UTSA Roadrunners (Conference USA 4-2, 2-0) vs FIU Panthers (Conference USA 2-3, 0-1)
Date/Time: Friday, October 14, 8:00 PM
TV: CBS Sports Network (Play-By-Play: Dave Ryan/Analyst: Donte Whitner)
Radio: 1140 AM WQBA Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Corey Brooks)/KTKR Ticket 760 AM San Antonio (Play-By-Play: Andy Everett/Analyst: Jay Riley/Sidelines: Pat Evans)
Location: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL
Betting Line: O/U 64.5 UTSA -33.5
All-Time Series Record: FIU leads all-time series 2-1 (FIU won last matchup 45-7 in 2018)
For Mike MacIntyre’s young FIU team, part of the rebuilding process will be entering games as heavy underdogs, such as the 30-point spread entering the team’s eventual 73-0 loss to Western Kentucky.
Friday’s contest against UTSA sees the Panthers as 33.5-point underdogs against the reigning Conference USA champions, which MacIntyre sees as an opportunity to sharpen his team against Group of Five heavyweight.
“UTSA is an excellent football team, it’s going to be a heck of a test for us but it’s one that I know our kids are excited about,” said MacIntyre. “They’re an impressive football team that we get to take on in a national television game and it’s going to be a test for us.”
After upsetting New Mexico State two weeks ago, the Panthers had their chances last Saturday against UConn at home — but were unable to capitalize in key moments, en route to a 33-12 loss.
“We moved the ball more consistently in that game more than we had in any other game this year,” said MacIntyre. “I felt like we were in better rhythm, we just gave them points off of penalties or turnovers and a lot of those are learning mistakes that can be teachable, but they’re costly,” said MacIntyre.
UConn scored 17 points off of FIU turnovers in the first-half, sinking any chances of a Panther victory in the early-going.
Quarterback Grayson James is coming off his fourth start of the season, throwing for a career-high 256 yards but tossed two untimely interceptions in the defeat. The sophomore has thrown for 926 yards with seven touchdowns and four interceptions on the season, while adding 93 yards on the ground.
“We know the challenge we have in front of us, so it’s really been about having everyone lock in and focus,” said James. “I’m up to the task and I feel like everyone around us is ready so it’s going to be a good one.”
In order for the Panthers to have a chance on Friday night, they’ll need to establish running backs Lexington Joseph and E.J. Wilson on the ground, in addition to James’ ability with his legs.
Joseph rushed for 103 yards on seven carries against UConn and likely would have topped his career-high of 105, had the Panthers not had to abandon the run game in the second half. On the season, Joseph is averaging 5.5 yards per attempt and both he and Wilson have been factors in the passing game, combining for 24 receptions and two touchdowns on the year.
The FIU offensive line will again be a unit to keep an eye on as they have been throughout the season, due to injuries, youth and depth. Former walk-on Ming Tjon saw extended time at center in the second-half of last week’s game following tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr.’s exit in the third quarter — which forced Julius Pierce to play at tackle. Opening-day starting right guard Rey Burnett Jr. left the program following the Western Kentucky game, opening the door for redshirt freshman Wyatt Lawson and NAIA transfer Sam Hill to see action over the last two weeks.
Defensively, the Panthers will depend on standout linebackers Donovan Manuel and Gaethan Bernadel to set the tone. The pair of inside backers in FIU’s 3-4 defense have combined for 76 tackles with eight tackles for loss and two sacks this year.
Against UConn, the FIU defense had moments of success, especially in the red zone and goal-line situations, but struggled against the run — giving up 295 yards to the Huskies.
In the secondary, the unit will face a challenge against an extremely potent Roadrunners’ receiving core.
“I believe Pro Football Focus rates three of their wideouts as the top in our league,” said MacIntyre. “They’re tall, long, fast and can make plays so that’s going to be a challenge for us that I believe our guys are up for.”
With starter C.J. Christian out for the season, veteran Dorian Hall will slide into his spot alongside redshirt freshman Demetrius Hill, who is having an excellent first season as a starter.
The Miami native leads the team in tackles (43) and solo tackles with 28.
“With C.J. down, we’ve been trying to get everything together, I know we’re playing against really good receivers — probably the best receivers in the conference so we’re going to have to bring our A game on Friday night,” said Hill.
Standout receiver Tyrese Chambers had an excellent start to last week’s game, hauling in back-to-back grabs to open the game, but was bothered by a lower-body injury and didn’t play the final three quarters. His status as said by MacIntyre will be evaluated throughout the week.
“We’ve got a few guys who are at the doctor’s today and we’ll keep an eye on them, but we won’t really know until game-time,” said MacIntyre.
If Chambers can’t go, look towards receivers Jalen Bracey, Dean Patterson and Kris Mitchell along with tight ends Josiah Miamen and Rivaldo Fairweather to shoulder the load.
Jeff Traylor’s UTSA team is coming off a hugely-important 31-28 victory over Western Kentucky last Saturday.
The third matchup in a calendar year between the two programs, WKU went to San Antonio looking to prove that they were capable of beating UTSA and avenging last year’s conference title game loss. However, behind 334 total yards from quarterback Frank Harris, the Roadrunners were able to outlast Western, putting up enough offense to counter the Hilltoppers 481 total yards.
Harris, one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks has thrown for 1,997 yards and 13 touchdowns with five interceptions on the year and rushed for 254 yards with five scores on the ground.
UTSA’s receiving core is arguably the best in Conference USA, featuring a trio sizable targets along with one of the more reliable wideouts in the league.
De’Corian Clark, Josh Cephus and Tykee Ogle-Kellogg all stand at 6-3 or above, which presents a challenge for any defense. Clark and Cephus have combined for 83 receptions for 1,167 yards and nine scores, while last year’s leading receiver in Zakhari Franklin has 43 grabs for 586 yards and six touchdowns this year.
As they turn to FIU, Traylor notes that both teams run similar defenses, which may provide a level of familiarity for both clubs.
The head coach is a defensive coordinator in his past and they run the same (3-4) defense we do so there’s familiarity on both sides,” said Traylor.
While that fact is true, Traylor’s defense is vastly more experienced in the scheme and in class than FIU, which boasts the third-youngest team in FBS football.
As has been the case for the majority of his UTSA career, standout safety Rashad Wisdom led the team in tackles with 10. The 5-9, 210-pound Wisdom is one of the top defensive backs among the Group of Five ranks.
“We have to know where number 0 is on both sides of the ball,” said MacIntyre. “Widsom is a really special player, they use him in many different ways, he’s able to tackle in space and is very aggressive and the natural DB vision.”
The Roadrunners are dealing injuries of their own, with Traylor revealing during his Monday press availability that redshirt senior offensive lineman Makai Hart will be lost of the remainder of the season.
There are no two ways about it, these are two programs on completely opposite ends of the spectrum. Traylor has done an outstanding job not only making the most of former head coach Frank Wilson’s talent, but building upon it and guiding the UTSA program to the top of Conference USA. The road to the C-USA title game runs through San Antonio, as evidenced by last week’s win.
FIU’s rebuild is still in its infancy, with each game this year providing MacIntyre with valuable opportunities to assess what’s on his roster.
As proof of just how quickly things can change, four calendar years ago, FIU beat UTSA at the Alamodome 45-7 en route to a program record nine-win 2018, while UTSA was heading to a three-win campaign.
On Friday, the Roadrunners will take another step towards defending their crown as they’re too deep and talented to fail to an extremely young Panthers’ team.
Final Score: UTSA 62, FIU 14