This is the second of a 12-part series previewing each of the Thundering Herd’s 2014 opponents. We’ll be going through in reverse order of difficulty instead of the usual chronological order.
Opponent #11: Florida International Golden Panthers
Last week we talked about Rhode Island, a 3-9 FCS team that was held scoreless in four games in 2013. We’re not exaggerating when we say that Florida International might have been an even worse team last season.
The Sagarin ratings would certainly agree. While Rhode Island finished 2013 ranked at 206, FIU finished between Morgan State and Incarnate Word at a mind-blowing 221. That means that according to the computers, there were almost 100 FCS teams better than the not so Golden Panthers. Yikes.
Nobody who watched FIU in 2013 could disagree with that assessment. The stats are well beyond comical. They were dead last among FBS teams in points scored with less than 10 per game. There was a 21 point loss to FCS Bethune-Cookman. There was a 72-0 loss to Louisville where FIU gained 27 yards and a running 4th quarter clock was implemented to mercifully end the game sooner. The Panthers didn’t score 72 points in the 10 combined games on their schedule not against fellow C-USA East cellar dwellers Southern Miss (FIU’s only win, 24-23) and UAB. Those three were a combined 1-29 when not playing each other.
Marshall fans probably remember the Panthers as a promising up-and-coming team when the two first met in the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s bowl. They followed up their first postseason appearance and victory, a thriller over Toledo in the 2010 Little Caesar’s Bowl, with an impressive 8-5 2011 campaign that featured wins over Louisville and UCF. Head coach Mario Cristobal was a hot name for coaching vacancies. Everything looked up despite the close bowl loss to the Herd.
Then things went bad quickly. Cristobal was shockingly fired the following season after going 3-9. Many felt the decision was impatient and unfair to Cristobal considering his past success and the fact that the team was still competitive that season, losing five games by one score. After Butch Davis turned down the job, the Panthers settled on Ron Turner, who was fired after going 35-57 during a 1997-2004 stint at Illinois. Then came last year’s abysmal inaugural season in Conference USA.
So what happened? We would like to posit that this Alex Bazzie hit on current Indianapolis Colt T.Y. Hilton is responsible for the Panthers’ misfortunes following that game.
OK, maybe it’s possible there were other reasons too. Hilton was absolutely electric for all four of his years in Miami, and his graduation left an impossible hole to fill on offense and special teams. (Fun fact about Hilton: He left his college decision to his infant son, who showed wisdom well beyond his years in grabbing an FIU hat instead of a WVU hat on the eve of National Signing Day.)
What if Rakeem Cato would have been under center? Most Herd fans are familiar with the story of how one of the greatest quarterbacks in school history was at one time committed to FIU before Tommy Shuler convinced him to head to Huntington. How differently would these two programs be viewing 2014 had Cato chosen the 305 over the 304?
It’s a fun question to ponder, but the truth is that it takes a lot more than one or two missing players for a collapse as dramatic as the Panthers’. The easiest answer lies where most football games are won and lost – in the trenches.
Last year, FIU didn’t return any of its five most experienced offensive linemen from 2012. That would explain how FIU finished dead last in FBS with an astounding 2.1 yards per carry, half a yard behind the next worst at 2.6. It would explain how only 5 of their 445 rushing attempts resulted in touchdowns. It would explain how quarterback E.J. Hilliard was sacked three more times than Cato despite throwing 367 fewer passes than Cato. And it would explain how you could argue the Panthers overachieved by going 1-11.
Can Turner lead a turnaround (Turner-round?) in 2014? It’s hard to see things getting much better in a hurry. Sometimes a really bad season can be blamed on some combination of bad breaks, close losses, injuries, or team chemistry issues. In that case, just taking a deep breath and hitting the reset button on a new season can solve a lot of problems, but last season’s problems were simply a result of being flat out bad from start to finish. When a program that doesn’t have access to top recruits bottoms out that quickly, there usually isn’t a quick fix. Just ask Southern Miss.
That being said, there should be some noticeable improvement. Returning 17 starters, including five offensive linemen, is always beneficial. Perhaps starting off 2014 with two FCS games (Bethune-Cookman and Wagner) can instill some confidence in a team looking for any sort of hope.
