Written By T.J. Inman (@TJHoosierHuddle)
Week 2: Florida International Panthers
As you read last week, the Indiana Hoosiers will open the 2015 season by hosting the Southern Illinois Salukis. This week, our preview rolls on and takes a look at IU’s week 2 opponent, the Florida International Panthers. FIU is a member of Conference USA and will come into this contest after opening their season at Central Florida. These first two games are contests that IU absolutely has to have in order to achieve their paramount goal of six wins and a postseason berth. FIU isn’t a juggernaut by any means but they will be a step up in competition from the opening week opponent and the Hoosiers will need to play a solid contest to feel comfortable about the outcome.
Week 2: Florida International
Time & Date: September 12, 2015 – 8:00 p.m.
Venue: Memorial Stadium (Bloomington, IN)
Panthers at a Glance:
Head Coach: Ron Turner (3rd season, 5-19 at FIU and was 35-57 at Illinois)
Last Season: 4-8 (3-5 in Conference USA)
Panthers Returning Leaders:
Passing: Alex McGough (50.4%, 1680, 14 TD, 10 INT)
Rushing: Alex Gardner (139 rushes for 562 yards, 4.0/ypc, 1 TD)
Receiving: Jonnu Smith (61 catches for 688 yards, catch rate of 72.6%)
Lindy’s: 4th in C-USA (East)
Sporting News: 5th in C-USA (East)
Athlon’s: 5th in C-USA (East)
Why the Panthers could win:
Do you remember Ron Turner? From 1997-2004, Turner was the head coach of the Illinois Fighting Illini. He led the Illini to two bowl games, including a 2001 Sugar Bowl appearance. Things got rocky after the 2001 season (5-7, 1-11, 3-8) and Turner was replaced by Ron Zook. After his stint at Illinois, Ron Turner returned to a previous stop and became the Chicago Bears OC from 2005-2009. He then worked for the Colts and Bucs before being the surprising hire at FIU.
His tenure got off to an awful start as the 2013 Panthers went 1-11 and were probably worse than their record. However, 2014 showed some significant growth and his squad closed the year with a strong defense and a 4-8 record. FIU finished the season as the 96th ranked squad in the Football Outsiders (F/+) rankings and there are reasons for optimism. After some early offensive struggles (to put it kindly), Turner decided to look to the future and turned to true freshman QB Alex McGough. McGough wasn’t the only young player to see the field. Sophomore RB Alex Gardner was the leading rusher as a freshman, junior TE Jonnu Smith was the leading receiver as a sophomore and multiple O-linemen return with starting experience. Playing a lot of youth will often result in some ugly results and not surprisingly, that’s what happened for FIU. But their experience last season (and development in the offseason) should better prepare them for this season and a test against the Hoosiers. Their offensive plan is fairly simple (on paper), run the ball behind their big line (average size of 6’5”/305) with a trio of RBs (Gardner, Anthon Samuel and Silas Spearman) and utilize play-action to throw to their matchup problem, TE Jonnu Smith. If they can get Smith rolling against an inexperienced set of IU DBs and control tempo with their run game, FIU might be able to hang around.
They probably won’t be winning this game with their offense though. If the Panthers are to pull off the upset, it will be because of their defense. In 2014, FIU had a top 25 defense in the second half of games and was the 36th ranked defense on 3rd down. They accomplished this by attacking with an ultra-fast (although undersized) personnel grouping and deploying a very strong pass rush. The defensive end duo of Michael Wakefield (8 sacks, 14.5 TFL) and Denzell Perine (6.5 sacks, 9.5 TFL) return along with all but one contributor from last season’s D-line. In addition, every single contributing linebacker returns as well as all of FIU’s cornerbacks. This defense is fast, aggressive and very capable of making some big plays if IU is sloppy with blocking or with the ball. It’s not likely but one could certainly see a scenario where IU turns it over three times and gives up 4-5 sacks and consequently find themselves in a dog-fight in the 4th quarter.
Why They Won’t Pull it Off:
The Panthers have some pretty strong things going for them, mainly on the defensive side of the ball. That being said, it’s hard to imagine an undersized defense (no matter how fast and aggressive they are) and a still very young and mostly inept offense coming into Bloomington and leaving with a W. If you take a look at the times that FIU was actually competent on offense, the things they did well are things the Hoosiers actually defended adequately last season. Tight ends didn’t kill IU and the Hoosiers were mostly successful in slowing down opposing rushing attacks. Unless FIU’s offense has gotten significantly better, I don’t expect them to put up more than 20-24 points.
I do expect their defense to be a bit of a challenge for the IU offense, particularly if Sudfeld hasn’t found his rhythm with his wide receivers at that early juncture of the season. However, FIU sacrifices size for speed and I think the offensive line of IU will relish the challenge of pounding on the undersized Panthers. In addition, FIU lost their two star safeties (Demarkus Perkins and Justin Halley). If the players who replace them aren’t up to the task, the Panthers will start giving up a ton of big plays (which was a bit of a problem even last season) and will eventually be forced to tone down their aggressive play calling.
The Hoosiers should absolutely start the season 2-0 and they should probably do so in somewhat dominant fashion (not that style points ultimately matter). There’s little question that IU will be heavily favored against their FCS opposition in the opener and I imagine they’ll be double digit favorites against the Panthers. IU has more experience, more depth and more talent and a loss would likely derail the Hoosiers hopes before the fall foliage even thinks about arriving in Bloomington.
Keep coming back to Hoosier Huddle for terrific season preview content. We’ll continue to have our daily countdown, Thursday Throwback articles, game previews, recruiting updates and more.
Hoosiers Win Probability: 95%