The heart is there. The desire is there. The talent in key positions just isn’t up to speed — not for a program looking to become relevant in the FBS, even if it isn’t from one of the Power 5 conferences.
FIU dropped its 2016 season opener on Thursday night by three touchdowns, at home, to Big Ten afterthought Indiana. That, despite six Hoosiers players sitting out suspended; among them leading returning receiver Simmie Cobbs, and two other probable starters.
Panther Nation was pumped for the season opener — and why shouldn’t it be, with quarterback Alex McGough returning for his third season under center, leading a contingent of nine returning starters on offense. Last season’s loss in Bloomington gave this one a sense of revenge, particularly when self-inflicted errors cost FIU against Indiana a season ago.
Vegas knew differently, though, as the smart money came in on Indiana. The betting line rose significantly in the proceeding week, from a meager 3-point line in favor of Indiana, to nine by kickoff.
Either way, Indiana cleared those margins by overcoming a 13-12 fourth-quarter deficit with 22 unanswered points in the final 15 minutes.
The final score indicates a blowout — and maybe it turned into one late in the game, a somewhat familiar story after last season’s loss at Indiana — but the Panthers were in it until midway through the fourth quarter when the wheels completely came off.
In fact, take away two ill-executed pick-six plays and it was a very competitive affair.
McGough’s as much of a fighter as any other member of the FIU roster. However, in his third year, one might think his protection of the football might have improved rather than regressed. One game into the 2016 campaign, his three interceptions put him well on pace to surpass 2015, when he threw just eight all year.
He has to be to make up for poor decision-making and an inaccurate, albeit very strong, arm. McGough threw for 218 yards, completing 22-of-45 passes. He threw for two touchdowns, though unfortunately, both were to Indiana players.
All the heart; all the desire; all the drive; all the will; all the fight; not just from him but from the entire team, gone in a few miscues.
Granted McGough was the only player who didn’t turn in a perfect game on Thursday. Jonnu Smith dropped everything thrown his way for more than three quarters — uncharacteristic of one of the nation’s premier pass-catching tight ends.
Backup quarterback Maurice Alexander played one snap Thursday and the redshirt freshman completed a pass for five yards. At 6-0 and 180 pounds he’s smaller than you’d like for a quarterback, but he has all the credentials, having thrown for more than 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in his senior season at Booker T. Washington High School.
He knows how to win, evident in his leading the team to a perfect 15-0 record and a 4A state championship. He was named All-State for that Class.
Maybe Alexander isn’t quite ready to take the reins just yet, but if change isn’t made at that critical position, the Panthers are staring at another sub-.500 record and another holidays spent in front of the TV watching the 60-plus other schools partake in bowl season, while the program’s postseason drought extends to five years.