FIU Panthers (4-3, 2-2 C-USA) vs Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (2-5, 1-2 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, October 26th, 3:30 PM
TV: NFL Network (Play-By-Play: Dave Ryan/Analyst: Ben Leber/Sidelines: Ashley Stroehlein
Radio: WAXY 790 The Ticket Miami (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Kenny Kelly)/WPRT The Game Nashville 102.5 FM/97.5 FM, WGNS Murfreesboro 1450 AM/100.5 FM (Play-By-Play: Chip Walters/Analyst: Wes Counts/Sidelines: Wayne Groce)
Location: Floyd Stadium, Murfreesboro, TN
Betting Line: FIU -2.5 O/U 59.5
All-Time Series Record: MTSU leads 9-5 (FIU won last matchup 24-21 in 2018)
For Butch Davis' FIU team, the time span of one month has brought renewed hope and enthusiasm for the 2019 season. After a disappointing 1-3 start, the Panthers have rebounded to win their last three games.
Now, they leave South Florida for the first time since mid-September, to take on a divisional foe in Middle Tennessee State.
While the three-game win streak has come against teams (UMass, Charlotte, UTEP) who are a combined 4-16, the way that FIU has secured those victories should give Panther fans hope. In those contests, the much-maligned defensive line is allowing under four yards per carry and has been able to pressure opposing quarterbacks, recording six sacks.
“We haven’t had this type of pass-rush since I’ve been here. Having Alexy Jean-Baptiste and (Chris) Whittaker allows us to push Noah Curtis and Kevin Oliver inside on passing downs and we can get after the quarterback,” said Davis.
The emergence of the Arkansas transfer defensive end in Jean-Baptiste (12 tackles, 5.5 TFL’s, 2.5 sacks) has opened up opportunities for defensive end Noah Curtis, who had a sack against UTEP and defensive tackle Teair Tart. FIU’s ability to play disciplined across the line will be crucial against Blue Raiders’ quarterback Asher O’Hara, who will use his legs to extend plays as a passer and on the ground.
Anthony Jones, D’Vonte Price, and Napoleon Maxwell make up one of the deepest backfields in Conference USA. The trio were seemingly stuck in neutral to open the season, but have been ignited in the last few games.
Jones has eclipsed the century mark in three straight outings, while Maxwell and Price have combined for another 334 rushing yards during the same span. It’s no coincidence that the success of the run game has coincided with the play of the offensive line improving in recent weeks.
Lastly, FIU quarterback James Morgan hasn’t had to carry the load offensively, going a combined 22-for-33 with 310 yards and three TDs in the previous two contests.
The veteran signal-caller has done an excellent job protecting the football, while putting up solid numbers (92-150, 1,200, 8-2).
With the graduation of all-time leading passer Brent Stockstill, it was expected that the Blue Raiders would take a step back this season.
Despite a 2-5 record, Rick Stockstill’s team is still dangerous, especially given the fact that MTSU has won four of the last six in this series, including the last three in Murfreesboro.
The younger Stockstill’s successor has been JUCO transfer Asher O’Hara.
In seven starts, the suburban Chicago native has done a solid job of being efficient and not making mistakes, throwing for 1,627 yards with 10 touchdowns and just five interceptions.
The lack of turnovers is especially noteworthy considering MTSU opened its season with games against three Power Five opponents.
Similarly to his predecessor, O’Hara will use his legs to create opportunities.
He’s rushed for 450 yards on the season - leading all C-USA quarterbacks. O'Hara's coming off of a pedestrian game against North Texas, that saw Rick Stockstill insert backup Chase Cunningham in the second half.
However, it was announced during the week that O’Hara will be the starter, but Cunningham could see time if Stockstill sees the need. Reliable senior receiver Ty Lee has had success against the Panthers in his three career games against them (18 catches, 241 yards, 2 TDs) and JUCO transfer Jarrin Pierce has been a surprise, leading the team with 382 receiving yards.
Defensively, the numbers don’t tell the entire story, as they did play the aforementioned three Power Five opponents. However, their play against C-USA teams has been a mixed bag at best, which is somewhat surprising given the amount of veteran talent on that side of the ball.
The Blue Raiders rank last in total defense, rushing and passing yards allowed per game, and are 12th in scoring defense. Scott Shafer’s unit lost arguably its top player in Reed Blankenship last week. The all-conference safety left last week’s loss to North Texas with an ankle injury and will be out for an extended period.
Three out of the last four contests have been decided by a one-score margin. However, Middle comes into this one banged up and on a two-game losing streak. Expect this one to be close heading into the second half, but I see FIU’s offense pulling away.
Final Score: FIU 38, MTSU 27