Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (2-5, 1-2 Conference USA) vs FIU Panthers (3-4, 1-2 Conference USA)
Date/Time: Friday, October 28, 8:00 PM EST
TV: CBS Sports Network (Play-By-Play: Carter Blackburn/Analyst: Robert Turbin)
Radio: WQBA 1140 AM Univision Radio South Florida (Play-By-Play: AJ Ricketts/Analyst: Corey Brooks)/KXKZ 107.5 FM Ruston - Monroe (Play-By-Play: Malcolm Butler/Analyst: Teddy Allen)
Location: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL
Betting Line: La Tech -6.5 O/U 57
All-Time Series Record: Louisiana Tech leads 4-0 (La Tech won the previous matchup 43-31 in 2019)
Much of the talk around Mike MacIntyre’s team this season has been about how youthful and inexperienced they are, entering the season with a roster comprised mostly of underclassmen and first-time starters. Last Saturday’s wire-to-wire victory at Charlotte may have provided the first signs that the youthful Panthers are maturing ahead of pace.
As two-score underdogs, FIU spoiled Charlotte’s homecoming by beating the 49ers in a decisive 34-15 victory, in large part due to a stifling defense and the continued growth of sophomore quarterback Grayson James.
Through three quarters, the Panthers’ defense held Charlotte’s potent passing attack to 129 yards through the air and 51 on the ground.
Defensive end/linebacker Shaun Peterson Jr. racked up 3.5 sacks while forcing and recovering a fumble on Saturday. The redshirt junior ranks third in Conference USA in sacks (5) and leads the league in forced fumbles (2). Linebackers Gaethan Bernadel and Donovan Manuel combined for 19 tackles in the victory and the duo rank third and fourth in tackles per game, respectively.
In the secondary, sophomore cornerback Andrew Volmar had the best game of his career, notching his first career interception and blanketing Charlotte wideout Grant DuBose throughout the contest.
“Andrew Volmar from spring practice through fall camp and to now is probably the most improved player on our defense,” said MacIntyre. “The play he made where he pressed the receiver, ran down the field and picked it off, he couldn’t do that in spring, he’s a really good player,” said MacIntyre following the game.
Volmar, along with safeties Demetrius Hill and Dorian Hall will be tasked with slowing down another capable passing attack in Louisiana Tech’s, who enter Friday’s contest averaging 290 yards per game through the air, ranking third in C-USA.
Offensively, James guided the unit to their best performance of the season, accounting for over 350 total yards and three touchdowns last weekend. After beginning the year the backup, the sophomore has started the previous six games and during his Tuesday presser, MacIntyre announced that James will be the starter for the foreseeable future.
“He’s our starter now, each week I’ve seen improvement in him,” said MacIntyre. “How he’s practiced has shown up on the field.”
The unit was boosted by the return of receiver Tyrese Chambers, who hauled in a career-high 10 receptions for 143 yards in Saturday’s win. Also, Kris Mitchell had a career day with his eight receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown.
“Kris is a guy who is legit 4.3 guy and had a really good spring and fall but was banged up a bit, but he always kept his head up and when his opportunity came, he’s was ready,” said receivers coach Jay MacIntyre.
All-purpose man Flex Joseph rushed for 72 yards and two scores in the win from his running back spot, but also will play a factor in the returning game and in the receiving game.
FIU’s struggle to close drives against UConn and UTSA were solved via James’ legs against Charlotte. Following the game, James noted that there was a gameplan to get him involved in those situations.
“We just needed another hat in the run game and I have the ability to use my legs, it’s a part of my game that I enjoy,” said James.
Louisiana Tech Preview
Year one of the Sonny Cumbie era in Ruston has provided multiple glimpses of hope, despite the team’s 2-5 record. Excluding two contests against Power Five opponents, the Bulldogs have been surprisingly competitive in Conference USA play, considering the wholesale shift in offensive philosophy under Cumbie.
The former Texas Tech quarterback and offensive coordinator comes from the much ballyhooed Mike Leach coaching tree, which features multiple variants of the Air Raid offense.
Over the last three outings, Tech’s offense has averaged 36.3 points including 915 passing yards and two 100-yard rushing performances.
However, in the team’s 42-41 overtime loss to Rice, the Bulldogs suffered injuries to multiple quarterbacks. Primary starter Parker McNeil and backup Matthew Downing were hurt in the loss, leading to true freshman Landry Lyddy finishing the contest.
McNeil has thrown for 1,623 yards and 15 touchdowns with seven interceptions on the year, while Lyddy earned his first game action and went 5-of-8 with two passing scores in the loss. During Cumbie’s media availability, he intimated that it would be game-time decision as to if McNeil will be ready and should he not play, Lyddy or sophomore Jack Turner will start.
Whoever starts the game will look towards the duo of Tre and Smoke Harris at receiver. The wideouts have combined for 74 receptions and 1,012 yards with 11 scores this year.
“When you watch Louisiana Tech on film, you better know where Harris is (Tre and Smoke) they’re excellent playmakers for them,” said MacIntyre.
Also keep an eye on receiver-turned-tight end Griffin Hebert. The veteran has hauled in 20 receptions for 403 yards and three scores this year.
“He’s a hybrid, he’ll play all over,” said MacIntyre. “He’s really fast, you can see his speed and length on film,” said MacIntyre.
Defensively, the Bulldogs lost the heart of their unit in linebacker Tyler Grubbs to a season-ending injury two weeks ago and are awaiting word as to if veteran defensive back Bee Jay Williamson will play.
“He’s a really good play, you see guys flash when you’re watching other teams and he’s one of those guys that catches your attention,” said MacIntyre.
Williamson is second on the team with 44 tackles and is one of several veteran players for the Bulldogs who played in the team’s 2019 win over FIU.
Williamson and safety Jaiden Cole combined for seven tackles in the win while Hebert was the Bulldogs leading receiver in the contest.
Louisiana Tech enters this game as the favorite and with good reason, having played good football in C-USA play. Cumbie’s Air Raid offense has shown signs of success during year one, primarily with McNeil at the quarterback spot. However, with McNeil and Tyler Grubbs injured, the door is open for an FIU team that’s matured and gotten healthy over the past two weeks to win.
The youthful Panthers got their first taste of an FBS victory on the road at New Mexico State before dropping two home contests. This time, they’ll have the experience of how to respond after a road victory. If James continues his ascension and the defense are able to pressure Tech’s quarterback, the Panthers should win.
Final Score: FIU 34, Louisiana Tech 30