FIU Panthers (0-0, Conference USA) vs Liberty Flames (1-0, FBS Independent)
Date/Time: Saturday, September 26th, 1:00 PM
TV: ESPN 3 (Play-By-Play: Matt Warner/Analyst: Joe Jauch/Sidelines: Emily Austen)
Radio: WSUA Caracol 1260 Miami (Play-By-Play: AJ Ricketts)/Liberty Flames Radio Network WRVL 88.3 Lynchburg (Play-By-Play: Alan York/Analyst: Paul Rutigliano/Sidelines: Nick Pierce)
Location: Williams Stadium, Lynchburg, VA
Betting Line: Liberty -6.5 O/U 59
All-Time Series Record: First meeting between both schools
“There’s got to be a whole hell of a lot of changes and things that we’re going to do significantly different, with a major one being the discipline with which we play.”
That was the final statement from FIU head coach Butch Davis as he concluded his postgame press conference following a loss to Arkansas State in last season’s Camellia Bowl. Whether or not the Panthers’ discipline on the field has improved remains to be seen. However, the program looks significantly different entering the 2020 season, both in regards to the roster and coaching staff. 14 new starters will take the field for FIU when they open the season in Lynchburg, in addition to new position coaches for the offensive line, wide receivers and special teams unit.
The challenge for Davis and his staff will be replacing FIU’s leading passer, top two rushers and four leading receivers on offense. Former Maryland quarterback Max Bortenschlager transferred to FIU in March and brings nine games of starting experience to the Panthers. Redshirt junior Kaylan Wiggins appeared in 10 games with one start last year and provides a dual-threat option, in contrast to Bortenschlager, who will look to remain in the pocket. Redshirt freshman Stone Norton is lauded by the coaching staff for his cerebral skills but hasn’t appeared in a game. Davis hasn’t announced a starter, but expect to see more than one quarterback on Saturday.
FIU’s run game will be led by senior D’Vonte Price, who’s taking over as the feature back after spending three seasons in a reserve role. Davis and offensive coordinator Rich Skrosky will use multiple backs throughout the game.
Davis’ released his initial two-deep depth chart on Wednesday and multiple expected starters were notably absent. Wide receiver Jeremiah Holloman, left tackle D’Antne Demery and linebacker/defensive end Chris Whittaker didn’t appear in the release. All three are believed to be healthy and are game-time decisions.
Follow-up on this tweet. I've been told from a source with knowledge of the situation that both players absence from the two-deep are non-COVID related and both players could be game-time decisions. https://t.co/YhnLoZYkNS— Eric Henry (@EricCHenry_) September 23, 2020
In the event Holloman is absent, look for Bryce Singleton, who’s returning after missing all of 2019 with an injury to see targets, followed by two unproven receivers in Kris Mitchell and Nate Jefferson. Virginia native Sterling Palmer is one of the more talented tight ends in Conference USA and is FIU’s leading returning receiver.
The FIU offensive line is led by Demery, who was named to the Outland Trophy Watch List in July. Should he be out, redshirt freshman Shamar Hobdy-Lee will make his first career start. As a whole, the Panthers’ offensive line allowed 14 sacks in 2019, the seventh-fewest in FBS football.
With the aforementioned changes being significant, the most important change the Panthers have to make hasn’t played itself out yet. Defensive coordinator Jeff Copp will look to sure up an FIU run defense that’s allowed over 150 yards on the ground 16 times since the start of the 2018 season.
Linebacker Jamal Gates finished second on the team last season with 85 tackles and will head the linebacking group along with former Boise State linebacker Tyson Maeva.
The Panthers’ strength on defense is the secondary, as FIU has ranked among the top-35 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game for consecutive seasons. Twins Richard and Rishard Dames are two of the top defensive backs in Conference USA, while safety Dorian Hall has been graded by Pro Football Focus as one of the top coverage safeties in the nation.
After an 8-5 season that ended with a bowl game victory over Georgia Southern, Hugh Freeze began his second season at the helm of the Flames with an impressive 30-24 road victory over Western Kentucky. Auburn transfer Malik Willis was tasked with taking over the quarterbacking reigns following Stephen Calvert’s graduation and had an excellent debut. The 6-1, 215-pound Willis went 13-for-21 passing but was electric on the ground, rushing for 168 yards and three touchdowns in the win.
Willis’ athletic ability allows for Freeze’s offense to exhibit more of the run-pass option principles that were a staple of his tenure at Ole Miss. In four of his five seasons in Oxford, the starting quarterback was among the team’s top-three rushers, while Calvert was a steady pocket-passer.
Running back Joshua Mack hit the century mark in last week’s win over the Hilltoppers and will be featured heavily on Saturday. While the passing game wasn’t prolific last week for Liberty, it was more than effective. Florida native DJ Stubbs has the ability to stretch the field and CJ Yarborough provides a sizable target at 6-3, 205-pounds.
Defensively, the Flames will be led by junior safety Javon Scruggs, who had five tackles in the win and defensive end TreShaun Clark. Clark is coming off an excellent true freshman season that saw him record 6.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks.
Davis has led the Panthers to bowl games in each of his three seasons at FIU. Ironically, each of those three seasons has started with a season-opening loss. The fourth season will be decided by how well they can defend the run and replace four NFL caliber players.
Freeze’s RPO offense was on full display against one of the better C-USA defenses in WKU last week. Until FIU shows the ability to contain the run game on a consistent basis, its difficult to see them performing well against a team like Liberty.
Final Score: Liberty 35, FIU 23