Florida International U

Here are five matchups to watch for in the FIU Panthers’ season opener on Thursday

The Tulane Green Wave has produced just six winning football seasons in the past 37 years.

But, dig deeper — as the FIU Panthers surely have — and the numbers reveal a program on the rise. Tulane won five of its final six games last year, including a 41-24 Cure Bowl win over Louisiana-Lafayette. That was Tulane’s first bowl win since 2002, and the Green Wave is now looking for their first consecutive winning seasons since 1998.

The Green Wave, under their third-year coach Willie Fritz, will host FIU on Thursday night in New Orleans in the season opener for both schools.

FIU, playing at home, beat Tulane the last time they met, late in the 2017 season.

“They’re very talented,” said FIU coach Butch Davis, who led the Panthers to a 9-4 season last year, breaking the program record for wins. “From two years ago when we played them, they have dramatically changed schemes offensively.”

Davis said Tulane has gone from the 2017 quarterback who was more of a runner to a much more dangerous passing attack.

Still, Tulane prides itself mostly on its defense, which returns eight starters from a unit that ranked fourth in the American Athletic Conference in yards allowed. Tulane had 41 sacks last year, including 6.5 versus Louisiana-Lafayette.

The defensive line — which returns all four starters — is Tulane’s biggest strength, and the Green Wave have a new play-caller as Will Hall begins his first full season as Fritz’s offensive coordinator.

Here are five big matchups to watch in Thursday’s game:

1: FIU junior left tackle D’Antne Demery vs. junior end Patrick Johnson. Demery, formerly of the University of Georgia, is rated by Lindy’s magazine as the No. 1 offensive-line NFL prospect in Conference USA. He was part of an FIU blocking wall that allowed only eight sacks last year, ranking third in the country. Johnson is Tulane’s defensive playmaker, posting 10.5 sacks and 16.5 tackles for losses last season.

2: FIU senior wide receivers Maurice Alexander and Austin Maloney vs. senior cornerback Thakarius Keyes. Alexander led FIU last year with 40 catches in his first year playing the position. Maloney ranked 12th nationally with 20.3 yards per catch. Keyes knocked down 11 passes last year, including three against Wake Forest. He also had a career-high seven tackles against Ohio State.

3: FIU senior middle linebacker Sage Lewis vs. senior running backs Darius Bradwell and Corey Dauphine. Lewis ranked 10th nationally in tackles last year and is Conference USA’s preseason Defensive Player of the Year. Bradwell ran for 1,134 yards last season, and Dauphine added 785 yards.

FIU outside linebacker Jamal Gates has confidence in his unit.

“The anticipation [for Tulane] is building,” Gates said. “I’m just ready, locked and loaded, to see what our defense can do.”

4: FIU senior cornerbacks Ike Brown and Stantley Thomas-Oliver vs. senior wide receivers Jalen McCleskey and Darnell Mooney. Brown (6-1) and Thomas-Oliver (6-2) are taller than 5-11 Mooney and 5-10 McCleskey, an Oklahoma State transfer. But McCleskey has the best hands in the American Athletic Conference, according to Lindy’s.

5: FIU senior quarterback James Morgan vs. Tulane senior quarterback Justin McMillan. Morgan transferred from Bowling Green last year and set the FIU record for single-season touchdown passes, winning C-USA’s Newcomer of the Year award. McMillan transferred from LSU last year and went 5-1 as a starter for Tulane.

Morgan said he’s ready to turn the page from last year’s successful season, looking for more glory in 2019.

“Last year was phenomenal,” he said. “But it’s this year now.”

This year starts Thursday night.