There are two ways to look at what FIU’s football team has done so far this year.
The optimistic view is that FIU, which is one game away from the halfway point of its first season under coach Butch Davis, will play six of its final seven games in South Florida, giving the Panthers a decent shot at getting the six wins it needs to be bowl eligible for just the third time in program history.
The pessimistic view is that FIU (3-2, 2-1 Conference USA) has beaten just two FBS teams – 0-6 Charlotte and 1-5 Rice. And FIU needed a goal-line stand in the final two minutes to hold off Rice by six points and a 19-point rally to beat Charlotte by one.
On Saturday at 7 p.m., FIU will play host to Tulane (3-2) in a non-conference game. Tulane is a 13½-point favorite -- and for good reason.
The Green Wave mauled Tulsa this past Saturday in a 62-28 victory, totaling 653 yards of offense, including 488 on the ground. Tulane scored on its first seven possessions and built a 48-7 halftime lead.
“They’re a very explosive offense,” FIU defensive end Fermin Silva said of Tulane. “The challenge this week is that we have to be disciplined, play gap technique and just tackle.
“Our coaches will put us in position to make plays. All 11 guys have to do our jobs, and we’ll be good.”
It may not be quite so simple.
Tulane has five primary ball-carriers who are all averaging at least five yards per rush. That includes 6-3, 220-pound dual-threat junior quarterback Jonathan Banks and senior running back Dontrell Hilliard, who has more than 2,000 career rushing yards.
Davis said Tulane uses a triple-option offense similar to Charlotte. Tulane will also spread out the defense at times and attack that way.
Banks, a four-star recruit from Texas who signed with Kansas State out of high school, arrived at Tulane this past spring after transferring in from his second junior college.
“Their quarterback is very athletic,” Davis said of Banks, who has passed for 466 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions this year. “On the first play (against Tulsa), he went 68 yards and got caught at the one-yard line.”
On September 16, Tulane lost 56-14 to Oklahoma. But midway through the second quarter, Davis said, Tulane led the Sooners in rushing yards, 172-38.
“That’s (Tulane’s) mindset,” Davis said. “They want to establish the run. And they want to get explosive plays off of play action.
“Our perimeter guys have to do a great job of being disciplined. They have to read their keys. They have to know the formations. And they can’t get sucked in and have people run by them.”
Defensively, Tulane starts all juniors and seniors, returning 10 of its top 13 tacklers from a unit that ranked third in the American Athletic Conference in yards allowed.
FIU’s Neal Mars, who centers an offensive line that allowed four sacks and nine tackles for losses in this past Saturday’s 37-17 loss at Middle Tennessee, said he looks forward to Tulane.
“It’s going to be a good challenge,” Mars said. “They’re experienced – they don’t make many mental mistakes. It’s always fun to beat a good team because when we beat them then we’re good.”
If Mars is right, FIU will head into its bye week 4-2. If he’s wrong, the Panthers will be 3-3 and on a two-game losing skid.
Saturday: Tulane at FIU
Kickoff: 7 p.m.; Ricardo Silva Stadium.
TV/radio: No TV; WAXY 790.
Favorite: Tulane by 13 1/2.
Records: FIU 2-1 (3-2 C-USA); Tulane 3-2 (1-1 AAC).
FIU injuries: Out — RB Anthony Jones (knee).
Tulane injuries: No reported injuries.