FIU might have found its deep threat.
Despite the disappointment of Thursday’s season-opening 34-13 loss to Indiana in a game FIU led after three quarters, the bright spot was the play of 6-2, 195-pound true freshman wide receiver Stantley Thomas of Charlotte High in Punta Gorda.
Thomas, who won a starting job this fall, had three catches for 91 yards against Indiana.
And although that might not seem all that stellar, it was the explosive way in which those yards were accumulated that raised eyebrows. Thomas was able to use his speed to get past defenders, and quarterback Alex McGough twice lofted perfect passes for gains of 40 and 45 yards.
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“We work on that in practice,” Thomas said. “We run a lot of plays with me going deep. I usually get by my defender.”
That was certainly the case at Charlotte High, where Thomas caught 59 passes for 1,105 yards and eight touchdowns as a senior, leading the Fightin’ Tarpons to a 12-1 record and a berth in the regional finals.
Thomas also played basketball and ran track in high school, excelling in the 100 and 200-meter sprints.
FIU coach Ron Turner said it didn’t take long for Thomas to impress him.
“The second practice we had, I watched him, and I said, ‘Wow, this kid’s got something.’
“We knew we were going to play him a lot. I’m not surprised he stepped up and made plays. We have a lot of confidence in him.”
When Maryland — a second consecutive Big Ten Conference opponent — visits FIU on Friday night, the Panthers will again look for Thomas to help diversify their offense.
McGough already has three well-established targets including Jonnu Smith, the most prolific tight end in program history; wide receiver Thomas Owens, who has the best hands on the team according to his teammates; and Alex Gardner, who set a school record for running backs last year with 60 receptions.
None of those players, however, appears to be the deep threat that Thomas could be, assuming Thursday’s effort was not a mirage.
Against the Hoosiers, on the first deep pass, Thomas said he looked up and noticed that he had press coverage from the cornerback and just one safety over the top, instead of two.
“McGough saw it, and I beat [the defender],” Thomas said. “[McGough] led me, and it felt great.”
Thomas said he was nervous before the game.
“First start,” he said, “so I was like, ‘Yo, I’m starting my first college game.’ It was very fast. There were a lot of things that were unexpected, but I got through it.”
The same cannot be said for the Panthers, who didn’t get through the game unscathed. They had a 13-12 lead after three quarters but then got outscored 22-0 in the fourth.
McGough, a junior third-year starter and the owner of several school passing records, failed to protect the ball. He completed 23 of 46 passes for 263 yards, but he was intercepted three times. Two were taken back for touchdowns, the first time the Hoosiers have done that in one game in 50 years.
Turner said he wasn’t pleased with the offense, including Gardner, who ran 10 times for 23 yards, and backup Anthony Jones, who gained just 3 yards on two carries.
Gardner did have seven catches for 70 yards, and Smith had eight for 83 yards. But Smith had some crucial penalties and a big drop. And Owens was held to one catch for 8 yards.
Turner seemed pleased about his defense. But the fact remains that Indiana ran 52 times for 246 yards, and quarterback Richard Lagow, a junior college transfer making his Hoosiers debut, completed 18 of 27 passes for 240 yards.
FIU pounced on just one turnover — a fumble forced by defensive end Newton Salisbury and recovered by safety Nico Gonzalez.
“We came up short [against Indiana],” Thomas said, “but I know the team we are.”