With the football season about to get underway each week I’ll be previewing the game and getting up to speed on Indiana’s upcoming opponent. This week we break down what to look for in the Florida International University Golden Panthers with FIU’s Pete Pelegrin.
David Sugarman: Head coach Ron Turner is entering his fourth season and every year the win total has improved. Do you see that happening again this year, which of course after winning five games last year would mean at the least a bowl game?
Pete Pelegrin: Yeah I think so. I mean the schedule is very manageable. Starting off the bat it’s not going to be the easiest with Indiana and Maryland in back to back weeks, but FIU should compete in Conference USA and it’s manageable enough to get those six wins. Now there’s like 350 bowl games so all you need is six wins and you’re pretty much in.
DS: Talking about last year’s game, on the road, FIU leads at halftime, was right there in the fourth quarter, so now with a lot of experienced players from that group and at home, what kind of confidence does this team have from last year and what did they take away from that game?
PP: Well I think what they learned from that game is that they could hang with a Big Ten team. Last year they were a year younger, maybe not as big as they are this year, you know some guys put on weight and some guys, their bodies matured. You know they’re 18 to 22 year olds, they’re still growing. I think they realized that on the road they could hang with a Big Ten team and they’re really looking forward to this opener. Maybe with a shot at an upset, I know they’re like a ten point dog going into this game.
DS: From last year’s game I think most Indiana fans would remember a few guys, Alex McGough, particularly Thomas Owens who really lit the young Indiana secondary up. Who is one player on each side of the ball that Indiana fans probably don’t know, but definitely should?
PP: Well I’m not sure if they’re familiar with Jonnu Smith our tight end. He played in last year’s game, but didn’t have the big game that Thomas Owens had, but Jonnu Smith is FIU’s number one NFL prospect for next season or rather for the NFL Draft coming up in April. He’s a guy that plays tight end, but he’s built more like a receiver. At 6-3, 250 pounds he reminds me a lot of Shannon Sharpe the old Denver Broncos tight end. He’s a guy that will certainly draw attention, maybe even double, sometimes triple coverage. You would think sometimes, tight end, he’s just going to catch the ball underneath, but this is a guy that can stretch the defense. Defensively Anthony Wint, the middle linebacker, is the heart and soul of the FIU defense. He’s a former high school wrestler that has really developed into one of the top linebackers in Conference USA.
DS: One of the weak points looking at the statistics last year for Florida International was that they were last in Conference USA in rushing yards. They averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. Did they make a lot of improvements in that over the offseason or do you see them struggling again?
PP: It should be better because of the offensive line. It’s an upperclassmen type line. You got three, maybe four seniors who are going to start and Alex Gardner the leading rusher got a little bit bigger, he’s close to 200 pounds now. Anthony Jones who was kind of shuffled last year between running back and receiver has been told that this year he’s exclusively a running back and he’s a little bit bigger than Gardner and a lot shiftier and then you also have to add in freshman Shawndarrius Phillips who is a bowling ball. He is about 5-11, 230 to 240 pounds and he’s not easy to bring down. But he is a guy that is a freshman so he’s not going to see the number of snaps that Gardner and Jones will see, but he’s guy that will have an impact this season.
DS: It also sounds like with just all the names you’re listing there’s a lot more depth then there’s been in the past. Not just guys improving, but even more guys to share the load.
PP: Yeah this is Turner’s fourth year and he’s had the chance to build on each class each year and address that depth that really any coach that walks into a job doesn’t have his first or second year. Definitely got more depth at running back this year, the O-line is pretty solid on the two deep and I mean offensively is not the issue with FIU. The issue with FIU is going to be whether the defensive line can get to the quarterback and whether the secondary, which is relatively new, can cover.
DS: What should Indiana be concerned about the most headed into this game?
PP: Yeah I think with Thomas Owens and Jonnu Smith and then the double tailbacks of Gardner and Jones and can’t forget about quarterback Alex McGough, he’s in his third year, he knows that offense backwards and forwards, I think it’s the FIU offense. It’s the season opener so everybody’s going to be hyped and Indiana will be playing on the road, I don’t know how much humidity you guys have up in Indiana, but that should be a factor on Thursday night because it has been a scorcher of a Summer down here.
DS: So what’s your final prediction for the game and who do you think ends up coming out on top?
PP: Well I hate predictions, but I think it’s going to be a close game. If FIU can get some plays out of it’s defense which as we talked earlier which you know right now we don’t know what we’re going to get out of the D-line and you don’t know what you’re going to see in the secondary. If they can get plays out of that D-line or secondary then I would not be shocked at an upset. But obviously you have to respect Indiana as a Big Ten team coming on the road, first time ever that a Big Ten team is going to be playing at FIU Stadium. The Panthers did host Maryland, that was when they played one season in the Orange Bowl while FIU Stadium was being built and of course now the Orange Bowl is gone and it’s Marlins Park. But I think it’ll be a close game. I don’t think it’ll be a blowout either way.
You can follow Pete on Twitter @PetePelegrin and check out all of his coverage of FIU sports at FIUsports.com.
You can follow David on Twitter @dshug24 and Instagram @david_sugar24