MIAMI, Fla. – Normally when putting together a schedule the homecoming opponent is one in which victory is almost assured. Losing your homecoming game is akin to finding you know what’s in the punch bowl. It just isn’t acceptable.
The FIU Panthers have a few things going for them as they host Old Dominion for homecoming, a 6 p.m. Saturday kickoff in Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium. Home-field advantage is an obvious one, but a very decisive one as well. The Panthers also have one of the top quarterbacks in the conference as well as a plethora of talented receivers on the cusp of setting school records.
It seems favorable then that the Panthers break a four-game slide in homecoming games and improve on a not so festive 5-8 record all-time in such games. Nobody on the current roster was around when FIU last captured the thrill of a homecoming victory, a 42-35 triumph over Louisiana-Monroe, in 2010.
However, nearly everyone remembers last season’s 38-35 loss at Norfolk in the only meeting between Saturday’s combatants. The Monarchs (3-3, 1-1) are not to be overlooked and if the Panthers don’t want to get stood up on homecoming, they’ll need to rely on the steady arm of quarterback Alex McGough. The sophomore is completing nearly 64 percent of his passes this season and has already piled up 1,659 yards and 14 touchdowns.
He flung it 51 times in last Saturday’s 42-34 loss at Middle Tennessee–second-most single game passing attempts in FIU history–and completed a career-tying 29 of those. The loss dropped FIU to 1-2 in Conference USA play and 3-4 overall, falling dangerously close to not qualifying for a winning season and a potential bowl berth. And that’s what makes Saturday’s homecoming game a must-win.
Playing in just their third home game this season, the Panthers are a different team at Ocean Bank, winning both previous contests. Statistically, they’re much more efficient when tasting home cooking. The Panthers average 378 yards of offense and 27.6 points on the road, where they’ve lost four of five games this season. At home, FIU produces 504 yards and averages scoring 45.5 points per game while allowing just 13.
McGough must continue to be the catalyst if the Panthers are to make it three straight at home for the first time since the program’s initial 2002 season. It is imperative that he continues his streak of touchdown passes (seven straight games) and 200-yard games (six in seven games this season).
That task is made more comfortable when considering the talented receivers with which he has to throw to.
Sophomore Thomas Owens is one. He’s caught a touchdown pass in six consecutive games and leads the team with seven on the season, which is one shy of the school record (8) set last season by junior tight end Jonnu Smith.
Also chasing a school record, Smith has caught a pass in 31 consecutive games and is just the second tight end in school history with more than 100 catches (126) and 1,000 yards (1,312). He is just seven catches shy of the program’s all-time mark for tight ends, set by Samuel Smith (no relation) from 2003-06.
Not to be outdone, sophomore running back Alex Gardner has proven to be a dangerous weapon out of the backfield as well. He’s already written his name in the school record books this season. In just seven games, Gardner has set the standard for running backs with 37 catches for 333 yards.
The assortment of weapons, combined with home-field advantage is why the Panthers enter this game as two-touchdown favorites to make homecoming a happy occasion again at FIU.