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After first loss under interim coach, FIU faces defining tests

Samuel Lewis/Icon Sportswire

After winning its first three games with an interim head coach and suddenly becoming a factor in the Conference USA East Division race, Florida International suffered its first setback under Ron Cooper on Saturday, a 44-24 Homecoming loss to West Division leader Louisiana Tech at Ocean Bank Field.

The result brought the program back to reality from a string of victories that followed the firing of head coach Ron Turner after an 0-4 start to the season.

“I think we lost to a pretty good football team,” was the reaction in the postgame press conference from Cooper, who certainly hasn’t lost faith in his team.

“We could have laid down, but the guys kept fighting and all we can do now is start all over next week and go at it and keep moving on.”

That’s what the Panthers plan on doing as the meat of their 2016 schedule looms and a division championship is still well within reach. Every team in the conference now has at least one loss. FIU, now 3-5 overall and 3-1 in conference play, is tied atop the division. Four teams have one conference loss; the Panthers are joined by Western Kentucky, Old Dominion and Middle Tennessee.

FIU faces those three teams during its pivotal final four-game stretch. It begins on Saturday when the Panthers host Middle Tennessee and continues the following Saturday when they travel to Western Kentucky.

The team appears to have the proper attitude about it, at least according to tight end Jonnu Smith.

“Win or lose, we put every game behind us,” Smith said after the Louisiana Tech game. “We can’t dwell on the past. We’ve got to get ready for Middle Tennessee starting (Sunday).

“Start running, get our bodies back for the next game. We have to start looking ahead of us not what’s behind us. We got a great opponent this week and we got to bring it, practice, prepare.”

Smith’s first reception in the second quarter of Saturday’s loss marked his 40th straight game with a reception, a streak that dates back to his collegiate debut against Maryland on Aug. 31, 2013 in College Park. He game into the game tied with the sixth-longest streak in the nation. He is now four games shy of tying the school record held by Cory McKinney (2002-’05).

Smith’s five catches (81 yards) in Saturday’s game moved him into fourth place on the Panthers’ all-time list with 169 career receptions.

For the Panthers to compete in these upcoming matchups, they will need an elevated level of play from rejuvenated quarterback Alex McGough. On Saturday, the junior became the program’s all-time leader in career touchdown passes with 43 when he connected on a 17-yard first-quarter score to Smith.

Over the last three games, McGough has thrown for 200-plus yards in each, including Saturday’s performance that included 281 passing yards on a 25-for-44 night with two touchdowns and an interception. It was McGough’s 13th career 200-yard passing game and fourth this season.

The Panthers need special performances in order to remain in contention for league honors and a bowl berth — something that has eluded the program since a 2011 appearance in the Beef ‘O’ Brady’s Bowl. Running back Alex Gardner became the school’s all-time leader in career rushing attempts (453) on Saturday. Gardner needs a big number in terms of yards and touchdowns to supplement his workhorse identity.

Middle Tennessee just beat Missouri on the road. Western Kentucky is the defending C-USA champion. FIU faces a tough road… but the loss to Louisiana Tech might be just the thing to show this team what it needs in order to become great.

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