Florida International U

The FIU Panthers are taking on the UMass Minutemen Saturday. This is what’s at stake

Rishard Dames has FIU’s play of the year so far this season — a one-handed interception that he ran back 80 yards for a touchdown against Western Kentucky on Sept. 7.

Dames also, very quietly, had some of the funnier FIU quotes this season after that same play in which he reached up with his right hand to make the catch.

Question: What made you want to work on one-handed catches in practice?

Dames: “I think I’ve got two hands down pat.”

Question: What’s your vertical leap in inches?

Dames: “37.”

Question: How high did you get on that one?

Dames: “40.”

That was a good moment for the FIU Panthers, but it is indicative of their season so far that it happened during a 20-14 loss to Western Kentucky.

The Panthers (1-3, 0-2) trail WKU by two games in the Conference USA East Division standings, and the Hilltoppers would have the tiebreaker over FIU if it were to come to that at the end of the season.

FIU has never played in the Conference USA title game, and that was a legitimate goal after the Panthers went 9-4 last season, winning the Bahamas Bowl and setting a school record for wins.

The Panthers, who still have six league games to try to get back in the race, will host Massachusetts (1-4) on Saturday in a non-conference contest.

Massachusetts this past Saturday beat Akron 37-29 for the first win for first-year head coach Walt Bell. U-Mass scored on a pick-six in that game, too.

And that leads us back to Dames, a 5-11, 165-pound junior from Miami’s Booker T. Washington who serves as FIU’s third cornerback, used primarily in passing situations.

His twin brother, Richard Dames, is one of FIU’s two starting safeties.

The Dames Twins are both majoring in criminal justice, and they share an identical class schedule, as per their request.

“They are practically inseparable,” said twins mom Akidra Peeeples, who named her sons after her father, whose name is Richard. “For me, the twins are double the pleasure, double the fun.”

The twins have certainly been good for FIU — each of them has three career interceptions.

Richard has emerged as a team leader, gaining 25 pounds in his three years at FIU. At 5-11, he now weighs 190 pounds. His bench press — feeble at 140 pounds when he arrived on campus — is now an impressive 255 with four repetitions.

It was Richard, using that new-found strength, who threw a key block to help spring his brother on that 80-yard interception return.

One of at least a couple of ironies on that play was the fact that Rishard had been burned for an eight-yard touchdown pass on the previous possession.

Another irony is that Rishard wasn’t where he was supposed to be when he made the grab.

“It was busted coverage,” Rishard admitted. “I was supposed to be playing man [coverage]. I had a vertical right behind me, but the quarterback [Steven Duncan] tried to go [under].

“[Duncan] tried to lob it over my head. But I just looked back, and the ball was coming right toward my face.”

On the interception return, Rishard said he was going to run out of bounds at a certain point before the proverbial light bulb illuminated in his head.

“I had to pay the guy [Duncan] back,” said Rishard, referring to the touchdown he allowed.

By the time Rishard reached the end zone, he was clearly gassed, even if he tried to deny it at first.

“I’m not going to say I was tired, but I was excited to get to the sideline to celebrate,” he said.

He then added: “I too drained from the run [to fully celebrate].”

FIU coach Butch Davis said it was a “textbook” play, not just the interception but also all the blockers getting in front of him to escort him down the boundary.

“It was,” Davis said, “a huge, gigantic, big play.”

The Panthers are going to need quite a few more of those if they are to turn their season around, and that quest begins on Saturday against U-Mass.