FIU sees improvement despite losses

We all know moral victories exist in the way unicorns and fairies do. At least that is what any football coach will tell you.

But if you are FIU coach Mario Cristobal today, you have to feel encouraged with your 0-3 team. FIU has played all three of its games against automatic qualifying opponents closer than anybody expected. It held fourth-quarter leads in two of them.

Nobody expected the Panthers to be competitive in such difficult games. After all, they have been one of the worst teams in college football in their brief FBS history. Plus, FIU and Western Kentucky are the only two non-AQ schools in the country that have opened the season with four straight AQ opponents.

Yet they have only lost by an average of 8.7 points. Consider this: FIU lost by an average of 28.5 points in 16 games against AQ teams from 2005-09.

“I see plenty of progress,” said Cristobal, who is 9-30 in four seasons at FIU. “These games are coming down to fourth-quarter situations. We want to get better at closing, and we have to keep focusing on that.”

Headed into its game Saturday against Pittsburgh, you can see the progress FIU has made from a statistical standpoint. With new offensive and defensive coordinators, the Panthers have shown definite improvement.

Especially on the defensive side of the ball. Under Geoff Collins, who came to FIU from UCF, the Panthers are ranked No. 45 in total defense, giving up an average of 330 yards a game. They are the only winless team ranked in the top 105 in the country in total defense.

They are playing more aggressively, and with no fear, as Cristobal says. FIU won the statistical battle in a 19-14 loss to Rutgers to open the season. At halftime, Rutgers had just 93 total yards and finished with 172 yards for the game. FIU led 14-13 going into the fourth quarter, but doomed itself with one mistake after another.

The Panthers had five turnovers in the game, two punts blocked, and committed 14 penalties for 126 yards and Rutgers rallied for the 19-14 win.

Then against Texas A&M, FIU had a 20-6 lead going into the fourth quarter. The defense sacked Jerrod Johnson six times in the first half and allowed just 203 total yards through three quarters. Johnson threw four interceptions as well. But the Aggies won after scoring 21 unanswered points in the fourth. FIU had a chance to win late, but on fourth-and-goal, T.Y. Hilton was tackled at the 3.

“We just have to finish teams off when we come that close,” cornerback Anthony Gaitor said. “That’s what it’s all about, finishing.”

Last week against Maryland, the team couldn’t overcome four big plays of 56-plus yards. Turnovers hurt, too. Trailing 28-21 in the third quarter, Wesley Carroll threw an interception that bounced off his receiver’s hands. Maryland turned that into a touchdown, and sealed the win.

“You can take a lot more out of that than being completely blown out of a football game,” Cristobal said. “The most evident thing you see is a team that’s progressing, a team that’s come a long way and become competitive against high-level opponents. When you start seeing that, you can be even better. It makes you hungrier.”