FIU will be dealing with the natural elements this weekend. First, the Panthers are leaving behind hurricane-soaked Miami and landing in El Paso on Friday afternoon. On Saturday, FIU will play at the historic Sun Bowl, which is 3,800 feet above sea level. The high altitude in El Paso could be an issue for opposing teams who are not used to playing in such conditions.
The conditions won't make any kind of difference if the same FIU team that took it to Florida Atlantic in Don Shula Bowl XV shows up in El Paso. Those Panthers rushed for 270 yards, controlled the line of scrimmage and made key plays on defense when they had to. A similar effort will be needed against a physical UTEP team.
Behind their humongous offensive line, which averages 320 pounds, their workhorse running back Aaron Jones, plus a head coach in Sean Kugler -- who was the Pittsburgh Steelers former offensive line coach when the Steelers last appeared in the Super Bowl -- it's no secret what the Miners want to do, run the ball. And if UTEP can successfully run the ball, it also has the help of the thin air in El Paso to wear down defenses.
This will be a huge challenge for the Panthers run defense, which has allowed 200 or more rushing yards in four of their first five games this season. FIU must battle and win the line of scrimmage against that big UTEP offensive front to help free the talented Panthers linebackers to stop the run. Should the FIU defense get pushed around by the UTEP offensive line it could be a long Saturday night in Texas.
To help the challenge that awaits the FIU defense, the FIU offense must do its part sustaining drives and controlling the clock. And included in those sustained drives is the scoring of points by the Panthers offense.
A steady dose of running backs Alex Gardner, Anthony Jones and company, plus the nifty running of quarterback Alex McGough last week is just what the doctor is ordering for FIU on Saturday. UTEP allows 226 rushing yards per contest, including 426 against Army, which everyone in the college football world knows running the ball is a key feature of Army's offense.
McGough was 15 of 30 for 199 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions, including a pick six last week. The junior quarterback will have to be more efficient going forward. Last season against the Miners, McGough was splendid completing 13 of 17 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns.
FIU rolled to a 42-3 halftime lead on UTEP last season in Miami before finishing off a 52-12 victory over the Miners. This is a much better UTEP team than the 2015 version.
Weather could be a factor in El Paso Saturday. A high of 75 is expected with a 60 percent chance of scattered thunderstorms.
The City of Neon Lights thinks UTEP is a Donovan McNabb jersey number better than FIU. Nothing wrong with that number with the Panthers being on the road and off to a 1-4 start. But this is also a different FIU team than the one from the first four games of this season.
Last week when FIU got down twice to FAU, the Panthers might have folded earlier in the season. But there is a visible renewed energy to this team with interim coach Ron Cooper that started in the week of practice leading to the Shula Bowl and was seen on the sideline last Saturday. Cooper told the players and everyone on the FIU sideline to be involved in the game, cheer your teammates on the field during the game. You witnessed that in the Shula Bowl and I think it's something that will carry on the rest of the season.