Following the FIU’s loss to Charlotte in their last outing that dropped them to 1-5, Panthers’ head coach Butch Davis said matter-of-factly that “our guys remain optimistic because we’re all focused on turning the page and getting back to work on Monday — we still want to go out there and win ballgames.”
While the intent may have been in earnest, few, if any gave FIU (1-6, 0-0) any chance at a win against the nation’s top passing attack in Western Kentucky (2-4, 2-1). Davis’ team hung tough for the first half and had opportunities to take a two-score lead at times. However, as has been the theme throughout the Panthers disappointing season, miscues and not being able to take advantage of opportunities sunk any chance at FIU earning its first FBS victory in exactly 700 days.
“The thing that I’m most disappointed in is the inability to stop the run and the miscues that make it nearly impossible for us to have a shot at winning,” said Davis. “When you have things like the snap, those are things that you just can’t overcome and try to win ballgames.”
The contest featured two of the nation’s most prolific receivers in FIU’s Tyrese Chambers and Western Kentucky’s Jerreth Sterns. Chambers struck first on FIU’s opening drive, hauling in two grabs for 22 yards, both of which gave FIU first downs. The FCS transfer was held in check, ending the game with three catches for 26 yards. The nation’s 128th ranked red-zone offense was able to find the endzone when quarterback Max Bortenschlager scored on a QB sneak from one yard out. However, the ensuing PAT by Chase Gabriel was blocked, leaving the Panthers with only six points.
Bortenschlager finished the evening 15-of-32 passing for 192 yards and one touchdown but was sacked seven times and pressured throughout the evening.
“We started out pretty hot again, were able to do some things but the pressure on me was a combination of me needing to get the ball out of my hands quicker and us as an offense doing things better,” said Bortenschlager.
After FIU forced a rare three-and-out by WKU, the first major miscue occurred on 2nd-and-six when Bortenschlager wasn’t ready for the snap, thwarting any chance of the Panthers taking a two-score lead. Freshman defensive back Joe Perkins forced the game’s first turnover late in the opening period. With Western Kentucky driving into the FIU redzone, Perkins stripped Hilltopper wideout Malachi Corley as he fought for extra yardage. The fumble was recovered by Andrew Volmar at the FIU 30. Volmar had a sack in addition to the fumble recovery, seeing extended time in place of starting safety, Dorian Hall.
Western Kentucky quarterback Bailey Zappe entered the game as the nation’s leading passer. However, it was running back Adam Cofield who found the Tops’ first score, rushing for an eight-yard touchdown midway through the second quarter to give WKU a 7-6 lead. Cofield rushed for a season-high 71 yards on 14 carries. FIU responded on the ensuing drive as Bortenschlager found South Florida transfer, Randall St. Felix, wide open down the left sideline, streaking for a 75-yard touchdown reception.
“That was a double-move off an RPO, which we saw on film earlier in the week that we could take advantage and we it worked really well there,” said Bortenschlager.
The Western Kentucky defense would stifle the FIU offense after the long touchdown, forcing FIU to punt or turnover the ball on downs on their next four drives — while igniting their own high-powered passing attack as the Tops scored the next 24 points. Zappe led the Tops to a touchdown in the penultimate drive of the first half, connecting with wideout Mitchell Tinsley for a 32-yard touchdown to give Western a 17-12 lead entering the half. On the next Hilltopper drive, Zappe would find Sterns for a 20-yard touchdown, putting Sterns over 1,000 yards receiving on the season. He would finish the night with 14 catches for 115 yards and two touchdowns.
The Western Kentucky defense entered the game with the 110th ranked run D, allowing just shy of 200 yards per contest. However, the Panthers’ run game wasn’t able to get anywhere near that output, as D’Vonte Price was held to 86 yards on 15 carries — most of which came in the first two-and-a-half quarters before FIU was forced to abandon the rushing attack.
Zappe opened the second half scoring by finding Sterns in the right corner of the East endzone from one yard out. Conference USA’s leading passer would finish the evening 39-of-49 with 368 yards and three touchdowns.
Freshman quarterback Grayson James took midway through the fourth quarter and went 6-of-7 passing for 57 yards. While the appearance was his fourth of the season, Davis shot down any suggestion of a potential quarterback change with the team’s record falling to 1-6.
“No, absolutely no thought of that, Max potentially has another year,” said Davis. “He’s played great and if you would have asked me in the middle of the summer time, we didn’t have any idea because he didn’t play much last year and has come off of surgeries, but he’s an unbelievable competitor and he’s capable of coming back and throwing for 350 yards next week.”
For the Panthers, they head to Huntington to take on Marshall while Western Kentucky welcomes Charlotte to Houchens-Smith Stadium on October 30th.