What held the promise of a special season for FIU is off to a disappointing start, with the Golden Panthers at 1-2 heading into Saturday's game against Louisville.
FIU, which is coming off an 8-5 season, returned 19 starters and was tabbed to finish first in the Sun Belt Conference, opened its season with a 46-26 loss at Duke, beat visiting Akron 41-38 in overtime, then lost at Central Florida 33-20 last Saturday.
The main culprit has been their defense, which was supposed to be a strength. Last season FIU's D ranked 30th in the country in points allowed, and 10 starters were back. But this season the Panthers rank 108th in the country in points allowed at 39 a game. They rank 107th in passing yards allowed at 291.67 a game, 82nd in total yards allowed at 420.67 a game, and they have recorded just three sacks, which is tied for 99th in the country.
Central Florida, which improved to 2-1, led 23-0 at the half after outgaining the Panthers 249 yards to 26 in the first two quarters. FIU got no closer than the final score.
"We couldn't get off the field defensively," FIU coach Mario Cristobal said of the first half. "We moved the ball in the second half, but it was too late. We need to find a rhythm."
When Florida International beat host UofL 24-17 last September, Cristobal called it "the biggest win in school history." UofL defensive lineman Greg Scruggs called it "a slap in the face."
Whatever you call it, you can be sure the Cards will not be looking to turn the other cheek come Saturday night.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Jake Medlock (6-3, 200) who replaced two-year starter Wesley Carroll, is not having a stellar season. He's completed 59 of 103 passes (57.3 percent) for 711 yards (237 a game, 63rd in the country) and no interceptions but has thrown just four TD passes. He's also averaging 54 rushing yards per game (4.2 per carry), with one TD.
The running game has been adequate. The Panthers are averaging 183 rushing yards a game (4.3 per rush), led by junior Kedrick Rhodes (5-11, 190), who led the team last season with 1,149 rushing yards (88.4 a game, 4.9 per carry). This year he's averaging 75 yards a game (4.8 per carry) and has scored one TD. He's also the team's second-leading receiver at 43.3 yards per game (13.0 per catch) with two TDs.
Speedy senior Darian Mallary (5-8, 185) is averaging 54.3 rushing yards per game (4.7 per carry) and has scored five TDs. He's the team's fourth-leading receiver (25.7 ypg).
The team's leading receiver is senior wideout Wayne Times (5-11, 188), a third-year starter who has 17 catches for 182 yards (60.7 a game, 10.7 a catch) but no TDs. In fact, only two wide receivers have TD catches.
The O-line returned four starters and was expected to be formidable but has allowed eight sacks (2.67 a game, 93rd in the country).
Senior Jack Griffin (6-1, 203) returns as the placekicker and has taken over the punting chores. He has made just 2 of 5 FG attempts, with a long of 30 yards, and has a net punting average of only 31.3 yards, which is 112th in the country.
This is where FIU was supposed to be especially tough, so its futility is puzzling. The rush D has been OK - 129 yards allowed per game, 45th in the country - but the pass D has been awful. In addition to all the passing yardage FIU has given up, it also has surrendered 11 TD passes.
Senior safety Jonathan Cyprien (6-0, 210) leads the team with 32 tackles. Second with 26 tackles is All-Sun Belt senior linebacker Winston Fraser (6-2, 226), who had a 71-yard interception return for a TD against UofL last year.
FIU limited UofL to 43 rushing yards last year (2.0 per carry), although Will Stein threw for 363 yards (he was 30 for 43). He was sacked six times.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Rhodes was named to the Preseason All-Sun Belt first team but is finding it tougher to run this season because Medlock has not been spreading the defense with his passing.
It's hard to tell. The defense and the O-line were supposed to be strengths.
Cristobal, 41, took his first head coaching job at FIU following the 2006 season and inherited a team that had gone winless and was saddled with NCAA sanctions. But by 2010 the Golden Panthers posted their first winning season in the 10-year history of the program (7-6), their first Sun Belt title (6-2) and their first bowl appearance, a 34-32 victory over Toledo in the Little Caesars Bowl. Last year they were 8-5 and lost to Marshall 20-10 in the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Overall Cristobal is 25-40 in five-plus years.
Last year was the first time the teams met.
You can bet the Cards won't be taking FIU lightly this year, and that should spell trouble for the Golden Panthers.
FIU has joined Conference USA and will begin competition in that league in 2013.
The Golden Panthers will be seeking their third straight bowl appearance.