A season of hope came crashing down for the Florida International Panthers in losing three of their final four games of the season to finish 5-7 on the year. It was not just the losses, but the way FIU lost, with all three losses coming by points or more. The final two saw FIU lose by a combined 115-7.
Despite those devastating losses, the Panthers did increase their win total by one from the 4-8 record in 2014.
Let's take a look back at Florida International's 2015 season and figure out just how good, bad, and ugly things actually went.
With a young, but talented backfield and an offensive line that was without two-year starter Jordan Budwig, the run game was a huge disappointment. How bad exactly?
FIU could only manage 109.9 yards per game on the ground and a paltry 3.4 yards per carry. Starter Alex Gardner and backup Anthony Jones were the only solid options that carried the ball regularly and averaged over four yards per carry.
If there was a positive on the offensive side of the ball, it was the steady improvement of quarterback Alex McGough. The sophomore completed 64% of his passes for over 2,700 yards and 21 touchdowns. He is the key piece for a young offense moving forward.
The receiving options for the Panthers are young and talented, led by sophomore Thomas Owens and Gardner. The duo combined to catch 111 passes for 1,080 yards and nine touchdowns. Gardner was especially effective catching the ball out of the backfield with a catch rate of 88.2%. Clinton Taylor added 37 catches.
The player that had a solid season but never quite found his groove was tight end Jonnu Smith. An NFL prospect, Smith came on as the season progresses and ended with 36 catches for 397 yards.
Overall, 347.8 yards per game and 25.5 points per game will win you some games, but not enough to get to a bowl.
I praised the Florida International defense earlier in the year, so it is only fair for me to admit just how poorly they ended the season.
The problem that you run into when looking at this defense is the fact that multiple players have a great chance at playing on Sundays. The defense may be the most talented group, outside of the WKU offense, in Conference USA. Whether you want to blame scheme, injuries, or just poor play, they were terrible down the stretch.
In the end, teams were rushing for 4.6 yards per carry and 185.1 yards per game versus the Panthers defense. The pass defense was a little better in giving up 221 yards per game, but giving up over 400 yards per game and nearly 30 points is unacceptable.
The trio of Lars Koht, Michael Wakefield, and Denzell Perine were the Panthers on defense in a nutshell. They combined for a gaudy 33.5 tackles for loss, 16 sacks, and seven forced fumbles, but could not slow down the run game on a regular basis. Legit NFL defensive back prospect Richard Leonard ended the season second on the team in tackles, but was unable to accumulate the stats that he produced in 2014.
This team was way too talented to be sitting at 5-7 and missing a bowl berth. Whether players did or didn't underachieve, it is up to the coaching staff to put the right players on the field in order to succeed. I hate to throw a large amount of blame on the coaching staff, but this is a team that should have been 7-5 at the worst if they played up to their potential.
Alex McGough. The defense didn't deserve any extra praise after giving up 111 points in the final two games of the season, so the sophomore quarterback was the best pick. McGough improved his completion percentage by 14% and his overall passing totals by nearly 1,000 yards. He was much smarter with the football and did well in an offense that had virtually no running game.
Defense is really where the Panthers will be hit hard moving forward. Six of the top 11 tackles from last season are gone. That includes, Leonard and fellow cornderback Jeremiah McKinnon, as well as the defensive line trio of Koht, Wakefield, and Perine. Linebacker Jephete Matilus and his 53 tackles are also gone. Of the five returning top 11 tacklers, all are freshmen and sophomores.
The offense loses virtually nothing with tight end Ya'Keem Griner being the most significant loss. Otherwise, the young offense should be much improved in 2016.
With a reasonable non-conference schedule in 2016, the Panthers better make a strong run at a bowl or head coach Ron Turner could be looking for a new job.