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Don’t Count Out the Road-Weary FIU Panthers

The FIU Panthers have run the gauntlet. On the road for four of their first five games in 2015, the road-weary Panthers have survived. A little worse for wear, some cuts and scratches along the way, they have endured, and in doing so have put themselves in position to play in some very meaningful games down the stretch.

Preferred miles logged, it is now time to buckle down and get ready for the meat of the schedule. It’s all conference games from here on out.

Saturday’s 24-14 loss at UMass should not change anyone’s perception of Panthers football. It comes as little surprise that FIU possesses a 2-3 record so far after four road games, including a C-USA opener at West Division preseason favorite Louisiana Tech, and a non-conference home cupcake (North Carolina Central).

Sure, a split of the four road games would have been nice. Panthers fans were filled with false bravado after opening the season with a one-point victory at American Athletic Conference defending champion Central Florida. The Knights have yet to win a game in five tries this season. Still, a win is a win, and a road win is special regardless of the opponent.

Was Saturday’s loss at UMass disappointing? Sure it was. Was it the most disappointing loss of the season so far? Probably, few could have imagined the Panthers offense would be held under 200 yards. It produced more than 300 the week before at LA Tech. The drop off is inexplicable and will surely leave head coach Ron Turner and his staff putting in extra film study this week to come up with answers.

Equally surprising was a Panthers defense that gave up right at 500 yards. I mean, it was UMass, not Tom Brady and New England. Good news, moving forward, is that FIU held the Minutemen to fewer points than they scored against Notre Dame (27) the week prior. So there’s that.

Still, looking at the big picture, FIU is about where expected, hovering around the .500 mark, at this point in the season. Its defense still shines and remains among the best in the conference, allowing 23 points per game on average. That’s fourth-best in the league. The Panthers rank second in the conference against the rush, allowing just 133.4 yards per game. Only LA Tech’s defense (118.4) gives up fewer.

It’s a run game the Panthers have lacked to this point, and something they must find a way to develop as they embark on a seven-game, seven-week conference slate. Averaging a meager 124 yards on the ground this season, only pass-happy Western Kentucky (90.2) rushes for fewer yards than the Panthers among all C-USA teams.

Bowl aspirations still very much alive, the Panthers now return to the friendly confines of Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium for four of the final seven games of the regular season. All will be in C-USA play, meaning the season begins in earnest on Saturday with UTEP at high noon.

A split or better in upcoming road games at Middle Tennessee (2-3) and at neighbors just to the north, FAU (1-3), is certainly doable. Home games with UTEP (2-2), Old Dominion (2-3) and Charlotte (2-3) are definitely winnable. If the Panthers can continue on their current path of expected results, a postseason berth is in the offing.

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