Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (0-1, 0-0 C-USA) vs FIU Panthers (0-1, 0-0 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, September 7 - 7:00 PM
TV: ESPN+ (Play-by-Play: A.J. Ricketts/CxC: Kenny Kelly)
Radio: WAXY 790 The Ticket Miami (Ryan Urquhart)/Hilltopper IMG Sports Network 100.7 FM & 1450AM Bowling Green (Randy Lee/Leo Peckenpaugh/Terry Obee)
Location: Riccardo Silva Stadium, University Park, FL
Betting Line: FIU -7.5 O/U 60
All-Time Series Record: Tied at 6 wins each (FIU won last meeting 38-17)
Last Thursday’s season-opening loss to Tulane was arguably the most forgettable moment in the Butch Davis-era at FIU.
The Panthers entered this season with hopes of competing for a Conference USA title, but, in their 42-14 thrashing at the hands of the Green Wave, their deficiencies against the run have carried over into 2019.
Tulane rushed for 350 yards and outgained the Panthers by almost a 5 to 1 margin on the ground.
While that’s the most glaring issue, the offensive line which ranked third in FBS football last season by only surrendering eight sacks, struggled against Tulane’s pass-rush.
Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone is one of the top pass-rushers in C-USA and will be a challenge for tackles D’Antne Demery and Devontay Taylor.
In order for Davis’ club to put the Tulane game behind them, they’ll need to do the things that helped them win nine games last year.
A good place to start would be third downs efficiency.
Offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky preaches staying “ahead of the chains,” meaning that FIU has to avoid third and long situations.
That philosophy led the team to leading Conference USA in third down conversion percentage (46.8%).
While they went 5 of 12 (41.6%) on third down last week, they spent majority of the game in third and 7+ yards. The Panthers have to have success on early downs in order to avoid those types of down and distance conversions.
Running back D’Vonte Price was a late scratch for last week’s game. He’s expected to play on Saturday and his return will help boost the offense.
FCS Central Arkansas threw for over 400 yards against the WKU secondary last week in their win over the Tops. There may be opportunities for Austin Maloney and Shemar Thornton on the outside, should FIU be able to contain the pash rush of Malone.
Lastly, Davis preaches winning the “hidden yardage” battle, which are yards in the special teams game and penalties that go in FIU’s favor.
Punter Tommy Heatherly had two kicks of under 35 yards that gifted Tulane excellent field position and the Green Wave would score touchdowns on each.
Tops fans were hoping for a win last week against an FCS team as a way of officially moving on from the disappointment of the last two seasons. That didn’t quite happen. Instead, WKU gave up the two touchdown lead they had at the start of the fourth quarter and lost to Central Arkansas 35-28.
Let’s start with the positives for WKU.
Gaej Walker converted from defensive back to running back in the offseason. The move seems to have suited him well. Walker ran for 152 yards and two touchdowns on 19 attempts last week. Given FIU’s pension for giving up lots of rushing yards, as Eric pointed out, it makes sense that Walker and the rushing attack will be a big part of the Tops game plan this weekend.
Steven Duncan also looked competent as the Tops’ starting quarterback going 26 of 39 with 304 yards and a touchdown pass. The glaring issue with his week one performance was his two interceptions, which did come fairly early in the game. He faces a much tougher challenge this week against the Panthers.
The last positive for WKU I want to make note of was the run defense. Central Arkansas was held to just 20 net rushing yards thanks in large part to Jaylon George and DeAngelo Malone’s fairly consistent presence in the backfield.
Even with those positives, there were clearly negatives as well. The secondary gave up 404 pass yards and four touchdowns. Against a quarterback like James Morgan who threw three touchdowns against WKU last year, they will simply have to look better and be more prepared for the deep ball. Four different Central Arkansas receivers had receptions of thirty yards or more last week.
Lastly, this team has to limit mental mistakes in this game. The WKU secondary was completely fooled on a halfback pass that resulted in an 80-yard touchdown late in the game last week and were 0-3 on fourth down conversions. Any time you give up 21 unanswered points in a quarter, that’s evidence your focus is a little off.
Eric: FIU wins 37-14. I’m not going to lie, Gaej Walker gives me reason for pause. The lightly-recruited running back out of Tampa had an excellent first game after spending three seasons as a reserve corner. FIU has given up at least 170 rushing in nine of their last 14 contests. But in the end, FIU is flat out a better team than WKU and can’t afford to start 0-2.
Joe: I think that FIU wins this game 28-24. I think both teams’ coaches will have them much more ready to play this week. At the end of the day however, I think James Morgan and FIU’s offense will be able to outgun Duncan and the Tops.