FIU Panthers (6-6, 3-5 C-USA) vs Arkansas State Red Wolves (7-5, 5-3 Sun Belt)
Date/Time: Saturday, December 21st, 5:30 PM (4:30 CST)
TV: ESPN (Play-By-Play: Taylor Zarzour/Analyst: Matt Stinchcomb/Sidelines: Alyssa Lang)
Radio: ESPN Radio (Play-By-Play: Kevin Winter/Analyst: Ben Hartsock/Sidelines: Brad Edwards) WAXY 790 The Ticket Miami (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Kenny Kelly)/EAB Red Wolves Sports Network KFIN 107.9 FM Jonesboro (Play-By-Play: Matt Stolz/Analyst: Tim Allison/Sidelines: Brad Bobo)
Location: Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, AL
Betting Line: O/U 63 Arkansas State -2.5
All-Time Series Record: Arkansas State leads 5-2 (Arkansas State won last meeting 34-20 in 2012) Note: An additional Arkansas State victory over FIU (2006) is not recognized by the NCAA or Arkansas State due to an ineligible player being used.
Butch Davis’ FIU team became bowl-eligible in thrilling fashion, upsetting heavily favored Miami (FL) 30-24 to gain their sixth victory. Overall, the Panthers’ 6-6 record has been a disappointment, as FIU was picked by many to win or finish second in Conference USA’s East division.
Injuries and inexperience at key positions contributed to FIU’s .500 record, however, the team is coming off arguably their best two performances of the year (in relation to the level of competition) and are healthy for the most part.
Quarterback James Morgan was one of the most notable injuries during the year, suffering a knee injury in the second game of the season. While he only missed one start, the redshirt senior was undoubtedly affected throughout the year by the injury.
Now, roughly a month since playing without a brace on the knee, expect Morgan to resemble his 2018 self, where he won C-USA’s Newcomer of the Year.
On the ground, a pair of FIU veterans lead Conference USA’s fifth-highest rushing attack.
Sixth-year senior Napoleon Maxwell and fifth-year senior Anthony Jones have combined for over 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns on the season.
Jones is more of the home-run threat, while Maxwell is a bruiser that will finish runs with authority.
FIU’s offensive line took roughly half of the season to gel together after losing four key members from 2018's team to graduation.
Despite consistency issues, they have been able to keep Morgan off the turf, allowing only 14 sacks on the year, which ties them for eighth-fewest in FBS football.
On the defensive side of the ball, it’s been a tale of two groups.
In 2018, FIU finished 12th out of 14 teams in Conference USA against the run, allowing an average of 192.2 yards per contest. This season, they’ve regressed, finishing dead last giving up just under 202 yards per game.
While it's been a struggle defending the run, the Panthers’ front-seven boasts one of Conference USA’s best linebackers in Sage Lewis. The senior was named to the All-Conference Second Team, finishing the regular season with 81 tackles and three interceptions.
FIU’s secondary has been one of the best in the nation, ranking sixth in fewest passing yards allowed per game (183.9) and has allowed fewer than 200 yards through the air seven times in 2019.
Arkansas State Preview
For Blake Anderson and his Arkansas State Red Wolves, they’ve suffered their own disappointments on the field en route to a 7-5 mark, but they pale in comparison to the loss Anderson suffered prior to the start of the season.
11 days before the Red Wolves’ season-opener, Anderson’s wife Wendy lost her two-year battle with breast cancer. After taking a sabbatical from the team, Anderson returned to his head coaching duties in week 2 and has been with the team ever since.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Layne Hatcher was the backup to start the season but has started the final eight contests since Logan Bonner broke his thumb.
Hatcher has become one of the top young signal-callers in the nation in the process and was named Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
He’s thrown for 2,553 yards with 23 touchdowns and nine interceptions while going 5-3 as a starter.
Undoubtedly, Hatcher will look to get the ball to the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year in wide receiver Omar Bayless.
The 6-3, 210-pound Bayless has been named an All-American by the Sporting News, Associated Press and the Walter Camp Football Foundation this year.
Bayless’ 1,473 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches ranks second among FBS wide receivers in both categories.
While FIU’s offensive line has been one of the best in keeping their quarterback upright, the Red Wolves’ O-Line has struggled in that department. Their 37 sacks allowed lands them tied for 117th out of 130 FBS teams.
Defensively, first-year coordinator David Duggan has had his hands full trying to slow opposing teams’ offenses.
They rank 118th in points allowed per game (34.8), are second to last in the Sun Belt averaging 258.8 passing yards allowed an outing and their run defense has been abysmal, ranking 122nd out of 130 FBS teams in rushing yards allowed per game.
With all of that being said, they do have two playmakers on the defensive side of the ball who were named to the Sun Belt All-Conference First-Team.
Darreon Jackson is one of the best nickel defenders in the nation.
He finished the regular season as the Sun Belt’s fourth-leading tackler (107), with 7.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and an interception.
While Jackson will shoulder the load in the secondary, defensive end William Bradley-King has to be accounted for on the line. The 6-4, 245-pound junior has 8.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss with 46 tackles overall.
Three Players to Watch
- James Morgan (QB): While Morgan’s numbers have been pedestrian on the year (185-319, 2,248, 13tds) he has done an excellent job protecting the football, only throwing three interceptions. As he looks to be fully recovered from the early season knee injury, Morgan is still one of the deadliest Group of Five passers when given time.
- Stantley Thomas-Oliver III (CB): Thomas-Oliver III was named All-Conference Second-Team at the cornerback spot and will face his toughest test of the season in Omar Bayless. At 6-2, 195-pounds, he has the size and athletic ability to play against the Sun Belt’s top wideout.
- Alexy Jean-Baptiste (DE): Since becoming eligible after the Louisana Tech game, Jean-Baptiste has been used as a pass-rush specialist and leads the team in sacks with 4.5. He, along with ends Chris Whittaker, Kevin Oliver and Noah Curtis should have opportunities against an Arkansas State team that will look to throw the football.
- William Bradley-King (DE): Bradley-King has been one of the few bright spots on the Arkansas State defense this season. His ability to rush James Morgan will be key in thwarting any attempts for FIU to get the passing game going.
- Jonathan Adams Jr./Kirk Merritt (WR’s): Outside of the Georgia game, no opponent has been able to slow Omar Bayless. This makes the matchup against FIU’s sixth-ranked pass defense all the more intriguing. Should Bayless be held in check, the play of Adams Jr. and Merritt will be key. FIU’s number two corner (Isaiah Brown) and nickel (Richard & Rishard Dames) are talented defensive backs in their own right and behind them is Iowa transfe, Josh Turner.
- Marcel Murray (RB): Although Arkansas State has been pass-first this season, Murray is a talented back. He’s rushed for 782 yards and six touchdowns on 153 attempts this season. More importantly, the four times he’s eclipsed 20 carries in his career, he’s crossed the 100-yard mark. Against an FIU run defense that’s struggled, Murray may have the chance to go for number five.