Florida International U

FIU Panthers running game needs to start rolling

FIU running back Alex Gardner scores in the third quarter against UCF in Orlando on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015.
FIU running back Alex Gardner scores in the third quarter against UCF in Orlando on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

No matter where FIU throws the ball — wide, short, occasionally deep — the foundation of success usually remains with the running game. That foundation has gotten a little soggy against the past two FBS opponents.

Now comes the University of Massachusetts, an FBS opponent that loves its offense and likes the ball in the air. The conventional strategy song remains the same against such teams — run the ball, get first downs, keep their offense off the field and out of rhythm.

FIU can’t do that getting just 18 carries for 38 yards from the running back position, as sophomore Alex Gardner, senior Anthon Samuel and freshman Anthony Jones combined for against Louisiana Tech.

“We went against a very good team last week,” FIU coach Ron Turner said. “I thought we had a good plan. At times, we executed well, at times we didn’t. We’ve got to execute better and just be patient with it. The first two games, we ran it well. Last week, not quite so much.

“They had a veteran team that won their division last year and almost everybody back — their secondcary back, the linebackers.”

The running back numbers in FIU’s other loss, at Indiana, were 67 yards on 22 carries. On the other hand, FIU manhandled Central Florida, which is 0-4 but a respectable 42nd nationally in run defense.

UMass ranks 125th, but as it averages only 1.33 sacks per game (sack yardage comes off the run defense in college football as opposing to team passing yardage in the NFL), that creates a statistical overstatement on their porous defense against standard running plays.

“One of the biggest problems we’re having is communications on the offensive line,” FIU center Mike Montero said. But he later said of that facet, “we’re getting better at it as a team. I think we’re going to have a really good game this week.”

One of the likely reasons it should get better is familiarity. Orchestrating a run game involves more complexity than just blasting the guy in front of you. It starts when Montero bends over and starts to play ground traffic controller.

“We call out someone [on the defense],” Montero said.

“Everyone has to know that declared person. There’s three or four little different pieces for that run that have to be done — having your head on the right side, little things like that — to have a successful run. There’s a lot of intricate components to the run game.”

The FIU symphony has featured many different players in many different chairs: four offensive line combinations started in the Panthers’ first four games.

With Trenton Saunders, who started all four games at right guard, still hobbling around on crutches after Saturday’s loss, bet on this Saturday being five lineups in five games.

And those combinations included redshirt freshmen Daquane Wilkie and Kai Absheer in their first college games.


FIU attempted to exploit the Indiana secondary, hitting on a 75-yard touchdown pass and a 28-yard TD pass. The Panthers hit on a 64-yard scoring pass against North Carolina Central the drive after missing on the same pattern.

But FIU put away the rocket launchers last Saturday against Louisiana Tech.

“We had some called, but they didn’t give us the coverage to give us a shot,” Turner said. “[Quarterback] Alex [McGough] is getting to the point where he’s not going to throw unless we get the look we want. I think they were determined not to give us big plays.”

FIU’s longest completion was a 25-yarder to tight end Jonnu Smith in the first quarter, and even that was a pyrrhic victory as Smith sustained a thigh contusion that took him out until the third quarter. Smith practiced Wednesday after sitting out Tuesday.

▪ Middle linebacker Treyvon Williams and offensive guard Trenton Saunders remained on crutches.

David J. Neal: 305-376-3559, @DavidJNeal