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Slumping FIU Panthers at pivotal point with game against UTEP

FIU junior tight end Jonnu Smith is staying positive. ‘Although we’ve had some decline in some areas the last couple of weeks, our goals are still there,’ Smith said. ‘They’re not leaving.’
FIU junior tight end Jonnu Smith is staying positive. ‘Although we’ve had some decline in some areas the last couple of weeks, our goals are still there,’ Smith said. ‘They’re not leaving.’ Miami Herald Staff

Everything about Saturday’s FIU home game against UTEP seems early.

Early as in time — a noon kickoff at FIU Stadium. To draw students out of their beds and away from TV football, FIU is offering tuition raffles, selling tickets for a raffle benefiting breast cancer awareness and even giving the FIU swimming and diving team its rings for last season’s Conference USA championship.

Game 6 also seems a bit early to pull out the “must-win” clichés.

“Although we’ve had some decline in some areas the last couple of weeks, our goals are still there,” FIU junior tight end Jonnu Smith said, referring to 10-point losses at Louisiana Tech and at UMass. “They’re not leaving.”

Group of Five conference results swerve into incongruity just often enough to prevent a loss from completely sinking FIU’s bowl and Conference USA title game goals battleship. But, realistically, a loss would be a significant hit for FIU (2-3, 0-1).

A second conference loss would leave the Panthers two games behind the Middle Tennessee-Western Kentucky winner in C-USA’s East Division. As far as bowl eligibility, FIU likely would need to sweep home games against Old Dominion and FBS rookie Charlotte, and, in between, the almost-home game at FAU. Also, the Panthers need to win against one of the three current top teams in the East: at Middle Tennessee next week; at Marshall on Nov. 14; or home against Western Kentucky, which has averaged 42.9 points per game the past two seasons while using the passing game that’s cholera to FIU’s defense.

UTEP, the first FBS underdog to the Panthers since South Alabama in 2012, brings nothing like that. The Miners want to be exactly the kind of team you would expect from your first glance at UTEP coach Sean Kugler, a massive former UTEP offensive lineman embodying the visual football coach stereotype even more than interim Dolphins coach Dan Campbell.

(Kugler finished third behind Texas’ Charlie Strong and Boston College’s Steve Addazio in a September ESPN coaches’ poll that asked, “If there was a brawl at a coaches’ convention, which current FBS coach would you want by your side?”)

“I really feel we need to find an identity on offense,” Kugler said at his Monday news conference. “We cannot be back there throwing it close to 50 times a game and not run the ball efficiently and think we’re going to win games. That’s not going to happen.”

Kugler said the 50 passes-to-22 runs split in UTEP’s 25-6 loss to Texas-San Antonio “will never happen again as long as I’m the head coach here.”

Campbell would love Kugler’s turnaround results — from 2-10 in 2013 to New Mexico Bowl participant in 2014. This season, injuries have hampered UTEP (2-3, 0-1) to an even greater degree than they have FIU. Kugler claimed that 12 players have been injured and 10 have been lost for the season so far.

The Miners won at home against the University of the Incarnate Word, which you most likely heard of for having former Dolphins running back Ricky Williams as an assistant coach in 2013-14. The Miners worked overtime to outlast doormat’s doormat New Mexico State.

This is also early in FIU’s home schedule, with it being only the second of five home games.

“It’s going to feel good,” fifth-year senior cornerback Richard Leonard said. “Hopefully, everybody comes out to see us, and we can play hard and fast and FIU football.”

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