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FIU Football: Early Down Success Will Make or Break the Panthers

FIU is off to a 1-2 start. The most noticeable difference between last year and this - third downs.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 07 FIU Spring Game Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nauseating, stomach-turning, and exasperation are all feelings that fans have experienced watching football in Miami in the early weeks of 2019 - and that’s before turning on the Dolphins’ games on Sundays.

Through three contests, the FIU faithful have legitimate reason to be disappointed with the start to the season.

James Morgan is C-USA’s reigning Newcomer of the Year, however, 2019 has gotten off to a rough start for he and the offense.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As the Panthers’ enter their second C-USA game on Friday night in Ruston against LA Tech, they’ll look to build off last week's 30-17 win against New Hampshire.

In order for that to happen, it has to start with the offense having early down success - something that’s been a staple during offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky’s two seasons in Miami.

In the first three games, the Panther offense has been subpar on third downs.

The unit are 12-for-41 (29.2%) on converting third downs so far this season. Yes, it is only a three-game sample size, however, they’re still well below their mark of 16-for-36 (44.4%) through three games last season.

Overall, the FIU offense has been among the league leaders in third-down conversions during the two seasons that Skrosky has been at the helm of the offense.

In 2017, they finished fifth in C-USA (43.2%) just below UNT (43.3%) and the league leader in UAB were only two percentage points ahead at 45.2%.

The following season, the Panthers led C-USA with a conversion percentage of 46.8.

In order for the offense to return to the success of prior seasons, they have to improve on the early downs - a fundamental principle of Skrosky’s offensive philosophy.

“We can’t end up in so many third-and-long situations and that starts with having success on first and second down,” said head coach Butch Davis following the WKU game.

The Panthers are averaging 4.2 yards per carry, in large part due to quarterback Kaylan Wiggins’ 187-yard outburst against New Hampshire, the most ever for an FIU quarterback.

Backup quarterback Kaylan Wiggins was able to spark the offense with his legs in FIU’s win over New Hampshire.
Photo by Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

However, prior to last week’s game, the team was at an anemic 2.9 yards per rushing attempt.

The offense as a whole has to a better job of picking up steady gains on 1st and 2nd down, in order to make 3rd down conversion more manageable and because it opens up options for Skrosky as a play-caller.

When you look at FIU’s 41 third down attempts, 24 of them have been third-and-long (anything seven or more yards needed for gain a first down), seven of them have been medium (4-7 yards) and eight have been short (1-3 yards).

It’s not a coincidence that of the 15 that have been medium or short, FIU has converted eight (53.3%).

Whereas of the 24 that have been long, the Panthers’ success rate drops to 16.6%.

The success of the offense as a whole relies on the unit staying out of third-and-long situations, especially with an offensive line that’s still finding it’s footing with the graduation of four key members during the offseason.

Tulane’s duo of defensive linemen Cam Sample/Patrick Johnson and WKU’s DeAngelo Malone/Juwan Jones were able to focus on pressuring FIU quarterbacks, because of the repeated pass-rush situations.

Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith is arguably the top defensive player in C-USA. He’ll be in Miami to take on FIU on October 12th.
Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With defensive linemen like LA Tech’s Willie Baker, Charlotte’s Alex Highsmith, and Marshall’s Marquis Couch/Fermin Silva still on the schedule, the task doesn’t get any easier for the Panther O-Line.

FIU had the top scoring offense in C-USA last season and has the firepower to repeat that success, but their lack of success on early downs has to improve, or else the three-game sample will be a trend and not an outlier in 2019.