Butch Davis knows what a winning football team looks like. And if you would’ve asked him in February about his 2020 FIU Panthers team, he would’ve told you that it’s going to the best in his four years at the helm.
But after four losses in just as many games, this year has not treated the Panthers like they expected. These past seven weeks have treated FIU harder than any other team in the country, which is something nobody could have predicted.
If FIU had an actual spring game and a longer training camp, could redshirt freshman Stone Norton have led the final-drive in the two-point loss to Liberty — which has now defeated two ACC teams this season? If the Panthers weren’t without 17 players from practice due to COVID-19 false-positives, which included Norton and Max Bortenschlager, prior to Middle Tennessee, could they have won their home opener?
FIU is 0-4, and that’s all the record books will ever say. But the path to a victory has been one that is second-to-none. After the loss to Jacksonville State, coach Davis said the Panthers were without at least 24 players due to injuries and COVID-19. FIU’s deepest and most talented position group coming into the season was the running back room. But injuries to Shaun Peterson Jr. (torn ACL) and Lexington Joseph (fractured wrist), have left the entire load on D’Vonte Price.
The Panthers’ offensive line has also lost its best member, with the injury of projected first-team All-Conference left tackle D’Antne Demery. They’ve had to give true freshman Miles Frazier meaningful snaps early into his collegiate career.
But even through all the losses, postponements and cancellations, there’s one thing that this FIU team has done that a lot of other teams wouldn’t do.
They haven’t quit.
And that’s not at pity call. Look no further than to Tallahassee, where players at Florida State are opting out left and right under first-year head coach Mike Norvell.
“It would be really easy to come up with excuses – COVID/Injuries, etc — The one thing I’m pleased with is that our kids didn’t quit and they didn’t stop competing for four quarters,” said Davis after last Saturday’s loss to FAU. “There are aspects of the game that we’re just not good enough to win a game.”
It’s clear that FIU’s biggest obstacle on the field has been inexperience. With injuries and COVID, there’s a lot of young players who are playing much more than they were expected to at the start of the season. But every week, there have been signs of progress being made. And that’s what matters.
FIU’s special teams unit, which at times has been the only unit able to practice due to a shortage of available players, is one of the best in the country. Week in and week out, Tommy Heatherly’s booming punts have led the Panthers to ranking fifth in the nation in punt return defense. Chase Gabriel, a freshman kicker, is a perfect 10-for-10 this season on PAT’s and sank a 41-yard field goal last week. And before his season was cut short, Joseph was one of the nation’s best kick returners.
It’s very likely that the Panthers will be winless in 2020, which would be the third time in program history in which that happens. But when looking ahead to the final four games of the season, it’s all about getting better.
Who’s the quarterback of the future? Play it out and see which signal-caller develops a sense of leadership among his offense and a pocket presence by the end of the season. If there’s no solution, recruit hard at the position.
Lack of depth at the offensive line? Try out the young guys and recruit some more.
No more than one reliable running back? Share the duties with Maleek Williams and Eric Wilson Jr and see who performs.
Need a spark plug on offense? Insert different freshman, you never know what you’ll get. TE Rivaldo Fairweather’s performance last week was a testament to that.
“When you get faced with challenges like this and your back is to the wall, the only thing you can do is to fight your way out of it,” Davis said. “You can’t get negative, you have to stay positive. You have to look at the things we’re doing well on film and the things that we’re not doing well, and we have to fix those [problems].”
Rather than exasperating over the problems, control what you can control and use it towards trying to improve for the 2021 season. As eleven-time Olympic medalist Matt Biondi said best, “Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement.” The next four weeks will tell us a lot about the future of the FIU football program.