FIU football’s home officially carries the name “Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.” Colloquially, it’s “The Cage.” “Forest Lawn,” “Boot Hill” or “Crown Hill” could work for Saturday.
Both Louisville and FIU want to take some of their football past to the cemetery.
For Louisville (2-1), it’s a past as recent as last week. The then-No.21 Cardinals lost 23-21 to Virginia, which entered the game carrying a 10-game losing streak against Football Bowl Subdivision teams. The loss evicted Louisville from the Top 25 rankings, in which the Cardinals nested the past several years.
“We had a hard day on Sunday when you look at the video and you go through everything and do all the corrections,” Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said on the ACC coaches’ conference call. “I think the number one thing that I was very, very impressed with [Tuesday] was the attitude and work ethic we showed on the practice field, and the fact that the Cardinal pride showed up.”
Petrino also told the media later in the week that after grading out practices, “We’ll start the guys who practiced the hardest.”
For FIU (1-2), it’s a past of exactly a year ago. Two years after the 2011 game at Louisville boosted FIU’s national profile with arguably the biggest win in Panthers football history, the same place hosted the most embarrassing brawl-free day in FIU’s 12-plus seasons of football.
“Right now, we’re just going to flush that game and get ready for this [game],” FIU junior defensive end Michael Wakefield said.
“This is a different year, a new year, and we’re a new team,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “The focus first and foremost is on us. Don’t worry about what they have on their helmets or the names on their uniforms.”
When Turner said FIU is a new team, he means attitude as much as personnel. But it’s hard to ignore that six of the Panthers’ current defensive starters and two current offensive starters didn’t play at all last year against Louisville. That includes impact players such as cornerback Richard Leonard (one interception, one fumble caused, 21.4 yards per punt return, 39.0 yards per kickoff return); heavy-hitting safety Demarkus Perkins; freshman quarterback Alex McGough; and freshman running back Alex Gardner.
FIU certainly showed no shrinkage before last week’s ACC opponent, Pittsburgh. After seeing its 16-0 first-quarter lead disappear, FIU hung hard enough to be down only 26-19 in the fourth quarter, with the ball. That represented the overall game more than the 42-25 final score.
“It gave us a lot of confidence,” Wakefield said. “Before the game, we knew we could play with these guys. After the game, when we saw the results, we know we could play with them. [Conference] doesn’t really mean anything. We’ve got a good defense. Got offense. We can play with anybody.”
Louisville quarterback Will Gardner testified: “I’ve watched some of FIU [on] film. They’re a lot better team this year. … We’ve got to come out and play hard. You can’t face it as we’ve got [to play] a smaller school. You’ve got to treat everyone the same, go out and play football.”
Gardner is the big difference in Louisville, which has 16 players from Miami-Dade County and 28 total from Florida. Following the luxury-quarterback ride Miami Northwestern High graduate Teddy Bridgewater gave Louisville for 21/2 seasons didn’t get any easier when wide receiver Devante Parker went down with a foot injury before the season.
In the loss to Virginia, Gardner and the Cardinals offense didn’t get much done before a two-touchdown fourth quarter. Gardner usually splits time with freshman Reggie Bonnafon, who will miss the game while attending his father’s funeral.
“[Gardner] has had a really good week as far as focus,” Petrino said. “His attitude, I think, it’s the best it’s been all year.”
Turner said he didn’t see much difference in the Petrino-coached Cardinals versus the Charlie Strong-coached Cardinals.
“Very talented, very fast, they like to run the ball on the perimeter,” Turner said. “They’ve got speed — fast receivers. Obviously, they don’t have Bridgewater. Biggest thing is their speed and athleticism across the board, whether you’re talking offense, defense, special teams. Extremely athletic … and about half of them from South Florida.”
They’re coming home, but to FIU’s home. Home’s a good place to bury the past.
Saturday: Louisville at FIU
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m.; Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.
TV/radio: FS1; ESPND 1210.