The 15th season of FIU football kicks off with the first time that a Big Ten team visits FIU Stadium. Indiana, who defeated FIU last season in Bloomington, Indiana, is the Panthers 2016 season-opening opponent in a game that could be decided by the team that scores last.
Last season the Hoosiers won 36-22 in a back-and-forth game until IU scored 17 unanswered points after FIU took a 22-19 lead early in the fourth quarter. The teams combined for 845 yards of total offense in that game and may have more than that on Thursday night.
Both FIU and Indiana feature potent offenses with the only real unknown between the two offenses being the Hoosiers new quarterback Richard Lagow, who originally signed with UConn, walked on at Oklahoma State before playing junior college ball the last two years. Lagow replaces the graduated Nate Sudfeld, who was effective against FIU last year throwing for 234 yards and a touchdown.
Indiana also lost big running back Jordan Howard to the NFL, but Devine Redding is ready to assume the every down duties after rushing for more than 1,000 yards last season, including 230 in the Pinstripe Bowl. The receiving trio of Simmie Cobbs, Ricky Jones and Mitchell Paige, who combined for nearly 2,600 yards last season, are all back for this season.
FIU returns the majority of its offensive starters including junior quarterback Alex McGough along with a healthy Jonnu Smith. Thomas Owens, who torched the IU secondary for 166 yards and two touchdowns in last year's meeting, is also back and he will be helped by a pair of talented freshman receivers in Stanley Thomas and Tony Gaiter. The one-two running back punch of Alex Gardner and Anthony Jones is expected to get a boost from bruising and burly freshman Shawndarrius Phillips. Plus, the FIU offensive line is a veteran unit that got a bunch of game experience last season.
With the offensive punch packed on both sides this season opener could turn into a shootout not only because of the offensive talent but because of questions surrounding both defenses. And ironically, both teams have the same questions: Can each team develop a consistent pass rush? Can each team effectively cover in the passing game?
Indiana had the worst defense in the Big Ten last season. The Hoosiers brought in a new defensive coordinator and have switched from a 3-4 to a 4-2-5. IU hopes the change helps them get to McGough and cover FIU's talented pass catchers.
FIU lost three talented defensive linemen to the NFL in Michael Wakefield, Lars Koht and Denzell Perine. The trio accounted for 132 tackles, 33.5 of the team's 68 tackles for loss (49 percent), 16 of the team's 22 sacks (73 percent) and 7 of the team's 12 forced fumbles (58 percent).
FIU has some seniors on the interior of the line such as Imarjaye Albury and Leonard Washington, but the Panthers need to get a pass rush from some defensive ends that are playing significant snaps for the first time in their college careers.
The Panthers defensive line and their sterling linebackers could help the secondary if they get to Lagow early on and rattle him in his first Division I football game.
FIU lost shutdown cornerbacks Richard Leonard and Jeremiah McKinnon also to the NFL and will have new corners replacing them. Sophomore Emmanuel Lubin and senior Deonte Wilson, who has shifted back and forth from safety to corner during his time at FIU, could play prominent roles.
As of this writing, the weather should cooperate Thursday night. Game time temperature is expected to be 84 degrees with a 10 percent chance of rain and 76 percent humidity. The last part could play a factor if FIU controls the ball. Indiana like everyone else practices in the heat during the summer but Bloomington does not have the type of humidity that Miami features. Then again with its size Indiana could wear FIU down. The Hoosiers ran for 205 yards last season against FIU and controlled the ball for 33 minutes.
The city of neon lights thinks Indiana is an Eli Manning jersey number better than FIU but it's the season opener and the Hoosiers are on the road and have an unknown at the game's most important position. It would not be a shock for FIU to open 1-0 for just the fifth time in what is now its 15th season of football.