UConn Huskies (FBS Independent 2-4) vs FIU Panthers (Conference USA 2-2, 0-1)
Date/Time: Saturday, October 8, 7:00 PM
TV: ESPN 3 (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Corey Brooks)
ESPN 3 can be found here — https://go.web.plus.espn.com/oey0yn
Radio: 1140 AM WQBA Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Play-By-Play: Alejandro Gonzalez)/UConn Sports Network 97.9 FM WUCS Hartford ESPN (Play-By-Play: Mike Crispino/Analyst: Wayne Norman/Sidelines: Adam Giardino
Location: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL
Betting Line: O/U 45.5 UConn -5
All-Time Series Record: First-ever meeting
While the phrase “signature win” is a heavily overused cliché in college football, it’s hard argue that last week’s 21-7 victory over New Mexico State wasn’t indeed just that for Mike MacIntyre’s FIU Panthers.
Considering the fact that the team was outscored 114-12 in their previous two outings — including a 73-0 loss one week prior at Western Kentucky — in addition to the dubious distinctions of having not won a road game in over 1,400 days and beaten an FBS opponent in over 1,000.
MacIntyre’s youthful Panthers managed to put all of those things aside and pulled off the upset as double-digit underdogs, in large part due to the stellar performance of their offensive line.
“Coach Austin and Yost did a great job with them this week, they took another step in growing, especially as a young group,” said MacIntyre following the win.
FIU dressed only 10 offensive linemen and the starting five played every snap outside of two in the victory. Veteran right tackle Lyndell Hudson Jr., who wasn’t expected to play, was named to Pro Football Focus’ all-offense team for his efforts. Entering the UConn game, the unit should be a week healthier as the group that features four first-time FBS starters will be depended upon again.
After the play upfront, the performance of sophomore quarterback Grayson James stood out offensively. James had 218 total yards and three touchdown passes in the victory and has thrown for seven touchdowns with two interceptions on the season.
“He’s growing up in front of our eyes, he’s learned from mistakes and the game is starting to slow down for him,” said MacIntyre. “He’s a great athlete for his size and he’s starting to realize how he can take advantage of his size and athleticism out there.”
The 6-3, 235-pound James rushed 18 times for 43 yards in the victory over NM State.
Defensively, the win was easily the best defensive performance of the year for FIU, limiting the Aggies to 221 total yards — including just 85 yards rushing, the fewest the Panthers have allowed since limiting Old Dominion to 64 yards on the ground in November 2019.
“We’re so young over there on that side of the ball and we’re getting better and better, Jovan (Dewitt) is doing a great job over there and to hold any FBS team to seven points isn’t easy to do,” said MacIntyre.
The unit was able to provide pressure throughout the game and racked up 4.5 tackles for loss from the front seven. Defensive ends Jeramy Passmore and Keegan Davis combined for 11 tackles on the night, doing so without nose guard Davon Strickland, who should be back for the UConn game.
In the secondary, defensive backs Demetrius Hill, Jamal Potts and C.J. Christian made several open-field tackles to keep Aggie wideouts from gaining yards after touches, while cornerbacks Hezekiah Masses and Andrew Volmar performed well against the pass. They’ll need to repeat that performance against a UConn rushing attack that should force several tackles from the back end of the defense.
Jim L. Mora has had a well-traveled career as a head coach, having stints in the NFL and Power Five programs before taking the UConn job in November of last year. The 60-year-old’s first campaign has the Huskies exceeding expectations in the early going. Mora has UConn off to a 2-4 start, but the record features three Power Five opponents and a season-opener that saw the Huskies push 22-point favorite Utah State for four quarters.
Last week’s 19-14 win at home against Fresno State was a continuation of Mora’s team defying the odds and evidence that the program is trending in the right direction.
Despite defensive coordinator Lou Spanos taking an indefinite leave of absence from the program in August, the defense has fared well in spurts this season. They forced three turnovers and held the Bulldogs to 30 yards rushing and just 187 total yards, in addition to holding Fresno State to 0-9 on third and fourth down attempts.
On offense, UConn is led by their rushing attack, starting with sophomore Devontae Houston, who has 215 yards and two touchdowns on 40 carries. Houston took over for Nathan Carter, who had rushed for over 400 yards before suffering an injury two weeks ago.
“We know that they’re going to play smashmouth and try to run the football to open up some shots downfield on us,” said MacIntyre.
At quarterback, the Huskies are starting prized recruit Zion Turner in his first season of college football. The South Florida native was a three-star recruit and the highest-rated signee in Mora’s first recruiting class. On the season, Turner has thrown for 559 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions, while adding 93 yards on the ground.
“Zion has done really well and he knows how to win, he does an excellent job for them, especially as a young kid,” said MacIntyre.
Defensively, the unquestioned leader of the group is weakside linebacker Jackson Mitchell, who is first on the team in tackles with 66 and sacks with 2.5. The Huskies defense has recorded 14 sacks on the season, good enough to rank them among the top-third in FBS football. Ends Eric Watts and Jelani Stafford will have to be accounted for as the pair has tallied five sacks and 40 tackles total.
Keep an eye on Texas Tech transfer linebacker Brandon Bouyer-Randle, who has 40 tackles but also plays the passing lanes well and is leading the team in pass breakups with three.
Saturday’s contest features two of the youngest teams in FBS football and arguably two of the most massive rebuilding projects. A UConn win would give them as many wins (3) as they’ve had in the previous 3 seasons combined, while an FIU win would exceed the amount of wins the program notched in 2020 and 2021 total.
The Panthers will need to establish the run game early versus a UConn defense that has performed well against comparable competition. If the offensive line can spring the run game and provide time for James, FIU does have a major advantage in wide receiver Tyrese Chambers, who will be the most talented player on the field Saturday night.
Defensively, they’ll need to force Zion Turner to become a passer, as the talented freshman is still a work in progress through the air.
For UConn, establishing the run against a defense that has had its troubles until last week in stopping opposing teams’ ground attacks is crucial — and putting the pressure on a young FIU offensive line could take the Panthers offense out of the game early.
In the end, it’s going to be a battle of two young teams who have to prove that they’re capable of stringing back-to-back winning performances for the first time in several years.
Final Score: UConn 21, FIU 20