As a fourth-year starter, FIU’s Alex McGough is one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the nation. But even McGough makes a wrong call every once in a while, and that’s where his astute offensive line rides to the rescue.
“I will mess up sometimes, and [center Neal Mars] will look back and say, ‘What are you doing, bro?’ ” McGough said. “And I say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right.’ They’re really smart.”
FIU’s offensive line is smart enough to know it’s a significant factor in the success of the Panthers (6-2, 4-1 Conference USA), who host Old Dominion (3-6, 1-4) on Saturday night.
The Panthers can reach the C-USA championship game if they win their next three games, and Old Dominion’s biggest strength is its defensive line. Without much in the way of blitzes, the Monarchs lead the league with 25 sacks.
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That will put a spotlight on the efforts of FIU’s blocking wall — left tackle Daquane Wilkie, left guard Jordan Budwig, Mars at center, right guard Dallas Connell and right tackle Kai Absheer.
Mars, Budwig and Wilkie have started all eight games this season, and Absheer and Connell have missed one — a 13-7 win over Rice.
The line has begun to click the past three games, all FIU victories. During that span, the Panthers have outscored opponents 78-47, averaging 204 passing yards and 194 on the ground.
Even better, FIU has allowed one sack during those three games, and that, coach Butch Davis said, is because of the offensive line’s continuity.
“They have to be like the Rockettes — they have to be in sync,” Davis said of his blockers. “If one person is out of sync, then the whole rest of it looks terrible.
“Fortunately, we’ve been healthy. The longer they play together, the better they’re going to perform.”
Here’s a closer look at FIU’s starting offensive linemen:
▪ Wilkie (6-4, 275 pounds) is the lightest of the group in terms of weight. But the 22-year-old psychology major from Orlando is the second most experienced with 28 starts.
“They say he’s undersized, but he holds it down like he’s 300 pounds,” Mars said.
▪ Budwig, a 6-4, 310-pound fifth-year senior, has made 32 starts, the most on the team. He is also the oldest one of the group, turning 23 on Dec. 2.
A finance major, Budwig went to Fort Lauderdale’s University School and was an immediate starter his first two years at FIU. He missed the past two years due to injury but has made an impressive comeback.
“Old guy, smart guy,” Mars said of Budwig. “He’s been around the block and knows what he’s doing.”
▪ Mars, a 6-3, 305-pound junior from Orange Park, is the second youngest of the group at 20. He started four games as a sophomore left guard and then moved to center to replace graduated standout Michael Montero. A criminal justice major, Mars has made a smooth transition.
▪ Connell, a 6-3, 285-pound sophomore from Jacksonville First Coast, is the youngest (19) and least experienced player in the group with just seven starts. By the way, his twin brother, Douglas, is a redshirt freshman backup center for FIU.
▪ Absheer, a 6-5, 310-pound redshirt junior, won a state title with St. Thomas Aquinas in 2012. At FIU, the 22-year-old liberal studies major has accumulated 18 starts.
Add it all up, and it’s a group keeping McGough secure in the pocket.
“Nice!” McGough said when told his blockers were the focus of this story. “With Budwig coming back [from injury] and Neal and Dallas coming on strong, they’re all coming together as one.”
Just like the Rockettes.
Saturday: Old Dominion at FIU
Kickoff: 7 p.m.; Riccardo Silva Stadium.
TV/radio: No TV; WAXY 790.
Favorite: FIU by 9 1/2.
Records: FIU 6-2 (4-1 C-USA); Old Dominion 3-6 (1-4 C-USA).
Series: Old Dominion leads 2-1.
FIU injuries: Out — RB Anthony Jones (knee).
Old Dominion injuries: Questionable — S Christian Byrum (illness). Out — OL Chad Hendricks (knee); RB Jeremy Cox (shoulder); LB Derek Wilder (knee); S Justice Davila (ankle); DB Kane Miskel (knee); WR Jonathan Duhart (foot).