Tactics and Such
What kind of team can Marshall expect to see on October 18th? Hilliard split playing time with Jake Medlock last season, but Medlock, who was also the team’s punter, transferred to Valdosta State. Freshman Alex McLough might push Hilliard for the starting spot, but Hilliard is still the likely starter. Despite having the most toothless rushing attack in the country, the Panthers kept the ball on the ground last year about 60% of the time. Lamarq Caldwell and Silas Spearman III took the bulk of those carries, and both return in 2014. Tight end Jonnu Smith returns after leading the team in receiving.
We’ve focused a lot on how inept the offense was in 2013, but FIU’s defense was also bad. They were 109th in points allowed with 37.3 per game and 93rd in yards allowed with 437 per game. Opponents had success no matter what they did against the Panthers, but the run defense was relatively worse than the pass defense. Highlights of last year’s game against the Herd are below. Check out the 6:40 mark for a particularly bad example of how to stop the run.
What will FIU try to do in order to stay competitive on October 18th? In short, exactly what they did in the first quarter of last year’s matchup. The Panthers went on a nice opening drive that resulted in a field goal, forced a lethargic Marshall offense to punt on its first three possessions, and led 3-0 after the opening frame.
The hard part will be improving almost literally everything after that quarter. FIU followed up the field goal with four straight three-and-outs and didn’t score again until garbage time. Meanwhile, Marshall moved the ball at will, racking up an astounding 558 yards with 270 of those coming on the ground on the way to a 48-10 cakewalk.
FIU will really have to focus on stopping the run this time around. Cato is tough enough even if you know the pass is coming, but the Herd attack is impossible to stop if you’re giving up anywhere near 270 rushing yards. The Panthers will also need to take greater advantage if the Herd comes out sluggish again early as it often does on the road. Turn 3-0 into 17-0 and the pressure would really build on Marshall, especially if a perfect season is still on the line.
Know Thy Opponent
Location: If you read even the headline of this article, you’ve probably gathered that FIU is located in Miami. The Panthers play in the on-campus FIU Stadium, which seats 20,000 and is known as “The Cage.” Even if they were so inclined, not even half of the school’s student body could fit as FIU is the 4th largest university in the country behind only Arizona State, UCF, and Ohio State with an enrollment of almost 53,000. The school also lives up to the “I” in its acronym as it has campuses or affiliate programs in Italy, China, and Dubai.
History: Florida International didn’t open its doors until 1972 and didn’t field a football team until 2002. The Panthers spent their first three years in FCS before moving to the Sun Belt in 2005 and becoming a full-fledged FBS member in 2006, losing their first 23 games in the higher subdivision. Cristobal took over in 2007 and led a rise to the aforementioned bowl seasons of 2010 and 2011, the only winning seasons in Panther history. Realignment landed FIU and their rival Florida Atlantic in C-USA last season. The two have played in every season of FIU’s history in what as known as the Shula Bowl. FAU has won 9 of 12.
Against the Herd: Both games in this series have already been mentioned. Marshall knocked off the Panthers 20-10 in the 2011 Beef O’Brady’s Bowl and won last November’s meeting 48-10.
Mascot: Roary the Panther
Famous Alumni: Actor Andy Garcia is probably the most famous FIU alum. There’s also Hilton, Mike Lowell of the Boston Red Sox, and NBA journeyman Carlos Arroyo. But the real legend of this university’s young history is A’Mod Ned, a running back who hobbled onto the field with his crutches during the infamous 2006 brawl against Miami.
Chance of Victory
96%. A lot can happen between now and what will be the Herd’s 7th game of the season, and road games always have the potential to bite Marshall in the ass, but we’re viewing this one to be pretty safely in the win column. This is still going to be one of the worst teams in FBS as the Panthers just don’t have much to work with on the roster. It’s hard to criticize Hilliard because of how bad his line was, but nothing about his play has suggested he can do anything special. Likewise, nothing in Turner’s past suggests he’s capable of miracles. If FIU improves from awful to simply below average and can get some breaks early while catching the Herd thinking the result will be the same as last year simply because they showed up, there might be a chance for a shocker. But don’t count on it.
Marshall 45, Florida International 16