FIU Panthers (4-7, 2-5 Conference USA) vs Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (6-5, 3-4 Conference USA)
Date/Time: Saturday, November 26, 6:00 PM
TV: ESPN 3 (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Johnathan Cyprien)
ESPN 3 can be found here — https://go.web.plus.espn.com/oey0yn
Radio: WQBA 1140 Univision Miami (Play-By-Play: Jonathan Mayer)/WPRT The Game Nashville 102.5 FM/97.5 FM, WGNS Murfreesboro 1450 AM/100.5 FM (Play-By-Play: Chip Walters/Analyst: Jeff Murphy)
Location: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL
Betting Line: MTSU -19.5 O/U 55.5
All-Time Series Record: MTSU leads 12-5 (Middle Tennessee won last matchup 50-10 in 2021)
While last Saturday’s 40-6 loss at UTEP may have shut the door on FIU’s bowl hopes, Saturday’s season-finale at home against MTSU still has a significant measure of importance.
As the first season of Panther football under Mike MacIntyre comes to a close, reaching four wins is a mark that few saw coming. However, a measure of the positive momentum has come to a halt over the last three weeks that have seen FIU outscored 144-27.
“We have to play better,” said MacIntyre. “When you go back and watch the film, yes it’s a coach-ism but we’re just a little off on an angle here or there and teams take advantage of that, we want to play well and the kids want to play well (to close out the season).”
For FIU, playing better has to start on the offensive side of the ball. UTEP outgained the Panthers 525-71 last weekend and held the offense to just five first downs in the contest.
In the three-game losing streak, the offensive woes have been especially noticeable in the first half. FIU has gone three-and-out 15 times in the opening two quarters over the last three weeks — with opposing teams jumping out halftime leads of at least 24 points in each game.
MacIntyre will look to jumpstart a rushing attack that ranks last in Conference USA and 117th among FBS teams, averaging just 107 yards per contest. A large part in those efforts will be the play of the Panthers’ offensive line. The unit entered the season featuring several first-time starters at the FBS level and has had moments of success against comparable talent. However, injuries and departures have caused FIU to start eight different offensive line combinations this year.
After opening the season as the backup quarterback, sophomore Grayson James will make his 11th consecutive start in the season-finale.
“Obviously, things haven’t turned out the way we would have wanted them to the last couple of weeks,” said James. “Being a part of this team and what we’re building here has been fun and I feel myself getting more confident and better as a player each week.”
James has thrown for 1,962 yards with 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first season as a starter. He’ll look to close the season on a high note after going a combined 34-of-77 passing for 242 yards with five interceptions in the last three weeks.
Despite the offensive struggles, keep an eye on wideout Tyrese Chambers. FIU’s star wideout leads the team with 51 receptions for 544 yards and four touchdowns on the season.
“He’s one of the best in the conference and he’s been one of the best in the conference. Defensively you have to know where he’s at always, he’s very talented and he’s a special player,” said Middle Tennessee head coach Rick Stockstill.
After setting several program records last season, Chambers may be playing in his final contest as a Panther, despite having an additional year of eligibility left.
It’s almost been unfair to try and assess the FIU defense in the losing streak. Key word being almost as despite the offense putting the unit on the field excessively, MacIntyre and defensive coordinator Jovan Dewitt’s group struggles have been pronounced — especially against the run.
UTEP rushed for 335 yards and four touchdowns in last week’s loss, something that MacIntyre outlined postgame.
“We should have handled (the run) better, it doesn’t matter whose back there (at running back),” said MacIntyre.
In order to avoid another subpar performance, it will have to start with the defensive line. Nose guard Davon Strickland is one of three seniors who will be playing in their final game as Panthers. He, along with linebackers Gaethan Bernadel and Donovan Manuel will provide support in the efforts against the run.
Middle Tennessee Preview
Last Saturday’s decisive 49-21 win gave Stockstill’s club their third win in its last four games, making the Blue Raiders bowl-eligible for the second consecutive season — defying most preseason predictions.
However, Stockstill wants no part of the bowl talk with the contest against FIU looming.
“I’ll talk about all that bowl stuff next week, I’m excited about it for our staff and our players, but our focus is on FIU and winning our seventh game,” said Stockstill.
The bowl-berth makes the 12th appearance in a postseason contest for the Blue Raiders in Stockstill’s 17 seasons with the program.
With the focus on the Panthers, Stockstill noted during his media availability that the program appears to be heading in the right direction under MacIntyre.
“I have a ton of respect for Mike (MacIntyre) and the way they’re building their program there. It’s a good football team that’s played a couple tough teams the past few weeks,” said Stockstill.
MacIntyre was equally complimentary of Stockstill in the lead-up to Saturday’s game.
“Rick and I have known each other for a long time and we have a lot to close friends and he’s a phenomenal coach,” said MacIntyre. “He could have left MTSU but he stayed with it and he’s a neat soul and someone you would want your son to play for.”
Blue Raiders quarterback Chase Cunningham returned from injury and threw for a season-high 448 yards and five touchdowns in the victory over FAU. On the season, Cunningham has thrown for 2,641 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Through the air, he’ll look towards diminutive 5-8, 170-pound wideout Jaylin Lane. The sophomore leads the team with 54 receptions for 769 yards and four touchdowns.
“They have a ton of wideouts who can fly, especially Jaylin Lane,” said MacIntyre.
While the rushing attack for MTSU won’t necessarily scare most teams, it is an improved part of the Blue Raiders offense, especially from the running backs. Running back Frank Peasant’s 695 yards and nine scores are the most from an MTSU running back since 2016.
“We still have a long way to go to be the rushing team that’s going to scare anyone, but we have improved from previous years,” said Stockstill.
His assessment is fair but despite the struggles, the Blue Raiders’ solution to their rushing woes in previous years has been facing FIU. MTSU rushed for 471 yards against the Panthers in 2019 and 261 yards last season — well above their season averages in both years.
Defensively, MTSU are led by veterans Jordan Ferguson and Teldrick Ross.
Ferguson is again one of the top defensive linemen in Conference USA, notching 57 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks on the season. Ross is coming off of an outing against FAU that saw him breakup five passes and on the season is second nationally with 17 pass-breakups.
It’s very possible that MacIntyre’s club may have maxed out their potential for this year, entering the game with four wins. Especially considering the fact that they’ve battled injuries and player departures during the year. For the Panthers to have a real shot on Saturday, they’ll have to depend on an offensive line that’s still looking to gel. It will be a tough ask against an MTSU defensive line that features Ferguson along with defensive tackle Zaylin Wood.
The Blue Raiders are riding high after their blowout win of Florida Atlantic and have the pieces to carry that momentum into Miami. Cunningham isn’t an impressive physical specimen at quarterback, but he’s a natural playmaker who will find ways to get the ball into the hands of Lane and 6-4, 225-pound target Izaiah Gatherings. Ross and safety Decorian Patterson will be tasked with keeping Chambers in check. If FIU can’t get anything going early on offense, look for Middle to jump out to a lead and pick up their seventh win.
Final Score: Middle Tennessee 34, FIU 17