The search for the next T.Y. Hilton continues Thursday night.
In a game televised nationally by ESPNU, FIU will play host to the Indiana Hoosiers at 7:30 in the season opener for both teams. It’s a rematch of last year’s game at Indiana, won by the Hoosiers 36-22.
The game marks the start of the fourth season under FIU coach Ron Turner, but it’s also the fifth year since the dynamic Hilton – now a star wide receiver for the Indianapolis Colts – left the Panthers for the NFL.
Hilton led FIU to the only two bowl games in the program’s 15-year history, and his absence has surely been felt: The Panthers are 13-35 since Hilton departed.
The Panthers, though, are optimistic that things will be different this year. In an informal poll of several FIU standouts, senior tight end Jonnu Smith was the clear choice among his teammates when asked to pick a game-breaker on the current roster.
“Jonnu all the way, all day,” FIU linebacker Treyvon Williams said. “If we need a play, we get the ball in his hands, and he is going to make something happen every time.”
Smith, the most prolific tight end in FIU history in terms of catches (136) and yards (1,495), missed the final four games of last season due to a knee injury.
FIU was 4-4 with Smith and 1-3 without him.
Besides Smith, other FIU offensive playmakers include junior quarterback Alex McGough, who last year set Panthers single-season records for touchdowns (21) and yards (2,722).
FIU’s top wide receiver is junior Thomas Owens, who caught 51 passes for eight touchdowns last season. His eight scores tied an FIU single-season record.
Owens, his teammates say, has the best hands on the team.
“I’ve seen him make some crazy catches,” defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury said.
When FIU wants to run, look for junior Alex Gardner, who scored 10 touchdowns overall and led the team in yards rushing (760) and receptions (60). His 60 catches are a school record for a running back.
His backup is sophomore Anthony Jones, who Turner said is much improved after an excellent camp.
“As a freshman, (Jones) was real good. But this year he has taken off,” defensive tackle Leonard Washington said. “I see a big difference in him from the weight room to the field.”
But as optimistic as the Panthers are about their offense, Indiana has similarly high hopes. The Hoosiers were just 6-7 last year, but they made their first bowl game in eight years.
Indiana lost 44-41 to Duke in New York City’s Pinstripe Bowl. But even in defeat, the Hoosiers once again showcased an attack that led the Big Ten in total offense, passing and points.
The Hoosiers return three receivers who had more than 50 catches each last season. They have a veteran offensive line, led by All-American right guard Dan Feeney, and a running back, Devine Redding, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a backup last season.
Indiana also returns All-Big Ten kicker Griffin Oakes, a senior who made 83 percent of his field goals last season.
Given that both teams have offensive firepower and that neither program is known for its defense, a relatively high-scoring game is probable.
But both teams have new defensive coordinators, and Indiana has a revamped system, using a 4-2-5 alignment that has five defensive backs on the field as part of the base package.
That could make it harder for FIU to pass but easier to run. FIU’s strength on defense, meanwhile, is at linebacker.
Thursday: Indiana @ FIU
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m.; Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium.
TV/radio: ESPNU; WAXY 790.
Favorite: Indiana by 9.
Series: Indiana leads 1-0.