Florida International U

Old Dominion presents another challenge for FIU Panthers defense

FIU head coach Ron Turner as FIU hosts Marshall at Ocean Bank Stadium in Miami on Saturday, October 18, 2014.
FIU head coach Ron Turner as FIU hosts Marshall at Ocean Bank Stadium in Miami on Saturday, October 18, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Three weeks ago, before FIU hosted Marshall, weekly Conference USA scores begged the question if anybody besides those two realized conference rules allowed for 11 players on defense and tackling. Even by the point-heavy standard of current college football, C-USA scores qualified as obese.

Now, with a trip to high-scoring Old Dominion staring them in the face, the Panthers are trying to nip the trend of teams getting fat off them at two games.

“The last couple of games, we gave our opponents too much,” FIU coach Ron Turner said.

Helped by two fourth-quarter turnovers, one a 30-yard interception return, Marshall put up 45 on FIU. Rice, which averages 31.4 points per game, scored right at its average in a 31-17 victory over the Panthers on Saturday, helped by a 69-yard touchdown pass on which James Mayden raced up the field as wide open as most sections of FIU Stadium. Those two games raised FIU’s points per game allowed average from 19.9 to 23.9.

That’s still second in C-USA to Marshall’s 16.5 points per game. Marshall’s the only conference team to harness Old Dominion (56-14), which lost the ultimate 2014 Conference USA game against Western Kentucky on Oct. 25. The basketball teams might not outscore that 66-51 shootout in which two Western touchdown returns, a 94-yard kickoff return and a 96-yard interception return, wound up being the difference in a game that shocked nobody.

“A lot of points against everybody,” Turner said. “They score and they score fast. I see a very, very good quarterback. I mean, a great quarterback. You can tell he’s a senior, been in the offense a long time.”

Turner’s talking about four-year starter Taylor Heinicke, the 2012 winner of the Walter Payton Award, the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

In Old Dominion’s first full FBS season and first season in Conference USA, Heinicke has completed 62.7 of his 332 passes for 2,577 yards and 23 touchdowns. Despite the pass concentration in its offense, Heinicke’s been sacked only 21 times and 11 of those came against Marshall and Middle Tennessee State. That leaves only 10 sacks for the other seven games.

“They may be similar to Marshall as far as the formations and stuff they give you,” FIU defensive coordinator Josh Conklin said. “Their quarterback has really impressed me. He can make all the throws to the boundary. All the middle of the field throws. He’s a dynamic guy. That’s really what makes it work. They do a great job of spreading the ball around so they use multiple wide receivers. It’s not like you can bracket a guy. It’s the same old deal like we talk about – spread the field, create those one-on-ones, see if you can get a guy open in space, then yards after catch.

“Some people have had some success defending them. Marshall did a pretty good job defending them. We’ll look at that tape closely and see if we can get the right match-ups. That’s the whole key for us right now.”

At least the Panthers know they can play good defense against a good offense (see “34-20 at Alabama-Birmingham”). Old Dominion has given up moret than 40 points in seven of its last eight games and six consecutive.

“They give up a lot,” Turner said. Then, he chuckled, “And we don’t score a lot, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.”

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