Every week, it seems, the games just get bigger for Florida International.
After beating Louisville in their last game—their first win over a team from an automatic qualifying BCS conference—the Panthers are back home and looking to play before what could be their first full house at FIU Stadium when Central Florida visits.
The Panthers will be aiming for their first 3-0 start, against a team that won its conference last year (Conference USA) and is off to a 2-0 start this season.
Plus it’s against another Florida team, which means there are players on both teams who were either high school teammates or rivals.
“Our guys are extremely fired up,” coach Mario Cristobal said. “If I’m not mistaken, we’ve won nine of our last 11 football games, so winning has become a strong tradition here at FIU.
“Each win you feel better and better about it.”
It was less than five years ago that Cristobal’s first win as a head coach in the 2007 finale ended a 23-game losing streak.
The 2008 team was 5-7, and the 2009 team struggled to 3-8.
But the Panthers recorded the first winning season in their 10-year history with a 7-6 mark last year, and they are 2-0 for the first time after beating North Texas at home and Louisville on the road.
The latter gave them their first win over a Big East team after five losses and may have caught their long-suffering fans a little by surprise.
“I think people are surprised that we did beat a Big East BCS team,” quarterback Wesley Carroll said. “But we always talk about us being a family within these four walls.
“Nothing that we accomplish is surprising to us.”
•It may be a small sampling size, just two games, but FIU has shown marked improvement in its rush defense. The Panthers gave up 97 rushing yards to North Texas in the opener and held Louisville to 83. Last year, opponents averaged 169 yards on the ground against FIU and in 2009 shredded the defense for 233 yards a game rushing.
•This is the first meeting between FIU and UCF, but Panthers QB Wes Carroll has faced the Knights before. Carroll was a starter as a freshman for Mississippi State when the Bulldogs beat UCF 10-3 in the 2007 Liberty Bowl. He was only 8-of-18 passing, however, and had an interception. “Two different times in my life because they’re two different teams I was a part of,” said Carroll, who is from Fort Lauderdale and transferred to FIU after the 2008 season. “Mississippi State was more of a pro-style offense. This is more of a spread style.”
•FIU is off to its best start with a 2-0 record, and UCF, also 2-0, is off to its best start since 1998. This will be the first game in a four-game series between the two.
Series History: This is the first meeting between FIU and UCF.
Scouting The Offense: The Panthers struggle a bit trying to mount a consistent attack against Louisville but hit the Cardinals with two big scoring pass plays thanks to WR T.Y. Hilton. Hilton wasn’t used in the running game, but can be a threat there as well. QB Wes Carroll has yet to throw an interception in 43 pass attempts. The Panthers are deep at running back.
Scouting The Defense: The defense has made major strides over the last two years, mostly because of better depth. The unit kept North Texas out of the end zone and limited Louisville to 17 points, coming up with two big stops in the fourth quarter to preserve the victory. Opponents have rushed for just 180 yards in two games.
Quote To Note: “If the defense is giving us the seam down the middle, then that’s what we’re going to take.”—QB Wesley Carroll, on whether he is trying to force the ball to WR T.Y. Hilton after Hilton scored on two long pass plays at Louisville.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
This Week‘S GAME: UCF at FIU, Sept. 17—This will be the first game for FIU against a team from Conference USA. The Knights won the league title a year ago and are favored to repeat. They are 2-0 and coming off a big win over Boston College.
Keys To The Game: Keep playing defense. UCF sophomore Jeff Godfrey presents the biggest threat yet as a running quarterback, having rushed for five touchdowns, but he also is an efficient passer (26-of-35 in two games). FIU’s offense can’t give the Knights prime field position with a turnover.
Players To Watch:
WR T.Y. Hilton—Hilton supposedly was going to have to contend with all sorts of special defenses, but it hasn’t worked out that way the first two games. He had a 62-yard kickoff return and 60-yard touchdown reception in the opener and scored on receptions covering 74 and 83 yards against Louisville.
DE Greg Hickman—Hickman has come through in a big way for the Panthers defense. Of his 11 tackles, 4.5 are for losses, including 2.0 sacks. He also has broken up a pass and forced a fumble.
LB Winston Fraser—Fraser not only leads the Panthers in tackles with 19 stops (one for a loss), he also got in on the scoring at Louisville, returning an interception 71 yards.
•Senior DB Jarrell McGee (undisclosed) is practicing but is not likely to return this week but could against Louisiana-Lafayette on Sept. 24.
•Senior QB Wes Carroll has a streak of 49 passes without an interception going back to last year’s bowl game against Toledo.
•Senior RB Darriet Perry is one rushing touchdown short of tying Rashod Smith’s school career record of 24 rushing scores.
•Sophomore CB Sam Miller has eight tackles, including two sacks, and has broken up two passes in his first two career starts. He had five tackles all of last year as a true freshman.
•Junior PK Jack Griffin, 3-for-3 this year, has a streak of 11 consecutive field goals going.