FIU first-year defensive coordinator Bobby Babich is probably calling San Diego quite a bit these days.
Perhaps his father, San Diego Chargers linebackers coach Bob Babich, can offer some useful advice as his son tries to navigate a brutal three-week stretch.
Last week, FIU lost 44-24 to Louisiana Tech, a team that averages 41.9 points, ranking No. 1 in Conference USA.
On Saturday night, FIU (3-5, 3-1) hosts Middle Tennessee (5-2, 2-1), which is coming off an impressive road win over a Southeastern Conference school, knocking off Missouri 51-45. The Blue Raiders average 40.3 points, ranking second in the conference.
And next week, FIU will close this run by playing at Western Kentucky, which is averaging 40.2 points, good for third in the league.
“The offenses in this league are going to challenge you every week,” Bobby Babich said. “You don’t really get a week where you get an offense that isn’t scoring a lot of points. It’s hard.”
Babich started this season as a new FIU hire, given the title of defensive pass-game coordinator. But when head coach Ron Turner was fired amid an 0-4 start, defensive coordinator Ron Cooper was made the interim boss.
One of Cooper’s first decisions was to promote Babich to defensive coordinator. This came just 10 years after Babich had started his career as a Kent State graduate assistant.
After FIU made the coaching switch, the Panthers immediately went on a three-game win streak, which ended last week. Now, the Panthers must sweep their remaining four games to have a winning regular season, and they need to win three of four to be bowl eligible at 6-6.
The immediate challenge is a difficult one, starting with Raiders coach Rick Stockstill and his son/quarterback Brent.
It’s no surprise Coach Stockstill has built an offensive power. He was a standout quarterback at Florida State from 1977-82, and he served as an assistant at Clemson and South Carolina, among other stops, before landing his first job as head coach at Middle Tennessee in 2006.
He played or coached under legends such as Bobby Bowden, Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier, and he has taken that knowledge and passed it along to his son, a 6-0, 210-pound sophomore.
Brent Stockstill ranks second in Conference USA in touchdown passes (22) and yards (338.9), trailing Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Higgins in both categories. And Stockstill has only been intercepted five times.
In contrast, FIU’s Alex McGough has 10 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and is averaging 198 yards passing.
Babich said he has been impressed with the tape he has seen on Stockstill, who also had a 63-yard run last week and has five games this season with at least three TD passes.
“He’s an excellent player — quick release, extreme accuracy,” Babich said. “If you watch him, he’s another coach on the field. He knows where to go with the ball.”
Stockstill has a 13-game streak with at least one TD pass. He needs just two more TD passes to break the school record, and his top target is 5-9, 180-pound sophomore Richie James, who is second in the league in catches per game. James has 62 grabs for 905 yards and six touchdowns.
But the Raiders also have an explosive running game. I’Tavius Mathers, a 5-11, 200-pound senior transfer from Ole Miss, leads the league with 940 yards rushing and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in five consecutive games.
Mathers is 60 yards away from becoming the Raiders’ first 1,000-yard rusher in 14 years, and he also caught a career-high eight passes last week, something else for Babich to worry about.
“Their running back is very good, they have a great corps of receivers, and their O-line does a great job,” Babich said.
Turnovers, Babich said, will be crucial.
“Against great offenses, you need to steal possessions,” Babich said. “We just have to get population to the football. That’s how you cause fumbles. And when the ball is in the air and we have an opportunity to make a play, we have to take advantage.”