Who: Rice Owls (4-3, 2-1 C-USA) vs. FIU Panthers (3-5, 2-2 C-USA)
When: Saturday, November 1st, 12:00 PM EST
Where: FIU Stadium
TV: American Sports Network
F/+: Rice - 103 (O: 60/D: 117/ST: 98), FIU - 88 (117/45/108)
Series: First meeting
FIU welcomes the Owls to Miami for the first match-up between the new conference foes. The Panthers are experiencing tangible improvement over last season and one key difference is the steady development of Alex McGough. The true freshman quarterback has thrown for over 1100 passing yards and 8 touchdowns this season. Another freshman phenom for FIU, Alex Gardner, will be held out of Saturday's contest due to a shoulder injury. Replacing Gardner on the depth chart will be Anthon Samuel, the transfer from Bowling Green that has seen similar success in the running game.
Defensively, the Panthers are still displaying their early season form that has already led to 25 turnovers (first in the nation). Cornerback Richard Leonard is lighting up opposing quarterbacks with 5 interceptions and should be spotlighted by Rice every time he is on the field - defensively or on special teams.
The Panther offensive line will face another steep challenge in Rice's defensive front that boasts one of the conference's gems in Christian Covington. The starting Owl defensive line has over 25 tackles for loss this season and will look to add to their ever-enlarging numbers. Quarterback Driphus Jackson will need to find Jordan Taylor consistently to continue their offensive success, but with Leonard most likely covering this assignment, expect the Owl running game to be in full force. Jowan Davis and Darik Dillard have combined for 11 touchdowns and will need to bring the noise if Rice wants to leave Miami with a victory.
FIU will win if ... the Panthers can continue to cause turnovers.
Richard Leonard is absolute beast for the FIU defense and I made some gaudy comparisons earlier in the week here for the Panther cornerback. While Leonard is a huge part of what FIU does on defense - and on special teams - the Owls are well aware of his abilities and will definitely steer away from his direction all night long. That strategy will call upon the other Panther defenders to step up and continue their disruptive ways. Rice quarterback Driphus Jackson has shown that he can make plays through the air, but the FIU front will need to pillage into the backfield and make him uncomfortable for any chance at a victory.
Rice will win if ... the Owls can stop FIU's running game.
Luckily for the Owls, FIU starting running back Alex Gardner will be sidelined for Saturday's game. The true freshman is being replaced by Anthon Samuel, who is no pushover, but the Panthers have relied on their depth here all season long. With a stalled running game, FIU will look to quarterback Alex McGough to make plays through the air. McGough has improved as a passer in every game this season, but against a physical Rice defense, he may have some difficulty hitting the windows he has seen all year. A few errant passes should lead to enough turnover opportunities to put this one away.
Comparing the two schedules, it clearly appears that Rice has all of the momentum here. While they haven't beaten anyone particularly good, they are still bringing an established identity and a pleasantly potent offense to South Florida. Look for FIU to stall with the ball, but cause a few turnovers. While Rice may take awhile to get things going, they eventually lay down the Panthers and leave Miami with a hard-fought win.