FIU Panthers (1-0, 0-0 Conference USA) vs Texas State Bobcats (0-1, 0-0 Sun Belt)
Date/Time: Saturday, September 10th, 7:00 PM EST
TV: ESPN Plus (Play-By-Play: Brant Freeman/Analyst: Keith Moreland/Sidelines: Koral Riggs)
Radio: WQBA 1140 AM Univision Radio South Florida (Play-By-Play: AJ Ricketts/Analyst: Corey Brooks)/KTSW 89.9 Texas State Radio Network (Play-By-Play: Clint Shields /Analyst: Geff Gandy)
Location: Bobcat Stadium, San Marcos, TX
Betting Line: Texas State -13.5 O/U 56
All-Time Series Record: Texas State leads 1-0 (Texas State won last matchup 23-17 in 2021)
Mike MacIntyre’s debut as FIU head coach was closer than he would have liked and maybe closer than many expected, but the Panthers earned their first win in 364 days in a thrilling 38-37 overtime victory over FCS Bryant last Thursday.
The biggest storyline coming from the game — the status of starting quarterback Gunnar Holmberg and the performance of backup Grayson James.
“Gunnar is still under concussion protocol and we’re not sure yet, Gunnar did not practice today,” said MacIntyre. “I’ll talk to our trainer this afternoon and get a further update from there.”
After going 14-of-20 for 103 yards with one touchdown, Holmberg was knocked out of the game with a concussion during the Panthers first drive of the second half. Sophomore Grayson James took over and after going 1-for-6 passing, finished the night 16-of-31 with 207 yards with four touchdown passes — all career highs.
While it’s still unknown publicly who will be the starter, James spoke about what the opportunity to get his first career start in his home state of Texas and against a program who recruited him would mean.
“First career start is a big thing but it won’t change how I prepare because I’ve always tried to prepare like I’m a starter,” said James. “There’s nothing like going back home, especially when you’ve gone for awhile and I know some people on that team so it will be a good experience if it’s the case.”
Whoever gets the start against the Bobcats will need to be helped by an FIU rushing attack that was stifled for most of last Thursday’s contest. Panthers’ backs Flex Joseph and E.J. Wilson combined for 58 yards on 16 carries in the season-opener. Subtract both backs’ longest runs of 12 and 13 yards and that left the group with 33 yards on 14 attempts.
“There’s two parts to the run game, we definitely need to block (for) it better and we did hit a few that we’re nice, but we also need the quarterback to get us into the best run play against the look that we’re facing,” said MacIntyre.
Defensively, the Panthers will face a familiar foe in Texas State quarterback Layne Hatcher. Hatcher is in his first season with Bobcats, but spent three seasons at Arkansas State — which included the 2019 Camellia Bowl against FIU where he threw for 393 yards and four touchdowns in Red Wolves’ victory.
“He’s really accurate and understands their offense, you see some of the RPO principles from Arkansas State in what (Texas State) is doing but you also see some of the (Mike) Leach offense in there as well,” said MacIntyre. “He’s a very good player who has played well against us.”
Senior safety Dorian Hall, the last remaining Panther who played in the 2019 contest will serve crucial in providing experience against Hatcher. However, he’ll be forced to miss the first half of Saturday’s game due to his ejection for targeting late in the Bryant victory.
MacIntyre was complimentary of his special teams unit’s performance in last week’s game, especially given the relative inexperience of the group that features a true freshman long-snapper and first-time starting punter.
“Jackson Lee is a big and athletic kid who is already getting down there and making tackles in punt coverage,” said MacIntyre. “He’s going to need to expect to be blocked going forward and I thought Daton did a nice job for us, especially when we were backed up against our own endzone in flipping the field.”
Texas State Preview
Texas State’s season-opener — specifically the second half was a gut punch for the Bobcats, who are looking to avoid their fourth-consecutive losing season under Jake Spavital. The 37-year-old Spavital in the fourth year of a five-year contract and can ill-afford an 0-2 start with games looming against Baylor, Appalachian State and James Madison.
After hitting the transfer portal hard for the second consecutive season, his starting lineup features 20 upperclassmen, including 10 seniors. Despite the veteran experience, his group fell to Nevada 38-14 in a game that saw his team allow 24 points in the third quarter — primarily because of a four-minute stretch where the Bobcats turned the ball over three times.
Quarterback Layne Hatcher went 33-of-51 for 289 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions in his Bobcat debut. The redshirt junior is one of the more experienced quarterbacks in FBS football, having started for three seasons at Arkansas State and has thrown for over 7,700 yards and 67 touchdowns during his collegiate career.
Expect Hatcher to test the youthful FIU secondary, looking towards veteran targets Marcell Barbee and Javen Banks. The pair of senior wideouts are the top two leading receivers from last year’s group and have been joined in the starting lineup by sophomore slot receiver Ashtyn Hawkins.
The Bobcats’ offensive line allowed four sacks last week against Nevada and will look to contain an FIU pass rush that was inconsistent against Bryant, but did manage timely sacks via the outside rushers. Keep an eye on left tackle Dalton Cooper, who will be making his 26th consecutive start, to account for FIU pass rushers Shaun Peterson Jr. and Alex Nobles, who both had sacks last week.
Defensively, it’s no secret that the Bobcats will have to account for one of the nation’s top wideouts, FIU’s Tyrese Chambers.
“He’s a weapon, no doubt, he’s the real deal,” said Spavital. “We have to mix up the looks for the quarterback more than anything, they do a lot of perimeter screens to get the ball to him and if you give that guy any space, he’s going to do some thing special with it, he’s a special player,” said Spavital.
In last year’s matchup, Chambers was the game’s leading receiver with four catches for 79 yards and a score.
Redshirt senior linebacker Sione Tupou is the most veteran player on the unit, having racked up almost 230 tackles during his collegiate career at UTEP and Texas State.
Spavital’s club won a tightly-contested contest last year against a veteran FIU team and with another year of a roster made up primarily of veteran transfers, they will undoubtedly have the experience edge over an FIU team that’s one of the youngest in the country.
Expect Layne Hatcher to test a Panthers’ secondary that features four players who made their first career start last week — specifically looking for veteran targets Barbee and Banks.
For the Panthers, if Holmberg does start, the offense will have to do a better job of pushing the ball downfield than they did in his two quarters last week. If it’s James, how he’ll manage the emotions of his first start and ability to make plays on the move behind a still-emerging offensive line will be key.
FIU’s wideouts will need to have another big outing against the Texas State secondary that’s questionable, at best. Keep an eye on Chambers along with redshirt sophomore Kris Mitchell, who hauled in two scores last week and tight end Rivaldo Fairweather.
Final Score: Texas State 28, FIU 20