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FIU Football: Regular Season Review

As the Panthers await their bowl destination, let’s take a look back at the season that was.

Miami v Florida International Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

FIU finished the regular season with a 6-6 record, which should be good enough to land the Panthers their third consecutive bowl game, which would be a first for the 18-year-old program.

A year that began with conference title expectations, Butch Davis’ team seemed to be stuck in neutral for most of the season, outside of the team’s historic upset of crosstown rival Miami.

Let’s take a final look at how each position fared as the Panthers await their postseason destination.


Quarterback:

James Morgan hasn’t been able to duplicate his 2018 success, but the same can be said for various facets of the entire team.

Miami v Florida International
Captain Morgan’s finest hour was his performance against Miami at Marlins Park.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As far as the fifth-year senior is concerned, a fair amount of the statistical drop-off can be attributed to the knee injury he suffered against Western Kentucky in week two (wearing a brace on the knee for seven straight games) and an offensive line that took most of the season to gel together.

All things considered, Morgan has a solid stat line (13-3, 2,248, 57.9%) and he’s done an excellent job of protecting the football with only five turnovers overall.

The most noticeable difference between 2018 and 2019 was Morgan’s yards per attempt.

FIU’s amount of open looks to push the ball downfield shrunk and as a result, his average pass attempt was 7.4 yards, compared to last season’s mark of 9.0.

Backup Kaylan Wiggins saw his first collegiate action and showed his dynamic ability as a runner, setting the single-game mark for rushing yards by a quarterback (187) against New Hampshire.

One of the most damning statistics that the offense shares as a whole has to be red zone offense.

The Panthers are 112th in FBS football and 13th out of 14 teams with a .760 scoring percentage inside of opponents’ 20-yard line.

Grade: B

Running Back:

The rushing attack has been a bit of a mixed back in 2019.

At times, the duo of seniors Anthony Jones and Napoleon Maxwell look like the best 1-2 punch in C-USA.

However, seemingly at the worst moments, the FIU rushing attack hasn’t been able to get going.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Old Dominion at FIU
Anthony Jones leads the Panthers in rushing this year.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

For their efforts, Jones and Maxwell have combined for 1,411 yards and 17 touchdowns, with the unit’s best outing coming in the Charlotte victory (both topped 100 yards).

D’Vonte Price began the season injured and hasn’t found his form from 2018, rushing for 249 yards on 50 carries so far.

Overall, the unit has been boom or bust on the ground. In games that saw success, chunk plays were there to be had.

Other times, lack of yards on early downs have created repeated third-and-long conversion attempts.

In four losses against East division teams (WKU, MTSU, FAU, Marshall), FIU combined for 435 rushing yards on 139 carries, giving the team a 3.1 average per attempt. Subtract Maxwell’s 75-yard scamper in Boca - that number dips to a frightening 2.5 yards per run.

Grade: B-

Wide Receiver:

Along with a yardage drop-off from last season, the receivers are seeing a dip in production in terms of volume from 2018.

For whatever reason, at times, there has been a lack of downfield opportunities for the Panthers’ targets.

That being said, the play of Shemar Thornton and Tony Gaiter IV is impressive, especially given the fact that they stepped into featured roles. Thornton leads the team in receptions (49) and yards (632), while Gaiter IV is right behind him.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Miami at FIU
Shemar Thornton has elevated his game in 2019.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Should Austin Maloney record two more receptions, he’ll again be one of the leaders in yards per catch (20.5) among C-USA wideouts. Maurice Alexander’s numbers in the slot are solid but were below last year’s production.

Bryce Singleton has missed virtually the entire season with an knee injury and is a weapon that FIU has missed.

Grade: B-

Tight Ends:

The tight end rotation seems like the biggest mystery on offense.

After emerging on the scene to have an excellent true freshman season, Sterling Palmer is a bit of an enigma. His statistical numbers were all down from 2018 and he shared starting duties with David O’Meara and Kamareon Williams.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 UMass at FIU
Talented tight end Sterling Palmer has split time with David O’Meara and Kamareon Williams.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Part of the statistical drop-off could be due to the Panthers using more four-receiver sets in “10” personnel (1 running back, zero tight ends).

Grade: C+

Offensive Line:

Another mixed bag for the Panthers in 2019 has been the offensive line. The primary starters are D’Antne Demery, Shane McGough, Dallas Connell, Mershawn Miller, Shaq Williams and Devontay Taylor.

Lyndell Hudson Jr. has filled in well when called upon at the tackle spot and true freshman Sione Finau has come on at guard.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 23 Miami at FIU
The FIU offensive line has kept James Morgan upright for most of the year.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A glaring difference from the year prior has been the number of players used per contest.

