FIU’s football team is 4-2 — tied for the best six-game start in program history — and its latest success can be attributed in large part to a pair of reserves and an imaginative coaching staff.
The problem for the Panthers started before this past Saturday’s home game against Tulane, a 13 1/2-point favorite which came to Miami having rushed for 488 yards in its previous game.
In a case of apparent bad timing, FIU was without its top two tacklers because of unspecified injuries: middle linebacker Anthony Wint and outside linebacker Treyvon Williams.
FIU coach Butch Davis and his staff got creative, however, using a 4-2-5 lineup that featured an extra defensive back in safety Shermarke Spence, a fourth-year junior from Miami Northwestern. FIU also plugged in senior middle linebacker Fred Russ to replace Wint, and the result was a 23-10 upset win over Tulane.
“It felt amazing,” Russ said of his first career start. “I was presented with an opportunity. The coaches believed in me. The players believed in me, and I didn’t want to let anyone down.”
Williams was back at practice on Tuesday and should return to the starting lineup for FIU’s next game, October 28 at Marshall (5-1, 2-0 Conference USA).
Russ said he thinks FIU will go back to a traditional 4-3 lineup against Marshall, and he added that Wint — who practiced in a non-contact jersey Tuesday — “will be back in no time.”
A team leader because of his work ethic, Russ, a 6-foot, 235-pounder, cut his body fat from 17.5 percent as a freshman to nine percent now.
“I’ve always liked the grind,” said Russ, who teamed with Sage Lewis as the only linebackers to start for FIU last Saturday. “You always see me after practice doing extra work. I love film study.
“Me and Sage made sure we were prepared [for the Tulane game]. We watched film together on our iPads. We made every practice like it was going to be our last one. We ran to the ball, we thudded up well, and we took that into the game.”
FIU got major help from defensive end Fermin Silva, who was named Conference USA’s Defensive Player of the Week, posting two sacks, three tackles for losses, four quarterback hurries and eight total tackles against Tulane.
Silva ranks fourth in the conference this year with nine tackles for losses, and he and the rest of the guys are starting to believe they can be a bowl team for just the third time in program history.
“The confidence of the team has skyrocketed,” said Russ, who played high school ball at Tampa Tech and is expected to earn his bachelor’s degree in Recreation and Sports Management this spring.
“When I saw our guys after the game, the smiles on their faces, the pride they have. ... We feel like we can take on anybody right now. “
Lewis said there’s better “chemistry” this year than there was last season when FIU finished 4-6 under a coaching staff led by Ron Turner and Ron Cooper.
“We love our coaches,” said Lewis, a third-year sophomore from Monsignor Pace. “We’re happy to be around each other. Six wins [to be bowl eligible] would accomplish one of our goals. But our main goal is to win as many games as we can.”