At 5-2, FIU’s football team is off to the best seven-game start in program history, and the remaining five games in the regular season will all be played in South Florida, including Saturday’s contest against Texas-San Antonio.
The Panthers have beaten two teams in a row in which FIU was a double-digit underdog, including Saturday’s 41-30 win at Marshall, which had a five-game win streak snapped.
Given that no FIU freshman is making much of an impact offensively or defensively, this is essentially the same cast that won just four games last season under the previous coaching staff, led by Ron Turner and Ron Cooper.
New coach Butch Davis, with his successful track record, has changed things quickly, and he said it has been a group effort. That includes assistant head coach/offensive line Allen Mogridge, defensive coordinator Brent Guy and offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky.
“I think it’s been a combination,” Davis said. “The coaches have done an excellent job creating an atmosphere where the kids like being here. They know we love them, but we’re also going to hold them accountable. But the other half is the players — they compete every day. A lot of kids don’t want to be coached. They want to do things their way. But our kids are coachable.”
Perhaps the most coachable and improved FIU player is senior wide receiver Thomas Owens, who caught seven passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns against Marshall.
Owens was solid last season, catching 47 passes for 652 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 54.3 yards per game. This season, Owens has 40 catches for 728 yards and five scores. He’s building a case for All-Conference USA honors, averaging 104 yards per game.
“He’s a complete receiver,” Davis said. “A lot of receivers just want to catch the ball. ‘Throw me the ball — I’m always open.’ But a lot of the runs we’re able to make are because Thomas is blocking the corner or cracking the safety.”
Davis also praised quarterback Alex McGough, saying his performance against Marshall was his best of the season in terms of decision-making. McGough completed 14-of-18 passes for 177 yards and two touchdowns.
Overall this season, McGough has completed 61.7 percent for an average of 216 yards per game. He has seven touchdowns and six interceptions.
McGough’s numbers are better than last season but not by a lot. Last year, he completed 58.4 percent for 210 yards and had a 13-11 TD-INT ratio.
All of that, once again, points back to coaching. The Panthers are having success despite having the same core players and very few of them having monster years.
Leading rusher Alex Gardner, for example, has seen his numbers decrease from last year, when he averaged 5.1 yards per carry. This year, he’s averaging 4.1.
And there’s been a drop-off at tight end, where Jonnu Smith, now in the NFL, had 42 catches for 506 yards last year. His replacement, Pharoah McKever, has 14 catches for 120.
Doesn’t matter — FIU is one victory away from being bowl eligible for just the third time in program history and the first time since 2011.
“I think our players love winning,” Davis said. “When they came in [Sunday] to lift weights and watch film, there was energy.”
Winning — and good coaching — will do that for a team.
THIS AND THAT
▪ Senior cornerback Brad Muhammad, a walk-on until just before fall camp ended, leads the team with four interceptions. “A lot of kids in his shoes [as a walk-on] would’ve packed it in,” Davis said. “But he’s traveled the long, hard road.”
▪ Middle linebacker Anthony Wint and defensive lineman Anthony Johnson returned from injury to play against Marshall.