FIU regaining offensive balance against UTEP didn’t prevent Saturday from being another episode of The Gardner Show.
In fact, sophomore running back Alex Gardner moved one game closer to being the first player to lead FIU in rushing and receptions in the same season.
Gardner’s five catches Saturday pushed him to 31 for the season, one ahead of sophomore wide receiver Thomas Owens. He is second in receiving yards behind Owens, 392 to 313. And, of course, Gardner’s 364 yards on 94 carries puts him atop the rushing totals, where he finished last year tied with Anthon Samuel.
His out-of-the-backfield ability remained sheathed as a freshman — eight catches for 48 yards. Early in his freshman season, Gardner came out of the game on passing downs because his pass blocking needed improvement.
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“I came into this season wanting to help out more in the passing game,” Gardner said. “This year, I’m getting in one-on-one situations and coaches are putting me in the best position to make plays.”
Getting Gardner’s shiftiness in space paid off in the season opener when he slalomed and spun 27 yards with a screen pass to set up a field goal. He took a dump off 23 yards, leaving a helpless linebacker waving in his wake, to set up a touchdown.
The latter’s become Gardner’s thing, whether you want to call it a dump off, check down, safety valve, whatever.
Of Gardner’s 31 catches, 24 have been in the last three weeks, most on that adjustment. The 19 catches he had in the losses to Louisiana Tech and UMass served as commentary on the rest of the passing game, too.
“If nothing’s open downfield, he’s always there for me,” sophomore quarterback Alex McGough said. “And he’s been there the last couple of weeks.”
Gardner said, “Our quarterback trusts me in the passing game so he’s getting me the ball. In the run game, we’re finally opening up holes and we’re getting our right reads.”
A Gardner-heavy first drive — 45 yards rushing, 11 yards receiving, the 2-yard touchdown run — launched FIU on a 21-point quarter and school record 42-point half.
The 52 points tied the 52-35 win against Troy in 2010 and the 52-6 win against FAU in 2005 for the most during FIU’s years in FBS. The 40-point margin of victory was the Panthers’ second best in FBS behind the aforementioned FAU rout.
“We feel like we’re a special team and we want to show it on the field,” Gardner said. “That [the 52 points] shows we’re a special team.”