Heavy hearts and grave concern — that’s a fair way of describing the state of mind of the FIU Panthers football players and coaches who boarded a plane on Friday to Norfolk, Virginia.
Just one day prior, two FIU football players — standout running back Anthony Jones and backup offensive lineman Mershawn Miller — were shot and injured while visiting friends in Opa-locka in what police say was a drive-by shooting.
Both players were transported to the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Miller, shot in the arm, has been released from the hospital.
Jones was shot in the face and back, but Opa-locka Police Chief James Dobson said the injuries didn’t appear to be life-threatening.
“When you hear the news that we received, your heart drops,” FIU coach Butch Davis said in a statement. “[But] we’ve been receiving encouraging reports on their conditions, and our thoughts and prayers are with the families of Anthony Jones and Mershawn Miller.”
Despite the sorrow felt by the FIU team, the season will go on, and the Panthers (0-1) will face host Old Dominion (0-1) on Saturday night in the Conference USA opener for both teams.
The Panthers are coming off a respectable 38-28 loss to the visiting Indiana Hoosiers last Saturday. The Panthers earned respect even in defeat.
“We’ve played [FIU] three times in the past four years,” Indiana coach Tom Allen said, “and this was the most talented [Panthers] team we’ve played.”
Davis hopes that talent translates into an even bigger year than his debut Panthers season of 2017, which produced an 8-5 record and a rare bowl berth.
FIU is favored over ODU by 1½ points, and perhaps it should be more given the Monarchs’ 52-10 loss to Liberty last week. Liberty outscored ODU 38-0 in the second half.
The Panthers will seek revenge on the Monarchs, who beat them 37-30 last year at FIU.
One way for FIU to avenge that defeat would be to pound the ball, but that chore will be harder without Jones, who rushed for 88 yards and a career-best two touchdowns against Indiana.
Without Jones against ODU, FIU will rely on running backs Napoleon Maxwell, Shawndarrius Phillips and D’Vonte Price.
Defensively, FIU will look to junior middle linebacker Sage Lewis for leadership. Lewis had a career-high 18 tackles against Indiana, ranking him fifth in school history for single-game stops.
Lewis said FIU is in better shape after one game than it was last year, when the Panthers were routed by UCF 61-17.
“After UCF, we were lost for words,” Lewis said. “I feel a lot more confident this year.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Indiana safety Jonathan Crawford also had praise for FIU. “We struggle with them every year,” he said. “They’re fast, athletic. They’re tough, too. You can never give up on them. You have to keep fighting them.”
▪ ODU’s best player may be 6-3, 220-pound senior wide receiver Jonathan Duhart. Other players to watch are running back Jeremy Cox, wide receiver Travis Fulgham, center Nick Clarke and defensive end Oshane Ximines — allseniors. The quarterback is sophomore, Steven Williams, who had accuracy issues against Liberty.
▪ FIU will surely be aware of ODU kicker Nick Rice, who hit a 48-yard field goal last week that coach Bobby Wilder said, “would’ve been good from 60.” Last year, Rice made 15 of 20 field-goal attempts.
▪ FIU went 2-3 on the road last year.
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