- Time/Date: Saturday, August 26 at 9:00 p.m. ET
- Network: CBS Sports Network
- Location: Joe Aillet Stadium — Ruston, LA
- Spread: Louisiana Tech (-11)
- Over/under: 58.5
- All-time series: Louisiana Tech leads, 4-1
- Last meeting: FIU 42, Lousiana Tech 34 — October 28, 2022
- Current streak: FIU, 1 (2022)
FIU Panthers outlook
Head coach Mike MacIntyre enters his second year manning the sidelines at FIU, and while the Panthers were four games below .500, it was a vast improvement compared to recent seasons. Sure, there were dull moments such as a 73-0 evisceration at the hands of WKU — college football’s largest blowout in 2022 — as well as 52-14, 52-7, and 40-6 losses to conference opponents. But the Panthers showed promise by posting a 3-2 record in the month of October, upending an eventual 7-6 New Mexico State squad on the road and eking out an overtime win over Louisiana Tech. Now, MacIntyre aims to take the success from that October sample size and prolong it to the entire 2023 season.
The most valuable continuity in college football is sustaining a coaching staff and quarterback over the course of an offseason. That is the case at FIU, as the Panthers retain Grayson James, who started 10 games at quarterback last fall. FIU hopes to see a more polished version of the Duncanville, TX native who completed 58.7 percent of his attempts for 1,969 yards, 11 touchdowns, and 11 interceptions in his first year with starting duties. While James struggled toward the end of the season, his potential was realized against Louisiana Tech last October when he delivered 321 passing yards and three touchdowns on the Bulldog secondary, all without committing a turnover.
But outside of James, second-year coordinator David Yost loses a lot of the contributing pieces from his offense. Starting running back Lexington Joseph suffered an ACL injury in spring ball and will miss the entire season. FIU also was subject to major transfer portal departures including Tyrese Chambers, a former All-CUSA receiver who racked up 1,000 yards in 2021 before heading off to Maryland. Also, tight end Rivaldo Fairweather transferred to Auburn after ranking second on the team in receptions and receiving yards in 2022.
That leaves a new cast of skill position players called to step up. In relief for the injured Joseph, Shomari Lawrence is a candidate to take over as the lead back for 2023. Lawrence arrived from South Dakota of the FCS where he posted 597 yards a year ago. Redshirt freshman Antonio Patterson and sophomore Kejon Owens are among the other backs expected to be a fixture in the rotation, aiming to improve a ground game which ranked 119th out of 131 in yards per game.
But it’ll be a different group paving the path, as FIU loses 60 percent of its starting offensive line. Most of the replacements will be internal, but 6’9” Gardner-Webb transfer Travis Burke could occupy one of the primary tackle spots.
In the aerial department, James must adjust to a Chambers-less receiving corps. Still, there exists a trio of established pieces consisting of Kris Mitchell, Jalen Bracey, and Dean Patterson. Bracey is the frequented short-yardage screen threat, amassing 39 receptions for 294 yards in 2022. Mitchell and Patterson are more vertical threats, who averaged at least 15 yards per reception on 23 and 17 catches, respectively. The passing attack was the stronger component of the offense a year ago, producing 218 yards per game — good for 85th in the FBS.
This matchup features two of the five worst scoring defenses in FBS from 2022. FIU had better defensive metrics than Louisiana Tech in points allowed per game (37.3 vs. 37.9) and yards allowed per game (452 vs. 469), but the Panthers struggled immensely on that side of the ball last year.
On three occasions, opponents scored 50+ on FIU including WKU’s 73-0 rout in September. But there wasn’t linear progress observed either as the team surrendered over 44 points per game during its 0-4 stretch in November. Now, second-year defensive coordinator Jovan Dewitt aims for night-and-day improvement, but it won’t be easy out of the gate against a Sonny Cumbie-led Louisiana Tech offense.
FIU’s top returning defender for 2023 is inside linebacker Donovan Manuel, who arrived on campus after a previous stint in the FCS. Manuel ranked second on the team in tackles with 97 and doubled as a run-stopper and coverage artist, contributing a team-high 8.5 tackles for loss as well as a trio of pass breakups. Manuel loses his partner-in-crime Gaethan Bernadel (103 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss in 2022) due to the transfer portal, so a new inside backer like Reggie Peterson will be required to fulfill that massive vacancy.
Other notable returning starters include defensive ends Jeramy Passmore and Jordan Guerad, outside linebacker Alex Nobles, cornerback Adrian Cole, and nickel Jamal Potts. Passmore and Guerad will attempt to spearhead a pass rush which collected 1.75 sacks per game last year (99th in the FBS). Finding a dominant edge rusher is a priority for the program this season, as Guerad (3.0 sacks) was the only player to exceed two sacks in 2022.
JoJo Evans is the Panthers’ most prized transfer on the defensive side. Evans hails from Kent State, where he contributed 83 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and an interception as a full-time starting safety.
