FIU knew UTEP liked to play man-to-man coverage, opening the Panthers up for big-play chances. They knew UTEP gave up 5.2 yards per rush, so they could probably run the ball, setting up those big-play chances.
FIU also knew UTEP wanted to pound the ball at the strength of its defense.
Then, FIU (3-3, 1-1 in Conference USA) bashed UTEP (2-4, 0-2) over the head with those favorable matchups for a school-record 42 first-half points on its way to a 52-12 obliteration at FIU Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday’s game at The Cage stayed competitive about as long as a Rhonda Rousey fight in a UFC cage. The Panthers pounced on a vulnerable UTEP team with touchdowns on their first five possessions. Three touchdowns into that scoring streak, the defense joined the party with senior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon’s 31-yard interception return.
Sophomore running back Alex Gardner ran for 56 yards on 10 carries, including a 2-yard touchdown, and caught five passes for 96 yards. FIU’s other starting offensive sophomore Alex, quarterback McGough, completed 13 of 17 passes for a career-high 270 yards and two touchdowns.
Everybody got in on the act. A school-record seven different players scored touchdowns, regardless of class. Seniors (McKinnon, running back Anthon Samuel) scored. Sophomores (Gardner, wide receiver Thomas Owens, wide receiver Shug Oyegunle) scored. A junior (Jonnu Smith) and a freshman (Anthony Jones) found the end zone, too.
Gardner had 45 of his rushing yards on the first drive. That set the table for the 43-yard strike to Owens, his fifth consecutive game with a touchdown catch. McGough later hit Clinton Taylor for 35 yards to set up a field goal, but his best throw might have been a fourth-and-7 arrow over the middle to senior tight end Ya’keem Griner for 17 yards before Smith’s touchdown.
In addition to rolling up 518 offensive yards, ending two weeks of offensive ineptitude, FIU got penalized only five times for 38 yards. None were personal fouls after seven in losses the past two weeks to Louisiana Tech and UMass.
“That’s all we were focusing on this week was discipline, mental toughness,” McKinnon said. “I feel like we did a great job with that. We played unselfishly. It was about the team. No dumb penalties.”
FIU coach Ron Turner, whose career has been about offense, was asked which made him happier: the plethora of points or the lack of penalties.
“Probably the lack of penalties,” Turner laughed. “I was very pleased with the penalties. That and the way we handled ourselves. There were times where there was some pushing and shoving going back and forth, and our guys didn’t get involved with it. There were times I saw our guys even helping them up off the field.
“Our guys played very hard, very focused, very determined with a chip on their shoulder, but with the class of character we’re looking for.”
Turner said he thought after last Sunday’s weekly team meeting, in which he expressed his displeasure with their behavior the last two weeks, “they were probably a little mad at me. I said, ‘That’s all right. Stay mad at me, then. I still love you guys when you’re mad at me. I’ve got four kids, they’re mad at me a lot of times, too.’ ”
FIU knew what it could do. FIU also knew (but nobody’s going to say it) that UTEP was even more injury-riddled than FIU.
Most importantly, an offense based entirely around running back Aaron Jones collapsed once the Miners lost Jones for the season to injury. Lacking experience and production support from the running back position, redshirt freshman quarterback Ryan Metz directed the offense to only six points at Texas-San Antonio last week.
Metz lasted four drives Saturday. One three-and-out after McKinnon’s interception return touchdown, Metz got benched for Kavicka Johnson. UTEP had 28 yards rushing on 10 carries and 37 yards of total offense. FIU led 28-0.
Western Kentucky’s blowout of Middle Tennessee State — running so concurrent with FIU’s blowout of UTEP that Western and FIU seemed to be dueling with touchdowns — sets up next week’s FIU game at Middle Tennessee as an elimination game as far as the conference race. The loser will have two conference losses, likely two games behind Western and Marshall in C-USA’s East Division.