Don’t ask FIU interim coach Ron Cooper about his next opponent, Charlotte, quite yet.
Give Cooper some time to enjoy FIU’s 35-21 road win late Saturday night at Texas-El Paso.
The Panthers (2-4 overall, 2-0 Conference USA), who snapped a seven-game road losing streak, were led by running backs Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones. Gardner ran 21 times for a career-high 141 yards and one touchdown. Jones ran 20 times for a career-high 128 yards.
It was just the second time in program history that FIU had a pair of 100-yard rushers in the same game.
“We kept pounding them,” Cooper said. “The blocking was outstanding. If you look at the tape, even our receivers were blocking on the perimeter.”
Cooper said he watched that game tape on the flight home from El Paso, arriving home at around 5 a.m.
When reached by The Herald early Sunday afternoon, Cooper said he didn’t yet know anything about Charlotte.
“I don’t even know their record,” Cooper said. “We were focused on UTEP.”
That “one at a time” approach is hardly unique, but it has been working for FIU since coach Ron Turner was fired amid a 0-4 start.
Since Cooper took over, Gardner has 48 carries for 260 yards (5.4 average) in two games. Jones has produced 218 yards on 35 carries (6.2 average). Jones had a total of 110 yards in his first four games.
Junior quarterback Alex McGough, who had been benched for Turner’s final game at FIU, has also improved in the past two weeks.
He completed 21-of-31 passes for 241 yards, three touchdowns and one interception against UTEP. In the past two games, he is 36-of-61 for 440 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions.
Other than the interceptions, McGough and the Panthers can certainly live with those numbers. For the season, he has 5 TD passes and seven interceptions.
“Alex is playing with confidence right now,” Cooper said. “And when your quarterback is confident, it’s contagious.”
McGough threw two of his TD passes to Thomas Owens, both in the third quarter, for eight yards and 23 yards, respectively. On one of those, UTEP defenders had McGough’s legs wrapped up, but the QB was still able to hit Owens.
“That was big time,” Cooper said. “(McGough) took a lot of shots (from UTEP defenders).”
Owens finished with seven catches for 125 yards.
Among other FIU highlights:
▪ Austin Taylor made two of three on field goals, including a 50-yarder that opened the scoring. The 35-yarder he missed against UTEP is the only field goal he has missed this year.
▪ Tight end AJ Branisel, a junior had his first career touchdown grab. He finished with three catches for 39 yards.
▪ Gardner, a junior who produced his eighth career 100-yard game, tied Kendrick Rhodes for the most times reaching that milestone.
Next up for FIU, as mentioned, is Saturday’s 6 p.m. game at Charlotte. The 49ers, by the way, are 2-4 overall, 1-1 in league play.
The 49ers, who won 28-23 at Florida Atlantic on Sunday, benched former University of Miami quarterback Kevin Olsen and went with sophomore Hasaan Klugh, who completed 14-of-17 passes for 223 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
Charlotte also got 132 yards on 23 carries from Kalif Phillips in a game that was pushed back one day due to issues with Hurricane Matthew.