FIU Sports staff writer Pete Pelegrin asked me five questions for a weekly feature he does with a beat writer from the opposing team.
I asked him the same five questions.
What were your preseason expectations for FIU and how do you think they’ve done so far three weeks into the season?
Pete: “My preseason expectations were and still are that FIU can get back to a bowl game and challenge for the Conference USA title. The Panthers are a young team and lost quarterback Alex McGough to the Seattle Seahawks, plus leading rusher Alex Gardner and leading receiver Thomas Owens both to graduation, as well as stalwart linebackers Anthony Wint and Treyvon Williams. Still, I think there is enough talent on offense and defense to have another eight or maybe nine-win season. Thus far, FIU gave Indiana a game in the opener and defeated Old Dominion and UMass, which is what was expected.”
What has gone right and what has gone wrong for the Panthers offense thus far?
Pete: “FIU’s strength offensively is its running game with several ball carriers that can all be the No. 1 back. Shawndarrius Phillips, Napoleon Maxwell and D’Vonte Price all provide power and speed carrying the ball and are pretty good receivers out of the backfield. Anthony Jones, who is out after he was shot and thankfully is now recovering, had a strong start to the season with 88 yards and a touchdown in the opener. FIU led the nation in red zone scoring last year and is 10 for 12 thus far inside the opponent’s 20.
Quarterback James Morgan has taken the bulk of the snaps so far. In the preseason Morgan battled Christian Alexander for the starting job. Coach Butch Davis has said both will play in games this season but Morgan has started and played most of the first three games. Morgan is a graduate transfer from Bowling Green with a strong arm. He’s played well through the first three games.
At receiver, quarterback-turned-receiver Maurice Alexander has been a pleasant surprise. He can make you miss in a phone booth and has very secure hands. Alexander returned a punt for a touchdown and caught a TD last week against UMass. CJ Worton, a Florida transfer, leads the Panthers in receiving. However, the Panthers have yet to establish that one go-to receiver like they had in Owens the last four years.”
What has gone right and what has gone wrong for the Panthers on defense thus far?
Pete: “The FIU front seven has played well so far. Coming into the season the Panthers had to replace their leading tacklers from last season, Wint and Williams. Linebacker Sage Lewis has been up to the task topping the Panthers with 36 tackles. Texas graduate transfer Edwin Freeman has been a nice surprise, second on the team with 17 tackles. Freshman linebacker Rocky Jacques-Louis showed his speed last week with a 59-yard pick six.
FIU’s defensive line may its strength. The Panthers have added some depth and beef in the two years under Davis. Teair Tart recorded two sacks last week against UMass. Noah Curtis, Anthony Johnson, Jordan Woods, Kevin Oliver, Josh Little, Tayland Humphrey and Jermaine Sherriff have made FIU’s line better.
The Panthers lost three of their four starters in the secondary from last season. FIU did get back one of its top corners in Ike Brown from a broken collarbone. Still, the Panthers are looking to establish consistency there like they had last season with safeties Bryce Canady and Niko Gonzalez and top cover corner Brad Muhammad.
Olin Cushion and Dorian Hall have manned the safety positions. At 6-4, Hall is an intriguing freshman at safety. Emmanuel Lubin and receiver-turned-cornerback Stantley Thomas- Oliver have played well thus far.”
What has been the mood or thoughts with FIU regarding this game with UM?
Pete: “I think the Panthers are treating this as another game on the schedule. They’ve said all the right things. I’m sure there will be some extra energy on both sides since these players all basically know each other from local high schools, etc. I think the fan bases are more riled up than the players from each team.”
Your thoughts on Saturday’s game?
Pete: “The city of neon lights likes the Hurricanes a lot in this one. It’s a neighborhood battle so there will be more than usual emotion in this game. In most other games, FIU has the speed and athleticism advantage because of the number of players from South Florida on the roster, but not so much in this one. If the Panthers can keep the game close into the second half, who knows what will happen. I think FIU has to keep Jeff Thomas under wraps and the Panthers have to run the ball effectively to have a shot.’’
What were your preseason expectations for Miami and how do you think they’ve done so far three weeks into the season?
Susan: “My preseason expectations were that the Hurricanes would go 10-2 in the regular season, win the Coastal Division and go on to play in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship against – you guessed it – Clemson. I know preseason predictions are fun, but the reason I don’t really like them is that injuries, which always end up happening, affect everything in a huge way. The Canes looked much worse than I thought they’d be against LSU, especially because I didn’t think the Tigers, except for their known defensive strength, were exceptional.”
What has gone right and what has gone wrong for the Hurricanes offense thus far?
Susan: “What’s right is that UM has slot receiver Jeff Thomas, a speedster who runs a 4.37 40-yard dash and leads the nation in yards per catch (27.6), is No. 6 nationally in all-purpose yards (536) and No. 10 in combined kick returns (90 yards on two punt returns and 123 yards on five kickoff returns). Also right: sophomore running back DeeJay Dallas, who is averaging 6.5 yards a carry.
“What especially needed improvement the first couple of games were the offensive line and running game. But last week at Toledo, UM’s O-line improved greatly by not only protecting quarterback Malik Rosier but by opening holes for the rushers, who combined for 268 ground yards and five rushing touchdowns. Rosier, who was sacked four times, threw two interceptions and was often inaccurate against LSU, also had his best game at Toledo, running for three touchdowns and throwing for another two.
“I would be remiss not to mention that UM has lost two of its scholarship tight ends to knee surgery this season, which leaves only two scholarship tight ends in the lineup now.”
What has gone right and what has gone wrong for the Hurricanes on defense thus far?
Susan: “A lot has gone right, with one big wrong.
“The Hurricanes lead the nation tackles for loss and stopping opponents on third down and have risen to fourth nationally in total defense. UM, with 35 tackles for loss, has stopped opponents 36 times of 43 attempts on third down, meaning its opponents are successful only 16.2 percent of the time. The Canes are also ninth in passing yards allowed (136.7 per game).
“However, safety Jaquan Johnson, an AP Preseason All-American and no doubt one of the best in the nation, will likely not play against FIU. He sustained a hamstring injury at Toledo. After he went out just before halftime, the UM defense pretty much went in the tank until it righted itself later in the game.”
What has been the mood or thoughts with UM regarding this game with FIU?
Susan: “The Canes are saying the right things and seemingly taking FIU very seriously. They’ve already lost a game they were favored to win, and plummeted in the rankings. However, when teams from basically the same neighborhood meet, you never know what’s going to transpire. UM coach Mark Richt and assistants I have a feeling have gone over or will go over the don’t-be-stupid-and-do-something-that-will-get-you-ejected speech.”
Your thoughts on Saturday’s game?
Susan: “My thoughts are that I hope it’s a clean game with no scuffles or close calls in that department. UM is a 26 ½-point favorite, and I expect the Canes to win at home, despite, I’m sure, a substantial FIU crowd. But will the Canes cover? Who knows? These backyard competitions make things much more interesting. And the fact that former UM coach Butch Davis is coaching FIU makes it that much more intriguing. Watch out for those trick plays.’’
My prediction: UM 42-20.