Florida International U

Pittsburgh running back James Conner vocal point in battle of Panthers against FIU

Despite the vast differences in their football pasts and projections for the near future, FIU (1-1) and Saturday’s noon guest Pitt (2-0) share some characteristics.

Both teams come calling themselves “the Panthers.” Both come from schools colored with a shade of blue and a shade of gold. And the stylistic differences in Pitt’s offense and FIU’s defense can be summed up with “geography.”

The team from Pittsburgh, where the Steeltown mind-set outlasted the steel mills, brings big carnivores trying to buffalo open holes for a massive running back who moonlights on the defensive line. Seven starters come from Pennsylvania, 10 from the Midwest.

The team from South Florida, where car salesmen and football coaches live and die by speed, overwhelms with numbers at the point of attack with young, swift linebackers, speedy defensive backs and quick defensive linemen. Nine of 11 starters come from Florida, six from South Florida.

For 26-point underdog FIU to have a chance to be the alpha Panthers, it will have to represent South Florida better than Pitt represents Western Pennsylvania.

Pitt averaged 356 rushing yards in wins against Delaware and Boston College. FIU has allowed only 91.0 yards rushing in a loss to Bethune-Cookman and a win against Wagner, both Football Championship Subdivision schools.

With the rare noon kickoff at FIU Stadium, the Panthers should hope the weather settling over Ocean Bank Field comes textured in South Florida Hot and Chewy. The Weather Channel predicts temperatures in the mid-80s with scattered thunderstorms.

When asked the hottest game he has played in, Pitt running back James Conner named this season’s first game against Delaware, a 93-degree game.

“You know, we’re getting some heat here, but you’re not going to simulate that,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “It’s like when you go play on the road and you pump in crowd noise. It’s not the same, right? We’ve got to deal with it. You know, there’s enough things that you can try to do to give yourself a little better chance, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to deal with it, and it’s going to be something that it’s what it’s going to be, and we’ve got to embrace it.”

Conner is the 250-pound sophomore running back and backup defensive end who is second in the nation in rushing. For a size comparison to FIU’s starters, he outweighs both defensive ends, junior Michael Wakefield and redshirt junior Denzell Perine.

Last Saturday against Wagner, FIU started freshman Anthony Wint and redshirt freshman Jordan Guest on either side of sophomore middle linebacker Treyvon Williams.

“Defensively, got to handle their athleticism and their movement in the front seven,” Chryst said.

Bethune-Cookman is as ground-connected as grass, and FIU squashed the Wildcats’ rushing attack with eight or nine in the box. Against Pitt, that means either redshirt junior Richard Leonard or junior Jeremiah McKinnon alone against wide receiver Tyler Boyd.

That 90-yard defensive effort was helped by six sacks. Bethune is a ranked FCS team but an FCS team, nonetheless.

“That’s the whole nature of their program, no matter what area you’re talking about — physical,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “I told the guys, it’s a hell of a challenge, obviously. They’ve dominated their first two opponents. They’re a very good team. Embrace the challenge. We like to be physical. Let’s go out, match it, embrace it, let’s go.”

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