Bryant Bulldogs (FCS Big South Conference) vs FIU Panthers (Conference USA)
Date/Time: Thursday, September 1, 7:00 PM
TV: ESPN 3 (Play-By-Play: A.J. Ricketts/Analyst: Patrick Murray)
ESPN 3 can be found here — https://go.web.plus.espn.com/oey0yn
Radio: 1140 AM WMIB Miami-Fort Lauderdale (Play-By-Play: Corey Brooks)
Location: FIU Stadium, Miami, FL
Betting Line: O/U 53.5 FIU -14.5
All-Time Series Record: First-ever meeting
Bryant head coach Chris Merritt is no stranger to South Florida. Merritt is entering his fourth season with the Bulldogs after a successful 18-year run as the head coach at Miami’s Christopher Columbus High School. In fact, Bryant has 20 players from the Sunshine State, along with two former FIU assistants (Steve Ciocci and Tom Sydeski) on their coaching staff who will look to help the program pick up its first-ever FBS victory.
After finishing 7-4 in 2021, the Bulldogs return 16 starters from last year’s team and boast 11 players who were chosen to the preseason Big South all-conference team by college football analyst Phil Steele. Sophomore quarterback Zevi Eckhaus is competing with last season’s opening day starter in Gage Moloney for the starting job in 2022. Eckhaus took over one Moloney was injured and had an efficient first year as the signal caller, throwing for 2,392 yards with 21 touchdowns and just three interceptions, en route to finishing fourth in the Jerry Rice Award voting. Moloney transferred to Bryant from James Madison, where he served as the backup for four seasons.
“They have two quarterbacks who can play, but we’re preparing as if it will be Eckhaus — he has a moxie about him and you can tell on film he’s a talker and he’s a really good athlete,” said FIU head coach Mike MacIntyre.
Returning alongside Eckhaus are Bryant’s top-two wideouts in seniors David Zorrilla and Miami Central High product Anthony Frederick, who combined for over 1,100 yards receiving in 2021. Sophomore running back Fabrice Mukendi steps into a starting role after being the RB2 as a true freshman, but leading the team 652 yards and nine touchdowns last year. The offensive line also return five of the top six players in snaps played a year ago and led the Northeast conference in fewest sacks allowed (12).
Defensively, the Bulldogs are led by a pair of standout linebackers in middle linebacker Joe Andreessen and Broward County native Ryan Saddler, who played his high school ball at powerhouse Cardinal Gibbons High. The duo both had over 90 tackles last year and Andreessen is capable player in coverage as well, leading the team in interceptions with three.
“You can tell on film everything starts with their linebackers inside, those two guys are two of the top tacklers in their league and that’s what makes them go, so we’ll have to account for them,” said MacIntyre.
Keep an eye on a defensive line that was a bit of a weakness last year in terms of pressuring the quarterback, but return leading sack-men Kenny Dyson Jr. and Chris Eaton Jr., who will both come off the edge. As a whole, the Bryant defense were last in sacks (17) but steady overall ranking among the top-50 teams in FCS in several major statistical categories.
As mentioned, there’s a measure of familiarity that Bryant will have with the Panthers, as Merritt coached FIU defensive lineman Jeremy Passmore at Columbus, Sydeski and Ciocci were graduate assistants on the 2018 Bahamas Bowl team and wideout Gary Cooper played at FIU Stadium for Indiana in the Hoosiers season-opening win over the Panthers that season.
The season opener for the Panthers represents the start of a new era for Florida International football. After appearing to be a Group of Five program on the rise following 17 wins in their first two seasons, followed by an upset of Miami and qualifying for three-consecutive bowl games for the first time in program history, it’s been nothing short of misery for FlU.
The Panthers haven’t won an FBS game since their late-November 2019 upset of the Hurricanes — going 1-16 in their last 17 outings. Last season saw FIU lose 11 straight contests by an average of 24.4 points. That saw the departure of Butch Davis as head coach along with a massive roster overhaul as 39 players who had remaining eligibility chose to leave the program.
December 9th marked the hiring of Mike MacIntyre as the program’s fifth head coach and since then, he’s been able to rejuvenate the FIU fanbase and most importantly, help provide an influx of talent.
Arguably his biggest coup was keeping star wideout Tyrese Chambers in Miami.
The 6-1, 190-pound wideout set program records for receiving yards and receiving touchdowns for the Panthers last year and after testing the transfer portal, was persuaded to stay by MacIntyre.
“Me and Coach Mac just hit it off immediately and I want to show people that it can be done here at FIU, I’m focused on turning this thing around and winning,” said Chambers.
Former three-star recruits Grayson James and Haden Carlson return from last year and have been competing with last year’s primary starter for Duke, Gunnar Holmberg. During MacIntyre’s press availability on Monday, he announced that Holmberg will get the nod as the starter.
“I’ve been very impressed with our quarterbacks, this is the first place that I truly can say that we have three quarterbacks who could have started for us, but we’re going to start Gunnar Holmberg,” said MacIntyre. “Grayson James will be the backup and Haden Carlson will be the third, but we believe right now that Gunnar right now gives us the best chance to win.”
While the team only returns six starters from last year, they each are crucial pieces to the team. Offensive lineman Lyndell Hudson Jr. is one of the top tackles in C-USA, but it’ll be worth keeping an eye on as he has missed time during the fall. Defensive tackle Davon Strickland is also among the top players in the league and he’s joined by Jeramy Passmore and Ty Danzy.
Hudson is listed as a backup right tackle on the Panthers initial depth chart due to his missing time in the fall.
“Lyndell has missed about 70% of the fall but he’ll be ready to go real soon,” said MacIntyre.
Of the new additions, keep an eye on FCS transfer Donovan Manuel, who racked up over 225 tackles at East Tennessee State and defensive back Adrian Cole who saw extended time over two seasons at Syracuse.
From last year’s team, several new starters have been inserted. Most notably, true freshman John Bock and transfer Jacob Peace earn starting spots on the offensive line and freshman Hezekiah Masses and transfer CJ Christian will start in the secondary.
Also, Nebraska transfer Henry Gray, who was injured during the spring will start at cornerback.
“Henry actually suffered some severe back spasms but he’s been able to practice the last 9-10 days and he’ll be good to go,” said MacIntyre.
FIU will run the 3-4 defense, the same scheme that has been deployed by MacIntyre for the majority of his last decade in coaching.
Despite all of the excitement around the start of a “New Era” for FIU Athletics and Panther football, this has all of the makings of a trap game. Over half of FIU’s roster are players who either weren’t with the program last year or played less than 50% of snaps in 2021 — while the Bulldogs were a beneficiary of the COVID-year eligibility rules, returning a majority of its starting lineup from a season ago.
“It’s not as much of a concern as a coach as it’s a fact, these guys have played together for a few years now while our guys are still learning how we’re going to warm-up on gameday,” said MacIntyre.
Thursday’s contest bares strong resemblance to the Jacksonville State game in 2020 for FIU. However, the key difference is while Bryant is a talented FCS team with strong continuity, the Bulldogs simply don’t have the NFL-level players that the Gamecocks possessed in upsetting a depleted FIU roster.
While Bryant may be the more cohesive team entering this game, expect FIU’s superior talent to win out in the end.
Final Score: FIU 34, Bryant 20