Florida International U

FIU Panthers face new wrinkle against Old Dominion: QB David Washington

FIU quarterback Alex McGough (12) throws a left-handed pass while being pursued by Old Dominion defenders last season.
FIU quarterback Alex McGough (12) throws a left-handed pass while being pursued by Old Dominion defenders last season. The Virginian-Pilot

It has taken less than a year for Old Dominion, FIU’s homecoming opponent Saturday, to establish itself as the Fernando Valenzuela of the Panthers’ opponents. They’ve only met once on the field and the Panthers already have seen two screwballs from the Monarchs.

Taking Screwball No. 2 first, last week ODU — sloughing about with an anemic offense — replaced Shuler Bentley with redshirt junior wide receiver and backup quarterback David Washington. That ignited a 37-34 win against FBS rookie Charlotte with 486 yards of offense. Suddenly, FIU didn’t have six games of video on the Monarchs’ quarterback.

“I think the other guy had just gone through some redshirt freshman struggles,” FIU defensive coordinator Matt House said. “You could tell No. 6 [wide receiver Zach Paschal, 231 yards receiving] and No. 10 [Washington], they had a connection. I think [Washington] did a good job of just playing. You could see it on tape. He gained confidence as the game went on. He just played, played and played. Shoot, he did a nice job throwing the deep ball that game.”

According to House, Old Dominion runs the same offense conceptually they did with four-year starter Taylor Heinicke from 2011-14.

“They’ve done a good job of developing a system. They might tweak a thing or two to fit him, but I don’t see their system changing,” House said. “And they do a good job with it. You can tell their receivers know how to get open. Their linemen do a nice job in the run game and in picking up protections.”

Washington backed up Heinicke in 2013 and 2014, but moved to wide receiver during the 2014 season. Back in July, Old Dominion coach Bobby Wilder portrayed absolute confidence in Bentley when asked what would be the bigger transition — FCS to FBS in 2014 or going from Heinicke to redshirt freshman Bentley in 2015.

“We’re going to change the offense to fit his strengths. We’re going to be protective of him early,” Wilder said. “The good thing for us is we’ve got the rookie of the year back at running back [Ray Lawry]. We return four starters in the O-line. We’ve got an injured player back, [center/tackle] Troy Butler, who was a starter for us two years ago. In essence, we’ve got five starters in the O-line. We’ve got eight wide receivers back who have started or played and been successful. So there’s a lot around Shuler. It’s not as if he’s stepping into it and the cupboard’s bare.”

Then again, Wilder showed great confidence in a defense that’s giving up 222.5 rushing yards and 32 points per game. That says FIU should be able to run sophomore Alex Gardner, fifth-year senior Anthon Samuel and freshman Anthony Jones until they decide to let sophomore quarterback Alex McGough launch a bomb off play-action.

5.13 yards per carry allowed by Old Dominion (quarterback sacks excepted)

4.33 yards per carry by FIU (quarterback sacks excepted)

Aside from the quarterback, Old Dominion’s largely the same high-scoring group that produced Screwball No. 1: Last year’s 38-35 FIU loss, loss No. 7 and strike three for the Panthers’ 2014 bowl hopes. A game that birthed big plays by the litter appeared to be FIU’s until the final 1:05 saw an Old Dominion touchdown, an FIU interception and a Monarchs walk-off field goal.

An FIU loss Saturday to Old Dominion wouldn’t be the death blow last year’s was. It would just mean FIU would have to win three of its final four games.

FIU’s do-it-all running back Gardner watched it on TV from Miami as an injured freshman out for the season with a shoulder injury.

“I was in the dorm with a couple of other teammates,” Gardner said. “I remember that last series that pass that was intercepted. I remember Napoleon’s [Maxwell’s] catch that he took for a long run.

“We were running the ball really well, very well that game. We should’ve come out on top in that game.”

Most concrete evidence says FIU should come out on top Saturday. But a screwball can leave many folks exasperated and looking silly if you don’t focus on how to handle it. FIU knows.

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