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Limping FIU Panthers look for relief

Now what?

Following a 34-20 loss to Arkansas State on Thursday night, it’s the big question facing an FIU football team that has literally limped its way to the midway point of a season that began with high expectations.

The loss left FIU, a team that returned 18 starters from last year’s 8-5 team that made it to a second consecutive bowl game and was predicted to win the Sun Belt, in the cellar with a 1-5 record overall and 0-2 in the conference.

FIU would have to win at least five of its final six games just to earn bowl eligibility for the third season in a row.

Although an ascent back to the top of the standings isn’t impossible with six games left, it is a tall order for a team still trying to cope with the loss of key personnel to injury.

“We haven’t found a way to overcome injuries,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “This game won’t slow down for you. That’s a new hurdle for us. In our body of work as a program, we’re always going to keep pushing forward. I can always walk in that locker room and find guys who will keep working and pressing forward.”

Cristobal offered some hope Thursday, saying that original starting quarterback Jake Medlock could return as early as the next game against Middle Tennessee on Oct. 13.

It would be a welcome change for an FIU offense that has been relying the past two games on inexperienced quarterbacks in true freshman E.J. Hilliard and redshirt freshman Loranzo Hammonds Jr.

Both quarterbacks struggled Thursday night, each throwing a costly interception. Hilliard’s came before halftime and changed the momentum as the Red Wolves prevented FIU from taking a 10-7 lead into the break. Hammonds’ error put FIU further behind at 27-10.

Cristobal acknowledges the team can ill afford to keep making mistakes while it adjusts to its young signal-callers. Both quarterbacks helped FIU cut the deficit to 14 with 6:32 left. But the drive took 17 plays and precious 8:05 off the clock.

“They’re young so we have to keep things simple,” Cristobal said. “Our offense is up-tempo, but we can’t go as fast right now. That’s not their fault right now because they’re young. They’re doing the best they can with their arms and their feet. We have to find ways to slow down the game for them.”

FIU also committed 11 penalties for 89 yards, and its offensive line was flagged for holding seven times.

“The O-line gets penalized, but you can’t ask them to protect from six, seven or 10 seconds,” Cristobal said. “They have to see things quickly back there. We’re not there yet.”

FIU’s defense hasn’t been racked by injuries like its offense, but it has given up plenty of yards through the first six games. The unit played better Thursday but gave up a large chunk of Arkansas State’s 421 yards on two big plays — Ryan Aplin’s 74-yard touchdown pass to J.D. McKissic early in the second quarter and tailback Rocky Hayes’ 73-yard run on the first play of the fourth.

“We work hard every day, and we have to make our preparations even harder,” said receiver Wayne Times, who finished with five catches for 25 yards. “We will continue to fight until the end. We have to execute better.”

• Cristobal said running back Jeremiah Harden, who was injured in the fourth quarter, tweaked his ankle. Cristobal did not elaborate on when Kedrick Rhodes, who missed his second game of the season Thursday, would return.

“Kedrick is just not healthy right now,” Cristobal said.