FIU’s 4-8 2014 record quadrupled the number of victories 2013 while failing the team goal of going to a bowl and winning it. The Panthers have restructured their goals for this season.
“We want to go undefeated, win a bowl game, get to that Conference USA championship game and win it,” sophomore running back Alex Gardner said without hesitation.
“You can’t get there until you think about it and talk about it,” FIU head coach Ron Turner said. “We didn’t talk about it last year. We’ll see if we’re in position to do it. But I want it on the radar.”
As it should be. Three years doesn’t have to be the charm for a Conference USA title. It’s the latter stages of transition, however, the last breaths that can be spent blaming or giving credit to the previous administration for the table-setting. What happens now goes on the current administration’s account.
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This is Ron Turner’s football program. Predecessor Mario Cristobal’s staff recruited or did most of the recruiting for several starters, including preseason all-conference selections, senior defensive end Michael Wakefield; senior defensive end Denzell Perine; fifth-year senior cornerback Richard Leonard, the Conference USA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year; junior guard Jordan Budwig, out for the season with a shoulder injury; and junior tight end Jonnu Smith.
But Turner’s staffs either had to bring those recruits down the stretch to Signing Day. In the case of the seniors, this staff has coached them longer than the previous staff. The freshmen, sophomores and transfers, including starters such as quarterback Alex McGough, running backs Gardner and Anthon Samuel; wide receiver Thomas Owens; linebacker Anthony Wint; and defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury are Turner people.
So, the time is now.
Southern Mississippi coach Todd Monken talked about this at Conference USA Media Day in July. Southern Miss under Monken traced a similar picture in progress to FIU under Turner – 1-11 in 2013 (FIU’s one win was against Southern Miss), then 3-9 last year.
“It’s time to get it done now,” Monken said. “There’s steps to every program as far as where you want to get. For Marshall, that [next] step for them isn’t to get to a bowl game. For us it is. For FIU or FAU, it’s to go to a bowl game. The next step is to win [your division]. Now that step can occur in the same season, but it starts with we’re in a bowl game. That means we’re in the top half of Division I.”
For FIU, filling the gap between 4-8 and bonus games by growth as players, particularly experience, shouldn’t be dismissed.
FIU’s problems rested mainly with the offense. The defense’s problems with tackling, especially against big backs, count as standard in the offensive playground that is modern college-affiliated football. Nobody stops everything, and many defenses don’t stop anything. At least FIU’s defense helped the offense by getting the most fumbles and eighth-most turnovers in the nation.
But offense included enough freshmen months out of high school, you would have been forgiven for thinking the Panthers were closer to winning Class 8A in high school than the Conference USA East Division. Freshmen mistakes gave back games FIU controlled in last-second losses to Texas-San Antonio and Old Dominion. A more consistent offense doesn’t let Pitt back into the game after a safety and two big plays built an early 16-0 lead.
McGough believes he will complete passes he hesitated to throw last year. Owens believes he will get to the spot with his body in position. Sophomore speedster Dennis Turner thinks he will be able to play the game instead of having to think it and is, after an offseason with McGough.
And Turner believes now the Panthers can run his entire offense after running 50 percent last year and 15 percent in 2013.
“Everybody’s knowledge [of the offense] is better,” said Gardner, carrying a few more pounds than last year. “Everybody knows what we’re doing now. We’re running more smoothly than we did last year.”
Running back Anthon Samuel sees something else that has grown since he transferred from Bowling Green in 2013.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is brotherhood. That’s one thing we’ve been preaching this summer is brotherhood,” Samuel said. “When you look at it, everybody has talent, everybody can lift, everybody’s strong, everybody’s fast. But what really separates the teams is brotherhood. Whoever plays the closest and has the best chemistry, usually comes out with the win. That’s what we’ve emphasized.”
He recalled his senior year at Miami Monsignor Pace High when a team with linemen who “were about my size” went undefeated because, in Samuel’s view, their belief in each other.
“I know from personal experience that brotherhood and chemistry can bring you together. It doesn’t really matter about the talent.”
Turner stated, “No matter what happens, I like this team. This team cares about one another. I like these guys as people and as players.
“If we can stay healthy...”
ELEMENT OF SUCCESS: SPECIAL TEAMS
The 2013 season excepted, opposing coaches would have welcomed dramamine when kicking or punting to FIU since 2008. T.Y. Hilton and Richard Leonard, and DeAndre Jasper to a lesser extent, gave FIU points, field position and momentum with lightning legs. Don’t be surprised if Leonard gets spelled occasionally by the possible next in that line, freshman Anthony Jones.