FIU preview: Golden Panthers bring veteran passing attack to Tuscaloosa
By Jess Nicholas
Sept. 8, 2009
If someone had to name the 2009 Alabama opponent with the most veteran offensive group, it’s a good bet that Florida International wouldn’t be the first name to dribble off the lips.
But it’s true. The Golden Panthers return nine full-time starters, a part-time starter and the one position that doesn’t return a starter – running back – returns two top contributors from the 2008 season.
Unfortunately for FIU, it probably won’t matter.
Alabama comes into this game having already been tested sternly by Virginia Tech. For Florida International, Alabama will be its first game of the year – and a quick scan of first halves from games of Week 1 should tell you all you need to know about rusty play. Alabama already has a huge advantage in the game thanks to the talent gap, and that advantage is further multiplied by Alabama’s experiences in Week 1.
As FIU enters its third season under head coach Mario Cristobal, the Golden Panthers become further sold out to the spread offense. Alabama will be able to use the information garnered from this matchup in future games against Mississippi State and Auburn.
FIU runs the spread and likes to throw the ball. The fondness for the passing game is due both to an experienced quarterback and receiver group – and the relative weakness at running back. FIU was one of the worst rushing teams in the country in 2008 and despite having a couple of experienced backs on the team heading into 2009, injuries have hit. Alabama, meanwhile, truly displayed a multiple offense against Virginia Tech, incorporating the Wildcat and Pistol formations as well as the standard Ace package that has become Alabama’s signature. Alabama will run the football mostly in this game, taking advantage of a FIU defense that is young up front and was bad against the run in 2008.
Paul McCall had a decent 2008 campaign, throwing for 2,332 yards and 15 touchdowns on 167-of-317 passing (52.5 percent). His backup, junior Wayne Younger, has plenty of experience and is an accomplished runner. McCall has decent mobility but not as much as Younger. Both players figure to put the ball in the air more often in 2009 as the team moves away from a pro-style attack and more towards a spread look. Alabama counters with Greg McElroy, who had an impressive debut against Virginia Tech and showed signs of being even better than the man he replaced, now-Atlanta Falcon John Parker Wilson. If that’s the case, FIU is in trouble along with the rest of Alabama’s schedule. Star Jackson is supposed to be McElroy’s backup, but he has the flu. If Jackson isn’t available, look for Thomas Darrah to get the bulk of the relief work. Advantage: Alabama
Florida International uses just one running back in its scheme, and it’s the only position where the Golden Panthers are breaking in a new starter. Sophomore Darriet Perry and senior Daunte Owens were set to share the position, but both were injured in the spring. Perry ran for 173 yards on 31 carries (5.6 avg.) and scored 2 touchdowns last year, while Owens carried 29 times for 130 yards (4.5 avg.) and 1 touchdown. The next player behind them would probably be redshirt freshman Darrian Mallary, who turned down an Ole Miss offer to sign with FIU. Mallary is a scatback, while Owens isn’t much bigger. Perry is the biggest of the bunch at 5’9”, 205. Junior Trenard Turner adds depth. Alabama counters with a group that includes starter Mark Ingram and reserves Roy Upchurch, Terry Grant and Trent Richardson. Ingram rushed for nearly as yards against Virginia Tech as Perry had for the entire 2008 campaign, but bruised a knee late and figures to see limited action this week. If he can’t start, look for Upchurch to get the call. Ingram, Upchurch and Richardson are all substantially bigger than FIU’s backs. Grant will also play receiver. Another freshman, Eddie Lacy, and sophomore Demetrius Goode could see action in this game for Alabama. Like FIU, Alabama does not utilize a fullback. Even with Ingram’s injury, Alabama far outclasses FIU. Advantage: Alabama
This is probably the closest contest on the board. FIU returns two full-time starters, Junior Mertile and Greg Ellingson. But it’s the presence of sophomore T.Y. Hilton that has Alabama somewhat concerned. Hilton is a Percy Harvin/Freddie Milons type who caught 41 passes for 1,013 yards in 2008, a whopping 24.7 yards per catch, and grabbed 7 touchdowns along the way – and he did this, incidentally, while not being a full-time starter. Ellingson is a big target at 6’4”, 200 pounds, and he averaged more than 16 yards per catch in 2008. Depth is good, with Elliott Dix and Marquis Rolle providing good size off the bench. Jason Frierson backs up Hilton. Starting tight end Eric Kirchenberg also returns, but he wasn’t much of a receiver in 2008 and isn’t a particularly big guy. Alabama counters with Julio Jones, who was held fairly well in check against Virginia Tech, and a support crew of Darius Hanks, Marquis Maze, Mike McCoy and Earl Alexander. Hanks and Maze stepped up nicely in their first action as starters. Alabama’s tight ends were a mixed bag. Colin Peek was as good as advertised as a receiver, but the H-backs, Brad Smelley and Preston Dial, had trouble blocking. It’s tough to call this one given that FIU has superior depth and Hilton had better stats than Julio Jones, but it’s also true that Hilton garnered his against lesser competition than Jones faced. This one may come down to whose tight ends are more active in the passing game, and Alabama figures to have the edge there. Advantage: Alabama
FIU returns five starters, but that may not be the advantage it would initially appear to be. Tackles Ula Matavao and Joe Alajajian are the top names here, with Alajajian the only Golden Panther lineman that will draw any special attention. The interior lineup of center Brad Serini and guards Andy Leavine and Mario Caraballo is good for Sun Belt play, but Alabama is not the Sun Belt. The Crimson Tide counters with James Carpenter and Drew Davis at the tackles, Barrett Jones and Mike Johnson at the guards and William Vlachos at center. In their first outing, this group did well enough, although there is room for improvement. Vlachos got caught standing up too much while delivering shotgun snaps, causing more than a few to hit the quarterback at his shoetops. Davis continues to struggle with speed rushers. Depth is firmly on Alabama’s side. FIU figures to make a decent showing, but Alabama has the potential to dominate. Advantage: Alabama
Youth is the rule of the day at FIU, where there will be eight new starters, including all four along the defensive line. The Golden Panthers operate from a 4-3 set, but struggled in 2008, finishing 71st in total defense, 80th against the run and 67th against the pass. Alabama, meanwhile, had some hiccups in its open against Virginia Tech but still dominated. Alabama runs a unique 3-4 set that features multiple fronts and complex coverages.
