Charlotte 49ers (1-6, 0-3 Conference USA) vs FIU Panthers (2-4, 0-2 Conference USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, October 22, 3:30 PM EST
TV: ESPN 3 (Play-By-Play: Bobby Rosinski/Analyst: Reginald Walker/Sidelines: Hannah Bradley)
Radio: WQBA 1140 AM Univision Radio South Florida (Play-By-Play: AJ Ricketts/Analyst: Harry Kroll)/WZGV 730 The Game Charlotte 49ers IMG Sports Network (Play-By-Play: Matt Swierad/Analyst: Al Wallace)
Location: Jerry Richardson Stadium, Charlotte, NC
Betting Line: Charlotte -14.5 O/U 63.5
All-Time Series Record: FIU leads 5-1 (Charlotte won the previous matchup 45-33 in 2021)
After a two-game homestand, Mike MacIntyre’s FIU club hits the road again looking for their third victory of the season against Charlotte. Six games into his debut season as Panthers’ head coach, the team’s seesaw season has been indicative of a club that’s the third-youngest in FBS football — brief stretches of sustained solid play — only to be undone by inconsistency and unforced errors.
The biggest culprit in the two-game losing streak for FIU has been an inability to finish drives. In both contests, the Panthers made several trips inside the opposition 35-yard-line, but have come away empty-handed or with just three points on the majority of those drives.
“Part of it is indicative of a young team learning to play together, it’s not just one phase on offense, it’s every single phase where were just a bit off on one thing or another,” said MacIntyre. “We as a staff have to do a better job of doing what we need to do to help our team finish drives.”
On the injury front, receiver Tyrese Chambers should be a game-time decision for the contest in the Queen City. FIU’s Biletnikoff Award Watchlist member leads the Panthers in all major receiving categories, but was injured early in the UConn game and missed the UTSA game. In last season’s contest, Chambers torched the Niners for 201 yards and two scores.
Quarterback Gunnar Holmberg, who started the season-opener before suffering a concussion is back, but sophomore Grayson James has started the last five contests and should be the starter on Saturday. James has thrown for 1,100 yards with seven touchdowns and five interceptions on the season.
Defensively, the Panthers are showing signs of life and progression in their first year in a 3-4 defense. As stated above, the offense’s struggles did little to help the unit but they looked impressive in the first half against a Conference USA heavyweight in UTSA.
Linebacker Gaethan Bernadel had a career-high 15 tackles in the loss, followed by rising safety Demetrius Hill, who had nine stops.
“We did some good things, but allowing 30 points is way too much and we have to come out and be better next week,” said Bernadel following the loss to UTSA.
Bernadel and Hill are tied for the lead in tackles with 52, followed by middle linebacker Donovan Manuel, who has 47 tackles. The trio will be depended upon to slow any semblance of a Charlotte rushing attack — but mainly to be accountable for Niners quarterback Chris Reynolds.
“He’s thrown for a lot of yards, he’s an excellent player who looks to scramble to throw. He has great pocket presence and is always keeping plays alive,” said MacIntyre during his Tuesday press conference.
For Will Healy’s Charlotte team, last Saturday’s loss at UAB in some ways was a microcosm of what the season has been for the 49ers — jumping out to a fast start — only to be undone by an inability to finish.
The underdog 49ers jumped out to an early 7-0 lead following Elijah Spencer’s 60-yard touchdown catch that came after cornerback Geo Howard’s interception on the game’s opening drive. Charlotte took a 14-10 lead into the half, before UAB turned to its strength in a powerful ground game, outscoring the Niners 20-6 in the second half.
While the 34 points allowed is still below the team’s average of 44.6 on the season, they allowed over 500 yards of total offense including 279 yards on the ground. Greg Brown’s unit will look to rebound against an FIU offense that’s extremely young and inexperienced, especially on the offensive line.
Keep an eye on Central Michigan transfer Amir Siddiq, who leads the team in tackles for loss (5.5) and sacks with three. Siddiq had a sack and a half against FIU as a member of Central Michigan a season ago and should have opportunities against Panthers’ offensive line.
Offensively, it’s no secret that Charlotte possess a dangerous trio of receivers in Grant DuBose, Elijah Spencer and noted Panther killer Vic Tucker.
“Grant DuBose and Elijah Spencer are excellent, Spencer has made tons of plays. 9 and 14 make a lot of plays for them,” said MacIntyre.
Tucker, a Miami native, has 12 catches for 200 yards and three touchdowns in his career against the Panthers.
Look for the wideouts to try and exploit a young FIU secondary that has improved in recent weeks, but gave up several big plays in the first three weeks of the season.
When Healy took over the program in 2019, he spoke about recruiting in the Carolinas and a talking point being that young players could come in and be the standard-bearer for a program that at the time was less than 10 years old. Charlotte quarterback Chris Reynolds is undoubtedly that standard-bearer for the program.
The sixth-year senior owns all of the program’s major statistical passing records at the FBS level and has been the player who makes things go offensively this year. The 5-11, 190-pounder has thrown for 1,301 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions on the year.
Saturday’s contest is going to come down to three major factors — plus health.
First, how will FIU’s defense fare against Chris Reynolds and the Niners wideouts. With former starting corner Henry Gray choosing to enter the portal, scrappy sophomore Andrew Volmar gets the start alongside nickel corner Jamal Potts and true freshman Hezekiah Masses. Safeties Hill and Dorian Hall will be depended upon to provide help over the top on Dubose, Spencer and Tucker.
Second, how will the FIU offensive line fare. It’s no secret that defense has been struggle for Charlotte under Greg Brown and dating back to the past two seasons. The Niners front-seven should have opportunities.
Third, can James hang with Reynolds if the game is a back-and-forth contest. Reynolds is a proven commodity, who despite the team being 1-6, is more than capable of guiding the Niners to victory. While FIU’s sophomore will be making his sixth career start and has shown flashes of his potential.
Lastly, FIU needs Tyrese Chambers to be available. While they have a growing stable of wideouts, Chambers is a pro-level talent alongside Dubose and will be needed to match Charlotte’s star wideout.
Final Score: Charlotte 37, FIU 34