When you look at the FIU Panthers, what is the first thing that comes to mind when describing their "body of work" so far?
Very uneven. The Panthers cannot seem to find any sort of consistency at all this season. They can completely dominate a solid team like Indiana, but fall apart late in the game and lose by two touchdowns. They play well versus Louisiana Tech and Massachusetts, but have one off kilter series of possessions or a bad quarter and end up losing. They are more talented and better than their 2-3 record.
I feel they have three legit NFL prospects on their defense, where do you feel their defensive strength lies?
Limiting the big play. Against the pass and rush, FIU ranks in the top 30 nationally in defensive IsoPPP, a statistic that measures explosiveness on successful plays. The Panthers are very good at forcing teams to go on 12-15 play drives in order to get points. Much of that is due to offenses staying away from Richard Leonard at all costs. He is an excellent player and should end up as a first team All-CUSA selection, barring injury.
Has Alex McGough turned that corner into a program/franchise quarterback yet?
I would say not yet. He has the physical tools at 6-3, 218 pounds, he has the arm strength, and he has just enough mobility to make plays with his legs, but his accuracy needs to improve. On first glance, he is completing 64.6% of his passes, an impressive number. When you break it down, many of his completions are short pass attempts. When going downfield to his top wide receiver and tight end targets, his completion percentage drops below 60%. He is on the way and close to turning the corner, but has not quite made the jump.
Which pass catchers could pose problems for UTEP's pass defense?
McGough loves to go to wide receiver Thomas Owens as much as possible. The sophomore wide receiver has 29 catches for 349 yards and 5 touchdowns, but has a catch rate of only 59.2%. He is targeted on 24.9% of all pass plays. Running back Alex Gardner has 26 catches on 32 targets, but is only really used in the short passing game. Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Ya'Keem Griner have combined for 37 catches on the season. Smith is one of the best tight ends in the nation, but McGough has struggled in getting the ball to him.
What does FIU have to do in order for running back Alex Gardner to be a factor in gaining more than his per carry average?
Complete a few downfield passes. No one is respecting the ability of FIU to beat them deep, so they are playing eight or nine men in the box to stop the run. FIU has to go the opposite of many teams and use the pass game to open up the run game. Once Owens or Dennis Turner catches a 40-yard pass early in the game, there will be more room for Gardner to work.
If you're struggling on offense like UTEP is currently, how would go about attacking a stout defense like FIU?
Take it one play at a time. Teams have been able to move the ball versus FIU's defense, but lack the patience to finish a 15-play drive. UTEP cannot expect to get yards in chunks, but must continue to stay on schedule with three yards here and four yards there. Embrace a second and seven or a third and four and just work on moving the ball 3-4 yards per play. It will not be easy, but it can be done.
Score and one stat prediction.?
Florida International 31, UTEP 10.
Jonnu Smith breaks out for his first 100+ yard game of the season at tight end.