Florida International U

Here’s one of the reasons why FIU is a win away from first Conference USA division title

Florida International University’s Anthony Jones, run the ballagainst the Charlotte 49ers Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
Florida International University’s Anthony Jones, run the ballagainst the Charlotte 49ers Stadium on November 17, 2018 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The Miami Herald

Before every FIU offensive play, Dallas Connell squats across from and in between roughly 600 pounds of defensive tackles who would love nothing more than to run him over and get to the quarterback.

It’s nasty in the trenches – there’s sweat, spit, snot, stench and just about everything else you can imagine in a sport as physical as football. But Connell, who had never played center before this season, remains calm, and he’s a big reason why FIU’s offensive line leads Conference USA with the fewest sacks in the league (nine in 11 games).

“It’s a team effort,” Connell said humbly. “The tight ends and fullbacks block, too. We all work together to give our quarterback (James Morgan) the best shot (at completing passes).”

FIU’s blocking wall has been a major factor in the success of the Panthers (8-3, 6-1), who can clinch the first Conference USA East Division title in school history with a home win over Marshall this Saturday.

FIU offensive line coach Allen Mogridge, who played tackle at the University of North Carolina, gave Connell a huge compliment recently by comparing him to his former Tar Heels teammate, Jeff Saturday, a former Super Bowl champ and six-time Pro Bowl center.

“With Jeff, you knew who the alpha was,” Mogridge said. “Dallas has those same qualities.”

Connell, a 6-3, 285-pound junior from Jacksonville, had played guard for his entire career prior to this year. But when starting center Neal Mars suffered a serious knee injury in FIU’s 2017 bowl game, coach Butch Davis and Mogridge went hunting for a replacement.

They quickly settled on Connell this past spring, and it’s been a smooth transition.

“Dallas is one of the smartest kids on our team,” Davis said of Connell, who has a 3.6 grade-point average. “And that’s critically important for a center, who has to identify blitzers.”

Processing information quickly and correctly is not difficult for Connell, who is set to graduate from FIU next month, earning his Bachelor’s degree in Health Services Administration.

He anchors a line that includes:

Sophomore left tackle D’Antne Demery, who is a Georgia Bulldogs transfer;

▪ Sixth-year senior left guard Jordan Budwig, who has made 48 starts;

▪ Sophomore right guard Shane McGough, whose brother Alex is FIU’s former quarterback and is now on an NFL practice squad with the Seattle Seahawks;

▪ And senior right tackle Daquane Wilkie, who has 29 career starts.

Depth includes Mars, Mershawn Miller and Shacquille Williams on the inside and Kai Absheer and Devontay Taylor at tackle.

“I think you play better if you are fresher,” Mogridge said of his unit’s depth. “Trust is earned – not given. And the way trust is shown is by accountability on Saturdays.”

Connell showed he was accountable after FIU lost a fumble on a center-exchange issue in a loss to FAU on Nov. 3.

Mogridge, who admits he is “a little emotional and on edge” on the field, said there was “chaos and pandemonium” after the play.

“Let’s just say I went to Dallas and asked what happened,” Mogridge said. “We had a conversation.”

Here’s what happened: Just before the snap, the official stepped in to make sure the ball wasn’t quick-snapped, and that clearly threw off FIU’s timing.

But Connell, ever the cool head, quickly recovered.

“There was a little bit of controversy,” Connell said. “I just tried to move on from it and move forward.”

That’s what FIU has done anytime it has had a setback this season, and now the goal of playing for a C-USA title is clearly within sight.

The offensive line, with its ability to protect Morgan, is sure to be tested again this Saturday.

“We didn’t expect (to lead the league in fewest sacks),” Connell said, “but, the way we work, I’m not surprised.”

THIS AND THAT

▪ FIU’s offensive line had another stellar game in Saturday’s 42-35 win at Charlotte, allowing zero sacks and paving the way for 196 yards rushing with an 8.5 average.

▪ Of the nine sacks allowed by FIU this season, no team has more than two against the Panthers. Only two of the sacks came on blitzes, which speaks to great communication.

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