FIU Panthers off to a fast start

FIU coach Mario Cristobal has taken his Panthers to places they have never been: a conference championship, a bowl game, a little bit of national credibility.

He began the hard work five years ago, yet the breakthrough season of 2010 was just the first step to what he envisions for his program. Indeed, what happened last season has helped lay the groundwork to start this one: the first 3-0 start in school history; first win over a team from an AQ conference; first time receiving votes in both the AP and coaches’ polls.

“We’re at the point now where we feel confident playing,” Cristobal said in a phone interview. “It was a great thing for our football program to be 1-0 for the first time, to carry over the momentum from the bowl game into the first game of the season. This is a game of momentum and confidence, and every single time you have the opportunity to have success early on, it builds that. We still have miles to go, but every little bit helps.”

The bowl victory over Toledo a year ago helped springboard FIU into the toughest offseason ever. Players were more motivated than ever to continue the good work of 2010, to get people to see them as a solid program and not just living in the shadow of the University of Miami.

Cristobal let it be known time and again that teams win games with the work they put in during the long winter, spring and summer months. His players bought that message.

“We worked our you know whats off,” quarterback Wesley Carroll said. “We saw the extra preparation, extra film study. More and more guys were getting in film room, studying opponents and it’s shown up. Talk about one of the hardest working teams in the country, and it’s showing.”

FIU easily beat North Texas to start the season, then traveled to play Louisville in Week 2. Some thought this a fashionable upset pick because the Panthers have an experienced group returning and one of the most dynamic playmakers in the country in receiver T.Y. Hilton.

Hilton burned Louisville for 201 yards receiving, and the Panthers pulled the upset 24-17. When the final seconds ticked off, Cristobal pumped his fist and jumped around, realizing what his players had accomplished. One season ago, they nearly pulled off upsets over Rutgers and Texas A&M but did not finish in the fourth quarter.

This year, they did.

“It was a moment we worked toward for a long time,” Cristobal said. “We finally found a way to finish against a BCS team. … In terms of the development of a football program, there are painful and tough steps. You cannot skip those and those [losses] were part of the process for us to learn what it was going to be like in the fourth quarter against a BCS program. That experience proved invaluable. We were able to push ourselves. We responded appropriately and got it done.”

FIU followed up the win over Louisville with an impressive 17-10 victory over UCF. The Panthers did it despite losing Hilton in the game to a sore hamstring. Cristobal expects Hilton to be able to play Saturday against Louisiana.

The 3-0 start has gotten more people noticing FIU than ever. That has led to chatter about Cristobal being the next up-and-coming coach to get called for a bigger job.

Cristobal deflects that question, saying, “The only thing on my mind is taking this program and elevating it as high as it can go. The sky is the limit and there is no limit for this program. … We’re going to build a premier football program and one day become a perennial champion.”

It could happen again this season. A glance at the rest of the schedule shows FIU should be favored in all its remaining games. Duke and Akron are the only two remaining nonconference contests on the slate.

“It’s on us. We feel we can be 1-0 at the end of every night. We just have to take it week by week,” Carroll said. “We can’t worry about the past games and future games. If we take that approach, we have a chance to be successful.”