Various publications projected FIU to take a major step backwards in the win column after the Panthers 8-5 record in 2018.
However, nearing the midway point of the season, FIU is 3-2 and easily could have been 4-1 entering their bye week. Let’s take a look at how the team has fared heading into Conference USA play.
While Butch Davis hasn’t officially named a starting quarterback, it’s clear that the quarterback competition between James Morgan and Christian Alexander is over.
Morgan has played over four times the amount of snaps than Alexander. He’s tossed 12 touchdown passes and is the highest rated passer in C-USA.
The Bowling Green transfer has all of the physical tools, but the key so far has been his accuracy in offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky’s spread attack.
Morgan’s continued development will play a monumental role in the Panthers making a run at winning the C-USA East.
The running back group have lived up to their lofty expectations coming into the season.
Three backs have at least 200 yards rushing and have accounted for 10 total scores. Add in that they’ll be rejoined by starter Anthony Jones who was injured in a drive-by shooting after week one and the group will be even more explosive.
One of the early surprises may be how explosive the receivers and tight ends have been.
It was widely considered that it would be a group effort to replace Thomas Owens production from last season. To an extent it has been.
But the play of C.J. Worton, Maurice Alexander and Sterling Palmer have stood out so far.
Alexander’s decision to switch from quarterback to receiver has given the Panthers a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. He’s been especially efficient on shallow and intermediate pass game.
Worton has been impressing the coaching staff in practice since transferring from Florida last season and has emerged as the number one target.
He and Morgan have developed a connection and is the team’s leading receiver.
Palmer came out of nowhere to start the season as the number one tight end and has shown tremendous potential in his first college campaign. At 6’6, 235-pounds he provides a much-needed sizable option amongst a group of smaller targets.
The offensive line has been an improved group. The unit has given up five sacks compared to 12 through five contests last year.
Davis makes and effort to use between 8-10 linemen each contest.
Newcomer D’Antne Demery and first-time starter Shacquille Williams have been welcomed additions, while Shane McGough and Dallas Connell are valuable players and sixth-year senior Jordan Budwig has graded out as FIU’s best lineman according to Pro Football Focus.
Two areas that the Panther offense will have to improve at in order to sustain success are standard-down success rate and inside 10 success rate. The first statistic measures an offense’s success on first downs, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer. The second measures scoring a touchdown when getting inside the opponents ten-yard line.
FIU ranks 115th or lower in both categories and of concern has to be a failure to finish a that started at the nine-yard line against FCS Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
The defense has been a mixed bag. There’s no denying their level of talent.
Whether that talent can be actualized will be the determining factor if FIU can win the east.
On the defensive line, Anthony Johnson’s play as been stellar. What has been disappointing given the talent and depth of the unit is the run defense.
Giving up 128 yards to an FCS running back wont get the job done in conference play.
However, Davis has been quick to note in post-game pressers that the unit is young and still learning how to play together.
Sage Lewis has exceeded all expectations in his transition to middle linebacker. The junior leads the conference with 61 tackles.
Texas transfer Edwin Freeman leads the team with five run-stuffs and will only get better the further removed he is from an off-season ankle injury.
Star LB/DE Fermin Silva was starting to find his form with two sacks against Miami. But he’ll be sidelined for the rest of the season with an injury.
Talented freshman Rocky Jacques-Louis will start in his place. However, look for FIU to use more 4-2-5 and other nickel variations to help compensate for the loss of Silva.
Pass defense is another area that will have to play up to their tremendous talent going forward. Indiana completed intermediate patterns at will, while the first half of the Old Dominion game was the Jonathan Duhart show.
Davis has raved about Stantley Thomas-Oliver’s play and at 6’2, he provides size against bigger C-USA wideouts FIU will face like Tyre Brady of Marshall and Quin Jernighan of Western Kentucky.
Ike Brown is arguably the most talented corner on the team and freshman Dorian Hall has played very well.
While standard downs have been an issue for the defense, their play on third-downs has to significantly improve in conference play.
While teams are completing only 39 percent of third downs against the Panthers, they’re completing 59 percent of third and medium and 83 percent of third and short situations.
In my opinion, FIU has the best special teams unit in the conference.
Punter Stone Wilson is one of the best in nation. The senior has six kicks of 50 or more yards, landed four punts inside the 20-yard line and has had 10 fair caught.
The addition of Alexander in the punt return game gives FIU an electrifying weapon who has already taken one back for a score this year.
Sophomore Jose Borregales has a career 82 percent field goal percentage and is perfect for his career in PAT’s. While his career long is 44 yards, watching him in warm-ups it’s clear his range is extended 10 yards past that mark.