Miner Rush: Do you feel the coaching change and win against FAU is a sign of change for the Golden Panthers, or just an emotional rivalry win?
Cyrus Smith: I want to lean towards an emotional win but the fact of the matter is the players who stepped up for FIU actually played to their potential. Alex McGough played his best game of the season, Alex Gardner had the best game of his career, and the defensive secondary did their part to hold a pedestrian passing offense. Ron Cooper proved to be a bit more competent than Ron Turner and the results showed it. If FIU beats UTEP, they will definitely beat Charlotte and start conference play 3-0. I don’t think they would have been capable of such a feat under Ron Turner.
MR: Alex Gardner is certainly a top C-USA talent, but how important is the FIU offensive line in terms of his production?
Gardner is very shifty between the tackles and explosive in the open space, but with that said his success is absolutely tied to the offensive line. Against UMass and FAU he surpassed 100 rushing yards and that was because the offensive line was able to open up rushing lanes against inferior defensive lines. Against UCF, Indiana, and Maryland, teams with bigger defensive lines, he was a non-factor.
Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint eat every week, but which other part of FIU's defense needs to step up to slow down UTEP's rushing attack?
Treyvon Williams and Anthony Wint had their best games of the year against FAU. Wint especially as he was named C-USA Defensive Player of the Week. But their defensively line has really underachieved this year. Imarjaye Albury and Maurice Cheeks are both 6’0’ nearly 300 pound defensive tackles yet they have combined for less than a tackle for loss this year. Their Havoc Rate, an advanced stat that measures how good a defense is at getting tackles for loss or tipped passes at the line of scrimmage, is 116th overall. Their DL- Havoc Rate is 101st but their LB-Havoc rate is 61st. FAU had no problems running the ball against FIU despite how good their linebackers played and I expect UTEP to do the same.
What do you think is FIU's main concern when looking at UTEP on both defense and offense?
Defensively their main concern will be stopping the run. FAU ran for 236 rushing yards last week with a 6.6 yards per carry average and the Owls couldn’t pass at all as Driskel was 9-20 for 92 yards. FIU knew the run was coming and still couldn’t stop it. UTEP does operate under the center a lot more versus FAU's spread looks so maybe FIU is able to stop the run better in a phone booth type of game. But with how UTEP’s quarterbacks have looked recently, UTEP fans should feel confident in knowing that even if their quarterback play doesn’t improve, FIU probably still won’t stop Aaron Jones.
Offensively it’ll be trying to establish Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones. Jones is more of a bruiser compared to Gardener’s speed and the Panthers like to get both going early to avoid obvious passing downs. Though McGough looked better last week, he still threw a pick-six and had trouble connecting on deep routes to Thomas Owens.
What's your take on the future of FIU's program?
As long as Pete Garcia is the Athletic Director FIU’s future won’t be too bright. Garcia will step down in 2018 but that puts the next coach he hires in an awkward position as new AD’s tend to favor their guys running the show. Although Garcia is awful, FIU is still in one of the most glamorous cities in America and just a short drive away from some of the best high school players in the nation. Their facilities are among the worst in C-USA and their administration has shown that they don’t really care how well the football program does but they still have potential to make a name for themselves. However, like FAU and North Texas, just because you’re close to talent doesn’t mean your football program is going to win anytime soon.
Score prediction, and one stat prediction?
I hate to say it but I think FIU wins 28-24, something along those lines. UTEP seems to be trending down and it’s a shame because I’ve always admired UTEP from a distance and liked Sean Kugler in the beginning of his tenure but something isn’t clicking. My prediction for the game will be both teams will combine to rush for over 550 yards but pass for less than 225.