FIU coach Cristobal calls WKU ‘best team we’ve faced all year’

Brad Stephens

Florida International Head Coach Mario Cristobal saw his team tabbed as the team to beat this year in the Sun Belt Conference when preseason polls were announced in July.

But as the season has worn on to November, Cristobal said he sees FIU’s next opponent, WKU, as the best the Sun Belt has to offer.

“They are better than anyone we’ve faced, and that’s a fact,” Cristobal said Monday on the league coaches’ weekly conference call. “In all three phases they’re playing real good football, using their fundamentals and playing real fiery.”

The Toppers will put a four-game win streak on the line at 3 p.m. Saturday when the teams meet in Smith Stadium.

WKU is third in the conference with a 4-1 league record, while FIU is No. 4 in the league with a 2-2 mark in Sun Belt play.

Cristobal said that during the Toppers’ streak, he’s been impressed with the running game, the improved play of junior quarterback Kawaun Jakes and the defense in its first year under defensive coordinator Lance Guidry.

“Their quarterback has matured tremendously at making decisions,” Cristobal said. “They’re putting pressure on quarterbacks and they’re making big plays. They cause a lot of turnovers and make some big interceptions.”

The Golden Panther program has made a recent upturn after struggling early in Cristobal’s tenure.

FIU never finished higher than fifth in the final league standings in the first three years after Cristobal took over in 2007. But the team made its breakthrough in 2010, going 6-2 in league play, earning a share of the Sun Belt title and making an appearance in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl.

Cristobal won often during his college playing days.

The Miami native was an offensive tackle for his hometown Hurricanes from 1989-1992, winning both the 1989 and 1991 national championships under former Head Coach Dennis Erickson.

WKU Head Coach Willie Taggart said Monday he has “a lot of respect” for Cristobal’s program.

“He’s turned that program around and he’s got a lot of passion for what he’s doing,” Taggart said. “You can see his kids playing with his mentality and the way he is.”