FIU Panthers (0-4, 0-2 C-USA) vs Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (3-6, 2-3 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, November 21, 2:00 PM EST
TV: ESPN3 (Play-By-Play: Nate Gatter/Analyst: Brandon Doughty)
Radio: 1260 Radio Caracol WUSA (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts)/100.7 WKLX-FM/Hilltopper IMG Radio Network (Play-By-Play: Randy Lee/Analyst: Terry Obee/Sidelines: Tyler Eaton)
Location: Houchens Industries–L. T. Smith Stadium at Jimmy Feix Field, Bowling Green, KY
Betting Line: WKU -8.5 O/U 44
All-Time Series Record: Western Kentucky leads 7-6 (WKU won the last matchup 20-14 in 2019)
In a season that’s had its share of disappointments, the latest letdown for FIU came last week at the hands of Florida Atlantic. The Panthers allowed a season-high 381 rushing yards en route to a 38-19 loss — FIU’s fourth-straight defeat to their in-state rival. In addition to the defensive setback, the team’s season-long passing woes continued. Redshirt freshman Stone Norton earned the start but was replaced by Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager early in the third quarter. The 192 total passing yards were a season-high but the team still lands 120th among FBS teams in passing yards per game (117.5), down from the previous three seasons of ranking at least 80th or better.
Running back D’Vonte Price has been the driving force for the Panthers’ offense, notching his third 100-yard performance with the 26-carry, 178-yard performance against the Owls. Price’s previous career-high came against Western Kentucky two seasons ago, rushing for 119 yards and two touchdowns in a 38-17 victory. With the season-ending injuries to redshirt sophomore Shaun Peterson Jr. and redshirt freshman Lexington Joseph, Price will be counted on to carry the load, while Arkansas transfer Maleek Williams and true freshman Eric Wilson Jr. will split the backup duties.
Through four games, the Panthers only have 26 receptions from the wide receiver spot, with Bryce Singleton leading the team in receptions (10) while true freshman tight end Rivaldo Fairweather leads the way in receiving yards with 138. Fairweather is coming off a seven-catch, 116-yard day in last week’s loss. With FIU having multiple injuries at the receiver position, look for Fairweather and junior tight end Sterling Palmer to see action in the passing game.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Copp will look to sure up an FIU run defense that’s struggled for the better part of the last three seasons. Last week’s loss marked the 13th time in the previous 30 games that the Panthers have allowed at least 200 yards rushing. Middle linebacker Tyson Maeva left last week’s game with an injury in the first quarter and the unit is already missing defensive tackle Andrew Tarver, who started 11 games at the spot last season. The FIU secondary will need to force turnovers in order for the Panthers to have a chance on Saturday. After ranking among the top-third of FBS teams in turnovers forced, the defense has only been able to force three turnovers this season.
Overall, what the Panthers are able to show on Saturday will depend on how many healthy bodies the team has. Head coach Butch Davis has emphasized how hard his team has been hit this year.
“Between COVID, injuries an opt-outs, we’ve had 13 starters miss time this year and multiple reserves get nicked up,” said Davis.
Western Kentucky Preview
Tyson Helton’s club enters their final home game of the season. looking to win-out and potentially reach a bowl game for the second-consecutive year. In order for them to do so, they’ll need more from an offense that’s ranked second-to-last in FBS football in points per game (14.7) among teams that have played more than two games. Maryland transfer Tyrrell Pigrome’s overall numbers (122-212, 1,084, 8-0) don’t fully encapsulate the quarterback play this year for the Hilltoppers. Pigrome’s inconsistent play has plagued the offense as a whole and was benched for former four-star recruit Kevaris Thomas earlier in the season. With that being said, the Tops have been hurt by the opt-out and transfer of number-one receiver Jahcour Pearson two games into the season and Hilltopper receivers have dropped 19 passes this year.
Pigrome will look to build on a 19-of-30 passing effort for 183 yards in last week’s win over Southern Miss against an FIU defense that has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks. WKU running back Gaej Walker had a career-high 27 carries for 100 yards and a score in the win over FIU in Miami last season. The Tampa native hasn’t been able to replicate his 2019 success that saw him top 1,000 yards rushing, but still leads the team this season with 389 yards.
While the Hilltoppers defense hasn’t quite lived up to a preseason billing as one of the best in Conference USA, they’ve performed well down the stretch allowing 10 points or less in three of their last four outings. Defensive end DeAngelo Malone leads the team with 11 tackles for loss and six sacks, while safety Devon Key leads the team in tackles (71) and set the program-record for career tackles at the FBS level (327) in last week’s win. Both Malone and defensive end Juwan Jones will look to capitalize on an FIU offense that’s allowing over four sacks per game and a total of 17 through four contests.
Saturday’s game will come down to which offense can get established first. Ironically, Pigrome and Bortenschlager both played at Maryland together, with Bortenschlager taking over after a season-ending injury to Pigrome in 2017. FIU has struggled against dual-threat quarterbacks, the latest being FAU’s Javion Posey who accounted for 260 total yards and three touchdowns in the Panthers’ loss last week. If either FIU signal-caller is able to get going early, that will open things up for Price on the ground. However, if FIU’s failure to stop mobile quarterbacks continue, Western will pick up their fourth victory of the season.
Final Score: Western Kentucky 20, FIU 17