Saturday’s season-closing loss to North Texas proved a proper outline of FIU football’s 4-8 2014 season.
Touchdown returns, one being the fourth of the season for redshirt junior Richard Leonard, and just enough blown offensive opportunities to send FIU down to defeat.
Each of FIU’s four victories featured defensive touchdowns. Each win featured turnovers by the Costco-load — six from Wagner, six from FAU, five from Middle Tennessee State, four from Alabama-Birmingham — garnered by an FIU team that leads the nation in turnovers gained (33) and fumbles recovered (19). Leonard returned interceptions for touchdowns against Wagner and UAB, a fumble for a touchdown against FAU and had a 30-yard punt return to set up a touchdown against Middle Tennessee.
But those facts frame a fact: the offense, though improved from historically bad in 2013, remained too reliant on help from the defense for scoring.
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That was painted in bright colors by Saturday’s 17-14 loss in which the Panthers scored only on a Leonard punt return and an interception return by junior cornerback Jeremiah McKinnon. In two of the three three-point losses suffered by FIU, Saturday and to Texas-San Antonio, the offense scored three points when not given the ball on the opponent’s side of the field.
Those losses kept FIU from being bowl eligible, which would have been a long jump from 2013’s 1-11 disaster.
That’s why FIU coach Ron Turner said weeks ago he could still feel good about this season despite falling short of the stated team goal for the season (winning a bowl game). Progress is apparent.
Junior Anthon Samuel and freshmen Alex Gardner and Napoleon Maxwell injected electricity into the running back position. Redshirt sophomore transfer Imarjaye Albury filled the defensive tackle spot well, and a group of young, dynamic linebackers gave FIU a stiff run defense most of the season.
At quarterback, freshman quarterback Alex McGough made most of the errors you’d expect and didn’t make some you would. Inconsistency from McGough and the receivers aside from sophomore tight end Jonnu Smith — 61 catches, 710 yards, eight touchdowns — kept FIU from making enough plays downfield to win most games.
“Our expectation was to go to a bowl game. Obviously, we’re short of being bowl eligible,” Smith said earlier this week. “We had our ups and downs. Overall, as the season went on, we progressed as a team. We became closer. After the losses, as bad as they were, we became more together as a team.
“That’s going to be the biggest factor going into the offseason with so much togetherness, and it’ll help us next season.”