In 2018, FIU routinely used 8-9 offensive linemen per game. This season, the rotation hasn’t exceeded seven for the majority of the year.

JUCO transfer Logan Gunderson hasn’t appeared this year and another JUCO transfer in Danny Corbett, who was mentioned by name in Butch Davis’ media day as a player who could step in, left the program after the UTEP game.

Connell was named to Pro Football Focus’ All-C-USA First Team, while Taylor made the second team and McGough was an honorable mention.

The unit as a whole has come on strong down the stretch and still is among FBS football leaders in fewest sacks allowed (13), but during the early part of the season, Morgan was under duress and the aforementioned struggles in springing the run.

Grade: B

Defensive Line:

The defensive line, like many groups on the team, has been a bit of a seesaw unit throughout the season.

Defensive tackle Teair Tart led FIU with 10.5 tackles for loss.

Old Dominion v Florida International
Teair Tart has had a solid senior season.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

As a whole, the defensive line has 32.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage - among the lowest in C-USA. Transfers Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Chris Whittaker have 13.5 of those, gaining their eligibility a quarter of the way into the year.

Florida International v Florida Atlantic
C-USA quarterbacks should expect to see plenty of Alexy Jean-Baptiste next season.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Their additions also helped in the sack department, with the team having 11 sacks in the final six games, to put FIU 10th in C-USA with 20 sacks overall.

FIU’s most productive lineup has been on clear passing downs, seeing Whittaker and Jean-Baptiste at the ends, with Oliver and Curtis moving inside to rush from the tackle spots.

Grade: C

Linebackers:

As was the case in 2018, the FIU linebacker group has been mainly a two-player show, with Sage Lewis and Jamal Gates seeing the bulk of the action due to FIU playing mostly out of a nickel package.

Lewis suffered a hamstring injury against Louisiana Tech and wasn’t able to be as explosive of a player as he was last season.

Miami v Florida International
Sage Lewis and Jamal Gates have held down the linebacker spots for FIU.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

However, in the season’s final two games with his health improved, he showed why he’s one of the conference’s top defenders, totaling 27.5 tackles and an interception. He’s again been excellent in pass coverage, snagging three picks.

Gates has burst onto the scene in his first year as a starter, leading the team in tackles with 83.

The duo only accounts for 6.5 tackles for loss - which in part may be due to the nickel defense and the style of run by the opposition - which forces the LB’s to hold in the event of a pass.

Grade: B

Secondary:

The Panther secondary is among the best in the nation, ranking seventh in fewest passing yards allowed (178.5) per game.

Arguably the biggest surprise has been hybrid CB/S Rishard Dames. “Little twin” leads the team with three interceptions and hasn’t shied away from contact, recording 50 tackles.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 05 UMass at FIU
Rishard Dames leads FIU in interceptions.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Senior Olin Cushion is again the heart of the secondary, leading the secondary with 61 stops.

Corners Stantley Thomas-Oliver and Isaiah Brown are among the best in C-USA on the outside, with Thomas-Oliver making Pro Football Focus Second Team as a defensive back and Brown has rebounded from a rough 2018, with six pass-breakups.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 02 Old Dominion at FIU
Isaiah Brown has rebounded to have a solid senior season.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nickel corner Josh Turner was also recognized by Pro Football Focus as the third-team defensive back and safety Dorian Hall was named to their first-team.

The group held opponents to under seven times (Tulane game gets an asterisk) and when you look at the games against FAU and WKU, both saw opponents dominate the time of possession amount of drives due to FIU’s offensive struggles.

Grade: A

Special Teams:

Punter Tommy Heatherly has been among the best in C-USA.

The JUCO transfer rebounded from a shaky opening night and at one point was leading the league in yards per punt and is currently fourth with an average of 42.6.

Maurice Alexander’s dynamic abilities against help FIU lead C-USA in punt return average, while the kick return game is again pedestrian, ranking 119th out of 130 FBS teams.

The kickoff coverage unit is eighth in the league, but the Panthers are second with 38 touchbacks.

Long snapper Tommy Zozus is one of the best in C-USA - if not the nation.

Holder Alec Hallaman did a solid job in his first year, with one miscue coming against FAU.

Kicker Jose Borregales’ 2019 has been both maddening and exhilarating.

Miami v Florida International
Jose Borregales has made clutch field goals for FIU throughout the season.
Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Despite incessant questions about his confidence (many of which have been from the writer of this article), the junior has performed well in the biggest moments.

The stat most indicative of his year - Borregales is 6-of-8 from beyond 40 yards - but 6-of-11 from between 30-39 yards out. FIU’s all-time leading scorer has all of the makings of a pro kicker, but he has to develop pro-level consistency.

Grade: B-