When the first-place FIU Panthers (7-3, 5-1) travel to Charlotte for Saturday’s important Conference USA game, they will be facing a familiar name.
Evan Shirreffs, who transferred out of the University of Miami after he failed to win a starting job, is now Charlotte’s quarterback.
Shirreffs, a 6-5 native of Georgia, graduated from UM in three years and arrived at Charlotte this past spring. He has completed 51.9 percent of his passes and has two touchdowns and four interceptions since taking over as the starter the past four games, replacing injured Chris Reynolds.
Charlotte is 1-3 since Shirreffs became the starter.
FIU coach Butch Davis, who turns 67 on Saturday, knows that if his Panthers can beat Charlotte and then come home and defeat Marshall in their regular-season finale, they will head to the C-USA title game for the first time in school history.
Still, Davis is wary of Charlotte (4-6, 3-3), especially since it will be an emotional Senior Day for the 49ers.
As for Shirreffs, he completed 8-of-18 passes for 74 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions last week in a 30-13 loss to Marshall. Backup Hasaan Klugh went 2-for-2 for minus-2 yards.
“Both of them, they’re not going to drop back and throw 45 times,” Davis said when asked about Shirreffs. “They’re going to manage the game.”
Here are seven takeaways regarding FIU football:
▪ 1: Mershawn Miracle: FIU offensive lineman Mershawn Miller, who injured his arm as the victim of a drive-by shooting on Sept. 6 in Opa-Locka, returned to action last week against Texas-San Antonio.
Miller played left guard in a reserve role, but just getting him back on the field was a huge lift for FIU.
Panthers running back Anthony Jones, injured in the same shooting, had returned to action the previous game.
“Just the thought that Anthony and Mershawn are back playing football after what they went through … I’m blown away with gratefulness,” Davis said.
“If you would’ve asked me a month ago, I would’ve said Mershawn is not playing again until 2019. But he did a great job with the rehab.”
Davis said Miller will play the rest of the season with a cast on his hand because of his injured thumb.
▪ 2: Trend Talk: FIU has beaten Charlotte in each of the past three years, but the past two wins were by one point.
FIU beat visiting Charlotte 30-29 last season. The Panthers rallied from a 19-point deficit and survived as Charlotte missed a 48-yard field-goal attempt in the final minute.
In 2016, FIU went to Charlotte and won 27-26, scoring 14 points in the final seven minutes. Charlotte missed a 49-yard field goal in the final minute.
▪ 3: What’s at Stake: If the Panthers win their remaining two scheduled games, they will set a school record for most victories in a season.
Conversely, a win over FIU would be a huge deal for Charlotte, which needs two victories to become bowl-eligible. The 49ers didn’t have a football program at all from 1949 until returning in 2013.
They joined C-USA in 2015.
▪ 4: Defending the Run: Charlotte’s Benny LeMay, a 5-9, 220-pound junior, ranks fourth in C-USA with 896 yards. He has six touchdowns and is averaging 5.0 per rush.
Since the start of last season, LeMay has rushed for 1,628 yards in 18 starts.
FIU’s run defense has been a weakness at times this season, most notably when FAU beat the Panthers with 439 ground yards.
“[Charlotte] will challenge our run defense,” Davis said. “And if you load the box to stop the run, they make a living on play-action passes.”
▪ 5: Special Teams Alert: This will be the first time this season FIU faces a rugby-style punter. That could lead to turnovers as was the case for the Hurricanes against Georgia Tech last week.
▪ 6: Strength vs. Strength: Charlotte is 4-1 at home this season, including 3-0 against league opponents. FIU is 3-0 outside of South Florida, beating Old Dominion, Western Kentucky and UTSA.
▪ 7: Dynamic Defense: Charlotte leads the league in fewest rushing yards allowed (88.5 per game). The 49ers brought in a new coordinator, Glenn Spencer, and his 5-2-4 base defense has made an impact.