Louisiana Tech Bulldogs outlook
The 2022 season featured plenty of unfamiliar territory for Louisiana Tech. For one, it was the first time the program operated under a coach not named Skip Holtz since 2012. Secondly, the Bulldogs found themselves in the cellar of the CUSA once again, posting consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 2009 and 2010. Head coach Sonny Cumbie now has the taste of a full season of leading a college football program. He’ll look to leverage that experience into a more successful 2023, alongside an established offense and a transfer-laden defense.
Despite posting a 3-9 record, the offense certainly had its moments of excellence last year. Louisiana Tech ranked in the upper 50th percentile in scoring offense and total offense at 29.0 points and 392 yards per game. The run game didn’t raise too many eyebrows, but the passing attack proved lethal at times and ranked 33rd in the country and fourth in the CUSA in yards per game.
That passing offense comes with a new maestro this year as longtime Boise State quarterback Hank Bachmeier transferred into Ruston this offseason for his fifth season of college football with 29 starts to his name. The quarterback’s best work was observed in 2021 when he surpassed 3,000 passing yards with a 20-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Bachmeier’s primary targets at receiver will be Smoke Harris and Cyrus Allen. Harris metaphorically has a PhD in football at Louisiana Tech as he enters his sixth season with the program. The short-yardage specialist has been tremendous the last two seasons, obtaining 756 yards on 71 receptions in 2021 and 635 on 65 in 2022.
In a perfect foil to Harris, Allen is the deep threat who usually found the ball 20+ yards from the line of scrimmage. Allen exchanged 22 receptions for 500 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman. There is unlimited potential in the New Orleans native, who ranked sixth among true freshmen in receiving yards and second in yards per catch among all receivers with 20+ receptions.
The running game generated 3.8 yards per carry last year. Lead tailback Marquis Crosby is out for the season opener, but the Bulldogs send out Charvis Thornton, who operated as the second fiddle for most of the 2022 campaign. Thornton unleashed his potential in the regular season finale, where he tallied 132 rushing yards on eight carries against UAB, primarily thanks to a 63-yard touchdown. His highest usage came in last October’s matchup at FIU, where he fielded 12 carries. Overall, Louisiana Tech excelled on the ground against the Panthers and Cumbie’s offense will look to do the same with Thornton and Miami (OH) transfer Tyre Shelton leading the way.
Returning four starters on the offensive line, Louisiana Tech possesses a wealth of experience across the board. The focal point for 2023 will be cutting turnovers as the program ranked first in CUSA with 25 giveaways last season.
If Louisiana Tech repairs the defense, this team could become dangerous in this revamped version of the CUSA. The Bulldogs checked in at fourth-to-last in scoring defense and sixth-to-last in total defense, mainly due to their inability to contain the run. Opponents averaged 6.1 yards per carry on Louisiana Tech’s defense and totaled 243 yards per game (only Colorado surrendered more).
However, the passing defense kept opponents in check, forcing a season-long completion percentage of 56.7 — giving additional reason for opponents to favor the ground game. The unit was able to utilize turnovers as a crutch to some extent, tying for 22nd in the FBS in takeaways. Louisiana Tech’s turnovers were largely manufactured by its cornerbacks as Willie Roberts picked off four passes and deflected six, while Myles Brooks corralled three interceptions and broke up eight passes. Brooks is off to the NFL, but Roberts remains on campus as one of the most dangerous defensive backs in the conference.
Besides Brooks, there are a handful of significant losses on the defense including inside linebacker Tyler Grubbs and safety Bee Jay Williamson. But Louisiana Tech, under second-year defensive coordinator Scott Power, reloaded through the transfer portal to an impressive extent, claiming contributors from other programs to bolster the unit. There is a litany of defensive starters from Stephen F. Austin on the roster, following in the footsteps of Roberts who made a similar transition in 2022. Defensive tackle Rason Williams, outside linebacker Brevin Randle, and strong safety Myles Heard all reunite with the cornerback in Ruston and earn starting spots Saturday, according to the depth chart.
Former Houston cornerback Demarcus Griffin-Taylor is the other transfer to crack the starting lineup after posting 16 tackles for the Cougars last fall. Louisiana Tech’s second-string unit is even more transfer-heavy, and several former FBS starters are listed in that group and should earn playing time Saturday. Among those included are former Akron linebacker Jeslord Boateng and former UConn and Temple cornerback Keyshawn Paul.
There are a lot of new faces on the unit this year, which could help facilitate rapid improvement. But just like FIU, there are items that need to be worked out in the trenches such as finding a premier pass rusher. No returning Bulldog logged more than 2.0 sacks in 2022, so it’s up to Mykol Clark and J’Dan Burnett to win those matchups up front.
Louisiana Tech enters Ruston with homefield advantage and more established pieces in the skill position department, as well as more continuity on the offensive line. All signs favor the Bulldogs on offense, but the question is, how improved is the run defense for 2023?
FIU should be able rack up the yardage and points, similar to last year’s meeting in Florida, but given the weaponry quarterback Hank Bachmeier has at his disposal, the Bulldogs should surge with a multiple-score victory to open CUSA play 1-0.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 42, FIU 27