FIU goes for three wins in a row Saturday when it visits Charlotte. The 49ers are coming off a big win at Florida Atlantic, their first Conference USA win in their short history. Despite Charlotte being in just its second season in C-USA this game is by no means a gimmee for the Panthers. First of all, FIU is not the New England Patriots that can just show up and win, plus the 49ers are better than you might think.
The switch from Kevin Olsen to Hasaan Klugh at quarterback for the 49ers improved their offense. Klugh can throw and run which presents more issues for a defense. The Panthers have struggled against running quarterbacks in the past and Klugh is exactly that. The FIU run defense limited UTEP to 139 yards on the ground last week, with 49 of the yards coming on the Aaron Jones touchdown run. However, that was just the second time in six games this season that FIU has allowed less than 200 rushing yards in a game. The Panthers will need a strong run D against the 49ers. Charlotte runs a spread offense that could be a problem for a defense struggling to stop the run.
On the other side of the ball, FIU has run like a team on a mission of late. With 528 rushing yards in the last two games the Panthers have controlled the clock and were more physical than FAU and UTEP. The running game has helped quarterback Alex McGough relax and given him time to throw. Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones and the offensive line will be key again in this game. Even though the defensive front seven is considered Charlotte's strength, it can be run on. The 49ers allow 172 yards on the ground per game.
It was good to see Thomas Owens have a T.O.-like game last week against UTEP with seven catches for 125 yards and two touchdowns. McGough distributed the ball around a lot more as tight end A.J. Branisel played a big part in the UTEP win. The 49ers are little banged up in the secondary and have been susceptible to the deep ball allowing nearly 300 passing yards per game.
This might sound strange for a 2-4 FIU team but this might be the type of game that you could call a "trap game". The Panthers are going on the road, having won two straight, facing a second-year C-USA team that they beat handily 48-31 last season and Louisiana Tech is on deck at home next week. However, I think interim coach Ron Cooper and the coaching staff will have the Panthers ready to go and keep them grounded. Cooper and the staff seem to have the pulse of the team and the players are responding.
Case in point, in a practice earlier this week, a player fumbled a punt return. Near the end of practice, the player was asked to field a punt in front of the team with FIU strength coaches tugging at his jersey and Cooper spraying water on the player as he was trying to catch the punt. With so many distractions around and on the player, the player kept his concentration and fielded the punt cleanly to which his teammates watching along erupted in cheers. The point was if you could field a punt with people grabbing your jersey and water sprayed on your face, you can field a punt anytime. Lately, it's been those kinds of moments in practice that the Panthers have embraced and are enjoying learning from.
The City of Neon Lights thinks FIU is a Jay Cutler jersey number better than Charlotte. Something tells me the game will be closer than that. The 49ers like the Panthers have some momentum going into this game. Weather should not be a factor in Charlotte. Game time temperature will be a high of 71 with just a 10 percent chance of rain. A win Saturday would give FIU its first three-game winning streak since 2011 when the Panthers won three straight near the end of that season and three straight to start that season. That year was also the last time FIU went to a bowl game.