If the FIU Panthers are to win their first game of the season Saturday against visiting New Hampshire and qualify for their third consecutive bowl game by the end of the year, they have to do one thing in particular, according to coach Butch Davis:
Improve on third downs.
The Panthers (0-2) converted on just 2-of-15 opportunities Saturday in a 20-14 loss to visiting Western Kentucky University. Last year, FIU led Conference USA by converting 47 percent on third down.
“If we’re going to be that bad on third downs,” Davis said in reference to the WKU game, “it’s going to be a bad season.”
Another key for this Saturday’s game against FCS opponent New Hampshire (0-1) will be the health of senior quarterback James Morgan, who missed two-plus quarters against WKU because of an ankle injury but then was able to return for two plays at the end of the game.
“It’s possible,” Davis said Wednesday when asked if Morgan would be able to play against New Hampshire.
If Morgan is unable to play, FIU would again turn to redshirt sophomore Kaylan Wiggins, who made his collegiate debut against WKU but completed just 2-of-6 passes for 41 yards.
Wiggins, who also played basketball at Sanford Seminole, is more run-oriented than Morgan and showed his wheels on a 14-yard run against WKU.
“But he can throw [too],” Davis said. “You saw that one gigantic completion (a 40-yarder to Maurice Alexander). He just has to get calmed down. I think our team will benefit from him [having played against WKU].”
As for playing Morgan against New Hampshire, Davis said he will always “err on the side of caution” for any athlete.
“If they are not 100-percent able to protect themselves and play safely,” Davis said, “you’d be stupid to put anybody in the game.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ New Hampshire is without Sean McDonnell, who has coached the team since 1999 but has taken a leave of absence for health reasons. Associate head coach Ricky Santos is running the team. McDonnell was named the national FCS Coach of the Year in 2005 and 2014, leading New Hampshire to 14 straight playoff appearances (2004-2017).
▪ The first player Davis praised after Saturday’s WKU game was punter Tommy Heatherly, who averaged 45.1 yards on seven punts, with three downed inside the 20. WKU was able to return just three of those punts and got negative-six yards. “[Heatherly] killed the ball,” Davis said proudly. “On a couple of his punts, he had nearly five seconds of hang time.”
Davis said Heatherly, a junior-college transfer who made his debut at the Division I level last week against Tulane, was nervous for that first game, which explained his paltry 36.3 average on four punts. FIU benched Heatherly at Tulane in favor of Tommy Leo, but that was not the case against WKU.
▪ Davis said his entire team needs to play with intensity. “Guys [need to be] honest with themselves [and say], ‘I can give better effort. I can give better technique.’ When they do that, we will be a better team.”