FIU football didn’t achieve this year’s team goal of winning Conference USA.
The 5-7 Panthers fell one win short of having a shot at last year’s team goal, getting to a bowl and winning it. They closed the season with losses to Marshall and Western Kentucky by a combined 115-7.
Still, coach Ron Turner said he thought he program progressed in his third season, which he called “very disappointing, very frustrating” following high expectations.
“Not disappointed in the players,” Turner said. “I’m disappointed in the results. I don’t think we were able to do what we wanted to do. We weren’t the same team halfway through the season that we were coming into it just because of the injury situation and the youth we had to play.
“Everybody has injuries, I understand that. I’ve never been through anything like this,” he continued. “With five games to go, I’m watching the [practice] tape with the coaches and I said, ‘This feels like spring ball — we’re running new plays with new people doing them. The difference is we’ve got three days to get them ready to go.’”
Turner knew coming into the season that FIU wasn’t blessed with great roster depth. Starting with two-year starter and preseason All-Conference USA guard Jordan Budwig sustaining an offseason shoulder injury that took him out for the season, injuries took down 27 starters or backups expected to play significant time for a total of 138 games. The lack of a bye week compounded the damage.
Injuries to the offensive line (three starters), linebackers (two of three starters) and safeties (three of four two-deep) pressed freshmen, redshirt freshmen — or in the case of senior middle linebacker Jephete Matilus, freshman-level game experience — into service.
Senior tight end Ya’Keem Griner and junior tight end Jonnu Smith — both Mackey Award candidates (for best collegiate tight end) — missed the last seven games and four games, respectively. The Panthers, who operate out of double tight end sets the vast majority of the time, went to three-wide receiver, single tight end sets over the last four games.
“I don’t know anybody who can lose four guards, four safeties, two lineabckers and two tight ends and go play,” Turner said. “Nobody. I don’t care what school, if you’re Alabama, you’re not going to lose that and have a huge dropoff.”
He said the extensive use of backups limited how aggressive and varied FIU could be on both sides of the ball. Turner admitted that late in the season, sometimes he called offensive plays that asked the players on the field to do things they couldn’t or rarely could just to try to make things happen.
Much as Turner lauded the development of sophomore quarterback Alex McGough, he felt McGough got made mistakes on the field.
As FIU lost three of its last four games, McGough started to hold the ball too long and took a battering: 14 sacks plus countless hits as he threw the ball.
McGough set FIU season records for attempts (469), completions (269), completion percentage (64.1), yards (2,722) and touchdowns (21), but glumly declared after Saturday’s season-ending loss to Western Kentucky, “I’ve got to play better. I had a good stat year. But I’ve to be better to win more games.”
Though the Panthers won one more game than in 2014, the opponents they vanquished in 2015 go into the final week of the season with only eight wins against FBS teams. The teams they beat in 2014 had 13 wins against FBS competition.
One of those 2014 wins earned the Don Shula Trophy back from Florida Atlantic in FIU’s rivalry game. The Owls overwhelmed FIU 31-17 on Oct. 31 to take the trophy back and require FIU to win two of its last three games to gain bowl eligibility.
The Panthers beat Charlotte before getting shellacked by Marshall and Western Kentucky.
In Turner’s opinion, FIU didn’t leave that one win for bowl eligibility at FAU Stadium — “They’re not a 2-9 team. I have no idea how they’re 2-9” — but up in rural Massachusetts. The 24-14 loss to UMass included five personal foul or unnecessary roughness penalties — 10 penalties overall for 111 yards.
“For whatever reason, we didn’t play well,” Turner said. “And we had 10 dropped passes. That’s the one where I say, ‘The focus wasn’t where it needed to be and we did not play nearly as well as we’re capable of.’”
This season didn’t cause fifth-year senior cornerback Richard Leonard to second-guess his decision to not enter the 2015 NFL draft. Operating in a less aggressive defensive scheme and behind leakier blocking on returns, Leonard couldn’t duplicate his spectacular 2014. He intercepted only one pass, averaged only a pedestrian 21.6 yards per kickoff return and 10.7 yards per punt return.
“No. Once I made my decision, my goal was for us to get to a bowl game,” Leonard said. “We didn’t get there, but we all got along, got together, worked hard together. That was a blessing for me.”
Reflecting the locker room cohesion, Turner said no players with eligibility remaining have been asked to not return.
To view the full transcript of Ron Turner’s comments on the 2015 season, go to our FIU Panthers Prowl blog Wednesday at miamiherald.com