.
Center Montero, a 6-2, 299-pound senior from Miami Columbus, has 19 starts. He was a second-team all-league player heading into the season.
Right guard Trenton Saunders, a 6-4, 290-pound senior from West Palm Beach, has 14 starts.
And right tackle Kai Absheer, a 6-5, 305-pound sophomore who won a state title in 2012 at St. Thomas Aquinas, has 12 starts.
“He’s the smartest guy on the offensive line,” Montero said. “He moved from guard to tackle [when Wilkie was injured], and that’s a big adjustment.”
Montero said Mars will replace him at center next year, adding: “He’s going to better than me. I know that for a fact.”
In the meantime, the Panthers love how this line is clicking, giving quarterback Alex McGough time to throw and allowing Gardner and Jones running lanes.
If Gardner gets 110 yards against Charlotte, he will be the third running back in program history to reach 2,000 career yards. He will also be the first back to have nine 100-yard games.
And if FIU prevails, it will be the first time the Panthers have won consecutive road games since 2012. It would also put FIU at 3-0 in Conference USA for the first time in program history.
“They’re a hot team with a lot of good players,” 49ers coach Brad Lambert said about FIU. “Their offensive line is playing well. It doesn’t take long after you turn the film on for them to get your attention.”