Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (2-4, 1-1 C-USA) vs FIU Panthers (1-5, 0-2 C-USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, October 23, 7:00 PM EST
TV: ESPN Plus (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Cameron Lynch)
ESPN Plus can be found here — https://go.web.plus.espn.com/oey0yn
Radio: 105.5 FM WMIB Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Play-By-Play: Corey Brooks/)/100.7 WKLX-FM/Hilltopper IMG Radio Network (Play-By-Play: Randy Lee/Analyst: Terry Obee/Sidelines: Lexi Schweinert)
Location: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL
Betting Line: WKU -17 O/U 75
All-Time Series Record: Western Kentucky leads 8-6 (WKU won the last matchup 38-21 in 2020)
The bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for FIU after a 45-33 loss to Charlotte on October 8. Butch Davis’ club fell to 1-5 following the loss, in desperate need of answers in the team’s rushing attack and overall defensive woes. Against FBS opponents, the Panthers are averaging just 2.4 yards per attempt – including a staggering 2.03 yards over the last four games.
“We have to do a better job on early downs of putting our offense in better situations to have consistent success and not be dependant on the explosive plays,” said Davis.
Against the 49ers, FIU rushed for just 72 yards against a Charlotte run defense that entered the contest ranked 125th in the nation in rushing yards allowed. That output has to improve, especially for a team that averages between a 55/45 and 60/40 run-to-pass ratio on first down. The lack of success rushing on early downs has resulted in a bulk of the Panthers’ offensive success coming via chunk plays. Defensively, the lack of pass rush from the front four hurt the team. The unit has only 10 sacks (t-11 in C-USA) and four of those have come from linebackers or defensive backs. Those numbers undoubtedly have played a factor in the number of passing yards allowed by what had been a very formidable secondary.
Running back D’Vonte Price is still one of the most talented backs among the Group of Five ranks and despite the setback against Charlotte, will have another opportunity to face a defense that’s had their own issues as a whole. The Hilltoppers are allowing 196.2 yards per game on the ground (102nd in FBS) and are coming off a game against Old Dominion that saw them give up 162 yards to Monarchs’ running backs. Quarterback Max Bortenschlager is coming off of a three-game stretch that has seen him throw for over 1,100 yards and eight touchdowns.
“I think Max is doing some good things out there and its the offense as a whole that has to pick things up, it’s not just the quarterback or running backs, as a unit we can do better,” said Davis.
However, the Maryland transfer’s completion percentage has been an issue, especially against FBS competition. He’s connecting on just 54% of his passes overall and the number drops to below 52% against college football’s highest division.
The defense should get solid performances from linebacker Daniel Jackson and defensive backs Richard Dames and Josh Turner. Dames leads the Panthers in tackles (40) while Jackson is second on the team in tackles for loss (3) and tied for first in sacks (2). Lastly, punter Tommy Heatherly is having an excellent season and will be depended upon to force Western Kentucky to drive at least 80 yards. The senior is averaging 46.1 yards per punt and leads C-USA with 13 punts of 50 yards or more.
Western Kentucky Preview
After a 1-4 start that saw Tyson Helton’s club suffer one-score losses against Army, Indiana and a heartbreaking loss in the final seconds against undefeated UTSA, the Hilltoppers are settled into the bulk of their C-USA schedule. WKU played its most complete game of the year against FBS competition in the team’s 43-20 win over Old Dominion in Norfolk last Saturday. Western raced out to a 30-3 lead at the half, spurred by the right arm of Houston Baptist transfer Bailey Zappe. He went 36-of-54 passing for 397 yards with five touchdowns and one interception in the win. On the year, he’s on pace to set new program marks in all major single-season passing categories, having thrown for 2,632 yards and 26 touchdowns through six contests.
Fellow HBU transfer Jerreth Sterns is also having a tremendous first season in Bowling Green, being named to the Biletnikoff Award watchlist last week. The 5-9, 185-pound wideout has hauled in 69 passes for 962 yards and eight touchdowns, leading the nation in both categories. The Tops will certainly look to attack a struggling FIU pass defense that has given up over 1,400 yards passing over the previous four contests.
Defensively, the Hilltoppers are again led by standout defensive end DeAngelo Malone. The Atlanta native leads the team in tackles (51), tackles for loss (8) and sacks (2.5). He, along with veteran defensive end Juwan Jones will look to attack an FIU offensive line that’s had their own struggles opening up holes in the run game and protecting the quarterback, having allowed 15 sacks through six games.
Western’s pass defense has been an issue and the Tops will be challenged by FIU’s duo of Tyrese Chambers and Bryce Singleton at wide receiver. Chambers leads the nation in yards per catch, averaging over 30 yards per grab and Singleton leads the team with 26 receptions. Safeties Antwon Kincade and A.J Brathwaite will be called upon to make sure that FIU’s wideouts can’t take the top off of the WKU defense.
FIU hasn’t played four quarters of consistent football since the season-opener against Long Island. If the Panthers can cut down on the timely penalties, improve upon a red zone scoring percentage that ranks 127th in FBS football and establish the run — they’ll give themselves a chance against Western Kentucky.
For the Tops, they still have the opportunity to compete for an East division title — but can’t afford any further slip-ups. Zappe and company should have their chances against the Panthers’ struggling unit. Also, Malone and Jones have fared well against FIU in their careers and putting pressure on Bortenschlager will be crucial in securing a victory.
Final Score: Western Kentucky 42, FIU 24