Teams prefer their open weeks come when they need healing. As such, FIU football’s open week comes with more perfect timing than Joe Montana throwing a West Coast offense slant.
As with any college or NFL team after eight games, the Panthers could use some physical healing. In addition to the normal wear and tear, there’s the right shoulder injury sustained by starting freshman running back Alex Gardner during Saturday’s 45-13 loss to then-No.25 (now No.22) Marshall.
Gardner’s 582 rushing yards leads the team and sets a new record for true freshmen at FIU. Behind Gardner, FIU uses redshirt junior Anthon Samuel and junior Lamarq Caldwell. Freshman Napoleon Maxwell, who has only five carries this year, might be moved from garbage time cameos to mid-game spot duty if Gardner’s out.
FIU (3-5, 2-2 in Conference USA) also could use some psychological healing, maybe time to recharge the batteries.
“We’ll take a bye week to focus on ourselves,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “Take a good look at what we’re doing, make sure we’re doing everything we can to put our guys into position to make plays. And find the guys who are going to make those plays.”
Two weeks ago, after routing FAU, the Panthers looked like possibly the second-best team in Conference USA behind Marshall. Some bowl projections included FIU.
Consecutive losses reset the young Panthers on “Regroup.”
At Texas-San Antonio, the Panthers lost a 10-0 lead in a blizzard of fumbles, the last leading to a UTSA field goal in the final minute of a 16-13 loss. After losing to a UTSA team on a four-game losing streak and playing its third-string quarterback, FIU stayed in the game with Marshall on Saturday until the second half. Then, a few big plays, a couple of turnovers and a 14-7 Marshall lead turned into 38-7 in just over a quarter.
“It’s disappointing because we feel like we could’ve won both games,” redshirt junior cornerback Richard Leonard said. “It just goes back to the focus during the week and during the game. I believe we lost focus during the second half, and they just kept putting up points.”
Saturday, Leonard’s fifth interception of the season tied the school record set by Nick Turnbull in 2002 and tied by Turnbull in 2004; Lionell Singleton in 2006; and Anthony Gaitor in 2008. Leonard has been the biggest individual standout of a defense that has managed to rodeo-cowboy ride some wild-horse offenses.
But defensive dependency caused by offensive inconsistency continues to slow FIU’s progress. All three FIU wins this season featured a defensive touchdown. In fact, in the 20 games under Turner, the Panthers haven’t won without turnovers in bulk; four by Southern Mississippi last year; this year, four by FAU, six each from Wagner and Alabama-Birmingham.
Young faces have shined this year — Gardner, freshman quarterback Alex McGough and sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith. Smith, FIU’s lone offensive light last year, sits at 42 receptions for 485 yards this year. Next game, he’ll likely get the five catches and 25 yards he needs to break Samuel Smith’s single-season tight end school records.
Still, FIU has demonstrated pop gun passing in four of the last five games. It caught up to them in each of the past two losses, especially Saturday when Marshall smothered the run game and short routes.
“We’ve got to start making those plays in the passing game with our wide receivers. It can’t keep being ‘Jonnu, Jonnu, Jonnu,’” Turner said. “It’s got to be Jonnu and other guys making plays. We had a lot of opportunities. We’ve got a bye week this week. We’ll figure out who gives us the best chance to make those plays. And we’ll go with those guys.”