Only three of the top eight linemen are upperclassmen for FIU. Seniors Reggie Jones and Jonas Murrell will start at weakside end and tackle, respectively, next to a freshman tackle (Andre Pound) and sophomore end Cody Pellicer. Senior Armond Willis gives the Golden Panthers a veteran end off the bench, along with James Jones. The reserve tackle situation is a mess. Freshman Kasey Smith figures to get most of the relief work. The other reserve will probably be another freshman, likely either Joey Harris or Joshua Forney. Alabama’s defensive line, by comparison, is mammoth. Terrance Cody starts in the middle flanked by Brandon Deaderick and Lorenzo Washington, although Marcell Dareus will probably play as much as Cody due to the high level of expected passing from FIU. Luther Davis, Josh Chapman, Milton Talbert and Nick Gentry add depth. This is one of the most lopsided comparisons ever seen. Advantage: Alabama
Scott Bryant is a good outside linebacker and one of the few returning starters for FIU. Middle linebacker Aaron Davis was good enough to supplant a former starter in the spring. The third starter will be another freshman, Winston Fraser. Tyler Clawson gives FIU experience off the bench in the middle, along with outside backer Toronto Smith. FIU actually has pretty good size here, especially from Davis, whose body resembles former Alabama player Prince Hall’s. The Tide counters with the best inside linebacker tandem in the country, Dont'a Hightower and Rolando McClain, along with Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders at the outside slots. Anders was particularly active in the opening game at his Jack linebacker position. Expect to see Chavis Williams and Courtney Upshaw off the bench, along with Alex Watkins and Chris Jordan. At press time, reserve inside linebacker Jerrell Harris was still suspended. Even so, Alabama has a solid advantage over FIU, both in experience and talent. Advantage: Alabama
FIU corner Anthony Gaitor picked off five passes last year and is a good enough ballhawk that Alabama will have to account for his presence. Jeremiah Weatherspoon gives FIU experience at the safety slot. The rest of this group gives FIU coaches cause for concern. Dezeriah Johnson, Peter Reily and O’Darris D’Haiti are battling for the off-corner slot, while Ashlyn Parker gets the call at safety next to Weatherspoon. Kreg Brown and Chuck Grace figure to be the backup safeties. Unlike most other position groups, all but Grace are upperclassmen. The corners are also taller than many Alabama will see this year. Alabama counters with corners Javier Arenas and Kareem Jackson, who pretty much shut down the Virginia Tech passing attack in Week 1. Safeties Justin Woodall and Mark Barron weren’t so dominating, however, and Barron will be pushed by Robby Green if he continues to take bad angles. Marquis Johnson will play as much as the starters, especially with the spread attack being a factor. Also look for Ali Sharrief, Tyrone King Jr. and possibly Chris Rogers to get playing time. FIU has some potential here, but these same players didn’t get the job done in 2008. Even with Alabama’s breakdowns at safety last Saturday, the Tide looks like the better group. Advantage: Alabama
T.Y. Hilton is every bit the kick returner Javier Arenas is for Alabama, but after that, Alabama holds solid advantages. No one knows who the punter will be for FIU. Dustin Rivest is the kicker, but he somehow missed three PATs last year in addition to several short field goals. He has more than enough leg strength, however, and can boom kicks from very long distances. He might also punt, or that job could go to Carlos Munera. Alabama counters with Leigh Tiffin at placekicker and P.J. Fitzgerald at punter. Fitzgerald had the game of his life against Virginia Tech, while Tiffin was solid. Alabama’s breakdowns on kick coverage last week were particularly disturbing, and if Alabama has similar problems against FIU, Hilton will make the Tide pay. Still, the experience at kicker and punter can’t be denied. Advantage: Alabama
Alabama leads in all eight categories, although receiver is very close and special teams and quarterback aren’t huge advantages for Alabama. The Tide easily takes both OL-vs.-DL matchups.
It is primarily for that reason that Alabama is a big favorite in this game. FIU is considered to be a quickly improving program, so don’t expect an 80-0 shellacking. On the other hand, FIU likely will have no answer for Alabama’s bulk and speed.
Barring some kind of monumental meltdown, there’s not much to talk about here. Look for Alabama to win this game the way the Tide won many games in 2008 – starting slowly, wearing down the opposition and then putting them away for good in the second half. Alabama is still not explosive enough on offense to get up 28-0 in the first quarter on a consistent basis and then put the game on cruise control, but those days are coming.
If Alabama contains T.Y. Hilton, a shutout is a possibility. Otherwise, look for a solid, dominating win and the appearance of a host of walk-ons and redshirt freshmen late in the game.