In the Panthers current two-game losing streak, they’ve been outscored 104-21 including a disparity of 45-0 in the opening quarters of those contests. Yes, the defense has had their struggles during the stretch, specifically the North Texas game that saw multiple chunk plays allowed.
However, the FIU offense has 13 first-half drives that have gone five plays or fewer in the last two weeks with 10 of them ending in either three-and-outs or turnovers.
A dive inside the numbers shows the link between early-down success and the ability to sustain drives that produce points — something that isn’t revelatory but glaring, nonetheless.
“Anytime you’re in a lot of third-and-longs, you’re not going to be successful offensively,” said Mike MacIntyre following the Florida Atlantic loss. “And it’s not always running, the short passing game, we just haven’t been able to do it as well as we were for a minute.”
In the Charlotte victory, FIU averaged 9.9 yards per play on first downs (nine passes, five runs) en route to a 27-0 first-half lead. The following week against Louisiana Tech, the Panthers averaged six yards per play on first downs (20 passes, 10 runs) in the 42-34 overtime victory.
The loss against North Texas saw the number dip to 2.5 yards per play on first down (15 passes, 10 runs) with the majority of the first-down yardage coming with the game’s outcome decided. In last weekend’s Shula Bowl loss to Florida Atlantic, FIU averaged 3.2 yards per play on first down (five passes, 15 runs) again with over 60% of the yardage coming with FAU ahead at least 21 points.
I opened last Saturday’s press conference with a question about the lack of success in the run game, but as MacIntyre noted, achieving success on early downs can come via the pass — as evidenced by the breakdown in plays called by offensive coordinator David Yost in the wins over Charlotte and La Tech (29 passes, 15 runs).
It’s worth noting that Charlotte and Louisiana Tech as defensive units have struggled throughout the season, while North Texas has been a middle of the road defense and Florida Atlantic is among the top-half in Conference USA in total defense.
As the Panthers look to remain in bowl contention, they’ll face their most stiff defensive test in several weeks when they face a UTEP team that’s ranked second in C-USA (53rd in FBS) in total defense. The Miners are fourth in the league in sacks (22) and third in holding opponents on third-down (37%).
Following the Charlotte victory, both MacIntyre and quarterback Grayson James spoke about how adding an additional hat in the run game was a point of emphasis.
While it will be a tough task, Yost and company may have to look towards using James’ legs in early downs to set up more manageable conversion opportunities via the run. In the passing game, while it started slowly, there may be opportunities for Jalen Bracey (pending health) or Artez Hooker in the slot with swings or bubble screens and Tyrese Chambers in the short pass game.
Regardless, the Panthers have to avoid the early third-and-long situations or the three-and-out drives will be tough to avoid on Saturday.