Tom Murphy is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Hogs, FIU have struggled in similar fashion
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman on the sidelines against Auburn during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)
FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas football team will finally get a respite from a relentless SEC schedule Saturday when the Razorbacks host Florida International in their final non-conference game at 6:30 p.m.
The Panthers (4-6) out of Miami have experienced struggles similar to the Razorbacks (3-7) this season with five losses in their past six games. Since a 33-27 double-overtime win at Sam Houston State on Oct. 18, FIU has dropped back-to-back games to Jacksonville State and Middle Tennessee State by a combined score of 81-22.
The Panthers are guided by second-year Coach Mike MacIntyre, the former head coach at Colorado and an assistant at Ole Miss who has many other stops, including Dallas and the New York Jets in the NFL. MacIntyre echoed a string of Arkansas opponent coaches when he said at his weekly news conference Tuesday that the Razorbacks are better than their record indicates.
“We’ve got a difficult contest against Arkansas,” MacIntyre said. “To me, it’s the biggest strongest, best football team we’ve played all year. I know their record is not that good this year, but they should have beat Alabama.
“They definitely could have beaten a couple of other teams. They’re a good football team, especially against the teams we’ve played all year.”
Florida International got off to a 3-1 start, matching the best four-game start in school history that had also been done in 2011 and 2017 for a program that began playing football in 2002.
The Panthers are rebuilding around a young offensive line and true freshman quarterback Keyone Jenkins, a 5-11, 190-pounder who replaced junior Grayson James after a season-opening 22-17 loss at Louisiana Tech.
FIU followed that setback with wins over Maine, North Texas and Connecticut, but the Panthers have lacked consistency over the past six weeks and struggled to tackle in the past couple of games particularly. They rank 116th in the FBS in total defense and 110th in total offense with 319 yards per game, just ahead of Arkansas’ 318.3 yards per game.
More from WholeHogSports: Watch or listen to the latest episode of the Whole Hog Football Podcast
“We’re a JV offensive line, age wise,” MacIntyre said. “We’re freshmen and sophomores … and they haven’t played a lot of snaps. That’s what we are. … We’re building it. You can’t build it overnight.”
Jenkins and receiver Kris Mitchell had formidable streaks come to an end during last week’s 40-6 loss at Middle Tennessee State.
Jenkins had a streak of scoring a rushing touchdown in five consecutive games halted one game short of the school record. Mitchell had a stretch of five straight games with at least one catch of 25 yards or longer come to an end with his 2 receptions for 25 yards, including a long catch of 16 yards.
Jenkins won his last 26 starts at Miami Central while leading the Rockets to three consecutive state titles (2020-22). He was 3-0 with the Panthers before a 38-6 loss against Liberty on Sept. 23.
His start in a 14-12 win over Maine on Sept. 2 was the first by a true freshman quarterback for the Panthers since 2014.
Jenkins is a quality athlete still in learning mode, MacIntyre said.
“He’s done some great things,” MacIntyre said. “Of course he wants everything to be perfect, but that’s not realistic when you’re playing as a true freshman behind a young offensive line.”
“He’s really savvy. He’s improving and you can see he’s starting to read coverages better and he’s starting to understand where to go with the ball quicker. All of that is a process.”
MacIntyre, the sixth coach in FIU’s history, was the consensus national coach of the year in 2016 when he led Colorado to a 10-4 record and a final ranking of No. 17 by the Associated Press. The Buffaloes won their first Pac-12 South title with an 8-1 conference mark and peaked at No. 9 in the AP poll before falling 41-10 to Washington in the Pac-12 title game and 38-8 to Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
More from WholeHogSports: The latest Razorbacks football coverage
The Panthers have not faced an SEC opponent since a 62-3 loss at No. 1 Florida on Nov. 21, 2009, five weeks after Arkansas dropped a controversial 23-20 decision in The Swamp to the defending BCS national champion.
The Panthers just got back on a regular schedule last week. Prior to the road loss at Middle Tennessee, Florida International had played on four consecutive Wednesdays through the middle part of its schedule following a 38-6 home loss to Liberty on Sept. 23.
FIU has played in front of only one crowd of more than 20,000 this season, during its 24-17 win at UConn before an audience of 20,405, so Saturday’s gathering at Reynolds Razorback Stadium is expected to be the biggest attendance they’ve seen this season. The expected crowd and the ESPNU broadcast are important to the Conference USA school.
“Especially playing on ESPNU, which is a big thing for us. This is big exposure for our conference and school,” MacIntyre said. “Our kids are excited about playing.
“What it really does is it helps our overall athletic program, not just football. It gives football exposure, our kids like playing in it. You get a big upset in those, it makes everything different, so that’s what we’re hoping to do.”
Have a comment on this story? Join the discussion or start a new one on the Forums.