Linda Robertson

FIU’s loss makes us question when — or if — the Panthers program will arrive

Coach Ron Turner stands on the sidelines during FIU’s disappointing home loss against UCF on Saturday night, September 24, 2016.
Coach Ron Turner stands on the sidelines during FIU’s disappointing home loss against UCF on Saturday night, September 24, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

The FIU football program finds itself at a crossroads once again.

On a night when you could cut the humid air drifting in from the Everglades with a machete, the winless Panthers sought to turn around a season that was starting to skid in the wrong direction.

The opponent, Central Florida, was on a similar salvage mission after going 0-12 last year and starting 1-2 in this one.

In a battle of giant commuter schools, FIU had the advantage of beating UCF 15-14 in Orlando last year. UCF had the advantage of a new coach and a new look on offense.

Opportunity knocked for the Panthers, who had made their coach “extremely angry” last week in a 21-13 loss at Massachusetts.

Here was an opportunity to defeat an in-state rival in front of the home crowd, demonstrate progress and notch a solid victory for coach Ron Turner, who has won one, four and five games in three years at FIU. It’s clear he needs a breakthrough season to keep his job.

But FIU could not rise to the occasion and was overwhelmed 53-14. Not for lack of effort. UCF was simply faster, sharper and able to capitalize on big plays. FIU’s frequent defensive lapses allowed the Knights’ rushers to enter the end zone untouched.

The statistic that stood out like a black eye: UCF’s uptempo offense ran 76 plays for 501 yards. FIU gained a total of 189 yards on 58 plays.

“Obviously, this was not what we wanted or expected,” Turner said. “But I still believe in this team, love this team and we’ll get it going.”

FIU embarked on its ambitious crusade to become a respected Football Bowl Subdivision school 15 years ago. Except for two bowl-worthy seasons under Mario Cristobal, it hasn’t happened. Former president Modesto “Mitch” Maidique and the instigators of the football plan boldly insisted it was only a question of when, not if. In 2016, 0-4 FIU needs to provide stronger evidence of when, not if. On Saturday night, in a two-thirds full stadium that got emptier as the scoreboard margin got wider, FIU failed to state its case.

Instead it was the UCF Knights who showed off a stylish, entertaining offense under coach Scott Frost, who learned how to be creative in eight years at Oregon (which explains the Knights’ flashy new Nike uniforms that have 64 helmet/jersey/pants/color combinations). Frost, who played quarterback under Bill Walsh at Stanford and Tom Osborne at Nebraska, was the Ducks’ offensive coordinator when Marcus Mariota won the Heisman Trophy. Frost has dubbed his offense that is averaging 83.3 plays per game UCFast and his defense UCFierce.

Under freshman quarterback McKenzie Milton of Hawaii, UCF will make mistakes but will also attract players who love that sort of manic energy.

FIU ought to tack in UCF’s direction and adopt a dynamic blueprint that could arouse enthusiasm in fans, or at least curiosity.

FIU also needs another transcendent talent like T.Y. Hilton. FIU is not going to sign the recruits who are No. 1 at their position, or even No. 20. FIU has to mine for gems, find the small kid who got passed over or discover a special player who was underestimated by power conference schools.

FIU’s most promising players are tight end Jonnu Smith of Ocala and linebacker Anthony Wint of Homestead. Turner and his staff must sign more like them.

But on Saturday, Wint and teammates couldn’t contain UCF’s shifty running backs, who helped the Knights rush for 276 yards.

“We came in ready to stop their passing game and they beat us with their running game,” Wint said.

On offense, Turner searched for answers by starting redshirt freshman Maurice Alexander at quarterback instead of junior Alex McGough, then wound up playing both.

“We put Maurice in to spark things, but it just wasn’t clicking,” Turner said.

On the bright side, FIU still has all of its eight Conference USA games.

“We’ve got to keep fighting — that’s what we preach in the locker room,” Smith said. “The conference is still there. Right now, we’re 0-0.”

Pete Garcia, FIU’s longtime, often controversial athletics director, wishes the team was 0-0. Football is his baby. Last week he finally announced he will step down in 2018.

Garcia’s brashness served FIU well if the goal was adding football and a stadium. A more efficient and cost-effective strategy would have been to build FIU’s brand via basketball, like Georgetown, Wichita State, Butler and UConn have done. He’s made so many questionable coaching hires we’ve lost count. He chose to go after fleeting publicity value rather than competence or continuity.

FIU has had ex-Dolphin Don Strock as football coach and Richard Pitino (Rick’s son) as men’s basketball coach. The biggest flop was Isiah Thomas, who had an uncanny record of turning everything he touched to dirt in every job he held after he retired as a player. Despite an ugly sexual-harassment lawsuit against Thomas by a New York Knicks executive, Garcia hired him anyway. FIU’s basketball program regressed.

Since Cristobal was let go, football has regressed, too. Garcia’s successor will have to work shrewdly on its evolution. Saturday’s one-sided game was telling. The season will reveal even more about where the FIU program is going and when, or if, it will arrive.

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