Game Info / How to Watch
Who? Indiana Hoosiers (#56 Projected S&P+) at Florida International Panthers (#113 Projected S&P+)
When? Thursday, September 1st, 7:30 PM, Miami, Florida
Vegas? INDIANA -9.5
Oh man. Football is back and the Hoosiers are starting their season in style. There is nothing more COLLEGE FOOTBALL BACK than Thursday Night Lights down in University Park / Sweetwater / Miami, Florida. FIU's stadium is located among some of this nation's most pristine parking garages and just a short jaunt from one of the city's better Wendy's locations.
Last season, the Hoosiers defeated the Panthers 36-22 but that hardly paints an accurate picture. On a surprisingly frosty night in Bloomington, our South Floridian visitors were down a touchdown and dangerously close to knotting up the game late in the 4th quarter when Jameel Cook Jr. picked off Alex McGough at the 4-yard line and took it 96 yards to the house to double Indiana's advantage with less than four minutes to play. It would be the second time in two weeks that the Hoosiers managed to pull off a huge defensive play inside their own 5-yard line.
Now Indiana must head into allegedly hostile territory and win away from the familiar confines of Memorial Stadium in Week 1, something they haven't managed to do since 2005 when Terry Hoeppner, and the Hoosiers defeated Central Michigan in Mount Pleasant. Granted, this will only be the second opener played outside Bloomington since then, the other a loss to Ball State at Lucas Oil Stadium in Kevin Wilson's debut season.
The good news for the Panthers is they return a ton of guys who contributed extensively from last year. The bad news is that they weren't all that good last year. Yes they were one win short of bowl eligibility but they failed to beat anyone ranked higher than 117th in the S&P+, checking in at 108th for the year themselves. In fact, by playing them so early the Hoosiers got one of FIU's best shots as the Panthers dealt with a cavalcade of injuries.
In 2015, however, FIU dealt with a different kind of luck: injuries luck. It had none. The Golden Panthers returned three starting offensive linemen and got a combined nine starts out of them. They got one game out of starting linebacker Davison Colimon and four out of Treyvon Williams. Their secondary, a strength in 2014, got plucked apart: three of the top five returnees (Jordan Davis, Wilkenson Myrtil, Shermarke Spencer) played a combined five games.
Not great! But, as a small consolation, the Panthers were forced to play several guys they probably weren't expecting to, and that (in theory) helps your depth as new guys get experience while injuries heal.
Assuming Ron Turner doesn't drastically change his approach from last season, you can expect the Panthers to attack the Hoosiers horizontally, giving Alex McGough plenty of easy underneath and short throws then letting the pass catchers do the work. Against Indiana last season, the Panthers racked up several big plays because the Hoosiers simply couldn't make the first tackle, turning short and no-gains into long gains and touchdowns. Thomas Owens, in particular, tortured Indiana's defense to the tune of 9 catches, 166 yards, and two scores, with roughly eight-hundred broken tackles along the way.
To have success, Indiana is going to have to make tackles and force McGough and that offensive line to hold up and play mistake-free football to work their way down the field to score. When forced to do that last season, the Panthers just couldn't score enough to stay in games.
Alex Gardner is a two-way threat, both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield as he lead the team in rushing attempts AND in catches. His efficiency numbers weren't eye-popping (4.1 yards per carry, 7.4 per catch) but he did pile up over 1100 combined yards and ten scores. If FIU can keep their first string offensive line healthy and playing together, Gardner could be in line for a much bigger year.
Watch the highlights from last year against FIU and imagine how different the score would have been if the Hoosiers had just wrapped up. Tom Allen has come in to the program as Kevin Wilson's fifth defensive coordinator in as many years and while there has been marginal improvement in Indiana's defense as they've bounced around from scheme to scheme, the unit seems to be continually plagued with an inability to execute the fundamentals. I don't expect Coach Allen to turn these guys into an elite defense, but if the Hoosiers want to continue their progression away from perennial-B1G-cellar-dweller, it's time to stop missing so many tackles.
While Indiana gets the possible benefit of seeing a very similar FIU squad, the Panthers are going to deal with a lot of new faces in key spots. Richard Lagow is in for Nate Sufeld, Devine Redding for Jordan Howard, Tegray Scales is back in the middle of the defense having missed last season's game with a suspension, and possible special teams super weapon JOSEPH GEDEON will be out there turning 4th downs into must-see TV (or so I hope and pray.) Indiana replaces some key faces on both lines, as well.
Of course, there's no guarantee that all of these new moving parts work out for the Hoosiers, much less so in their first live-fire exercise of the season. Lagow gets the comfort of knowing that his top three passing targets were able to get open routinely against most of the competition they saw last season, and Redding knows he is a far more explosive running back than his last game against FIU (16 carries, 53 yards) might lead you to believe. This game could be just as much about the Hoosiers trying to figure out each other as it is about figuring out the Panthers.
Ultimately, I think the Hoosiers prevail down in Sweetwater and open the year on an upbeat note. Unlike last year, a stopped two-point conversion to preserve the victory would be a perfectly fine result for me. Season openers have always been a screwy affair with Kevin Wilson in charge and road games have, generally, not been a great proposition for oh-I-don't-know ... the program's entire existence? I think Lagow has a good introductory performance and the Hoosiers prevail 38-17. That said, if time is running out in the 4th quarter and FIU's got the ball with a chance to walk it off, I'm not going to be surprised and neither are you. So it goes.
Indiana Football back. Giddy up.