The pass/catch combination of FIU QB Alex McGough and TE Jonnu Smith is heating up at the right time as the Panthers scratch and claw towards a potential bowl berth.
But for that to have any reasonable chance of coming to fruition, FIU must go up to Boca Raton on Saturday and spoil the homecoming of Florida Atlantic. Shula Bowl XIV kicks off at 3:30 at FAU Stadium with the winner of the annual rivalry taking home the “Don Shula Award” for the year. It’s not the Little Brown Jug or the Old Oaken Bucket, but it’s a nice trophy and a fun way to commemorate this neighboring rivalry while honoring the former Miami Dolphins head coach for which the trophy is named.
A victory gets the Panthers (4-4, 2-2) to five wins on the season with conference powerhouses Western Kentucky and Marshall— the only remaining conference undefeateds—still left on the schedule along with Charlotte; one of only two remaining teams still winless in C-USA play. So it is imperative for FIU to put this game in the win column and then win one of the three games left on the slate in order to extend the season one more game.
While the Panthers will rely heavily on their defense, second-best in C-USA in points allowed (22.6), the McGough/Smith duo will likely be a key one as well down the stretch. The two put together career performances last week and garnered high praise in the Panthers’ homecoming victory, a 41-12 pounding of Old Dominion.
McGough threw for 390 yards, completing 31 passes, both career-highs. In addition, the sophomore tied a career-best with three touchdown passes, giving him 17 for the season, a school record. For his efforts, McGough was named C-USA Offensive Player of the Week.
“I didn’t even know how many yards he had but I knew this was probably his best game since I’ve been here because of him seeing the field,” Panthers head coach Ron Turner said in praising the development of his young quarterback.
“He had a shot down the field, pulled the trigger quickly and, when he did, found his check down. He always knows where everyone is. He always knows where his check down is. He knows why we’re calling something and how we’re trying to attack the coverage. He’s got a lot of confidence in the guys he’s throwing it to.”
For the season, McGough is completing an impressive 66 percent (195-for-296) of his passes for 2,049 yards, which ranks No. 20 in the nation. He also ranks No. 15 in TD passes and No. 30 in passing yards per game (256).
He’s looking more and more in the direction of his tight end, although Smith is certainly no stranger to the football. The 6-3, 232-pound junior turned in a career-best 183 yards on Saturday with a career-tying 10 catches (two touchdowns). It was a performance that earned him national recognition as the John Mackey Tight End of the Week.
Smith has caught passes in 32 straight games for the Panthers, second-longest streak in school history. He is FIU’s career leader for tight ends in receptions (136) and yards (1,495).
The McGough/Smith connection must continue if the Panthers hope to reach bowl eligibility for the first time since 2011.