Date: Saturday, October 22, 2016
Kickoff Time: 6:00 PM CDT
Location: Miami, FL
Stadium: FIU Stadium
Series Record: La Tech leads 2-0
Last Meeting: La Tech 27-17
Betting Line: La Tech -17
After an 0-4 start, FIU fired their head coach. Since then, the Panthers have gone 3-0 and currently sit atop C-USA East. Still, their wins are against FAU, UTEP, and Charlotte, who have a combined 4-16 record. Their next opponent has that many wins on its own at 4-3. This will be the first C-USA title contender the Panthers have faced.
Louisiana Tech, meanwhile, is coming off its first road victory and looks to make it 2 road wins and 4 overall wins in a row. While FIU has played only lower tier C-USA teams thus far, La Tech, who is 2-1 in conference play, has played two of the top title contenders, beating one and almost beating the other. FIU is in for its biggest challenge yet.
This isn’t necessarily a huge game for either team standings wise. In both cases, the loser could still win their division if they were to win out.
Outside of the standings, this game means a lot more. La Tech finally proved it can win on the road by doubling UMass’s score, but now looks for its first conference road win. Tech’s biggest obstacle to winning the West will be the Rivalry in Dixie which will be played AT Southern Miss, so winning conference games on the road is a must.
For FIU, losing this game means business is back to normal in Miami. But winning this game would be huge. Ron Cooper, the interim head coach, would make a huge case for being the permanent man, and FIU would have to be moved up to tier one contender status in C-USA.
These two teams have played 2 common opponents: UTEP in conference play and UMass out of conference. Both beat UTEP: Tech 28-7, FIU 35-21. Tech beat UMass last week 56-28, while FIU lost to UMass 13-21 (although that was under the now-fired coach, so take that with a grain of salt).
One thing that stands out about FIU under Cooper, other than being 3-0, is offense. In their 4 non-conference losses under Turner they scored 13, then 14, then 13, then 14. Then Cooper takes over, and they have since scored 33, 35, and 27. Those lower scores were mostly against better teams, but UMass is 1-6 and held them to 13 while allowing La Tech to score 56, so Cooper has definitely figured out how to get FIU to score more points.
As for Louisiana Tech, they’ve been scoring points all season. The Bulldogs average 41.6 points a game. Their lowest scoring game was against Arkansas, when backup QB J’Mar Smith played. The Dawgs only put up 20 in that game, but that was with a redshirt freshman in his first career game taking on the best defense on Tech’s schedule. If you don’t count that game, Tech with Ryan Higgins starting averages 45.2 pts/game. For comparison, FIU averages 21.3, but if you only count their 3 games under Cooper, that number rises to 31.7. Ryan Higgins is 2nd nationally in passing yards, but he has help. Star wide receiver duo Trent Taylor and Carlos Henderson are 1st and 3rd nationally in receiving yards and Henderson leads the nation with 10 receiving touchdowns (tied with Corey Davis from WMU). Throw in running back Jarred Craft, backed up by Boston Scott, and you have the nation’s leading offense in total yards.
As great as their offense is, however, their defense and special teams have been problematic. The run defense isn’t bad, but Tech allows almost 300 passing yards and 32.7 points a game. Special teams wasn’t much of a concern the first 5 games, but WKU and UMass were both able to gash the Dawgs on kickoff returns. That must be cleaned up down the stretch.
The bright spot defensively is clutch plays. They’ll give up a ton of yards, but against both WKU and UTEP, they forced fumbles late in the game to secure victory. Louisiana Tech is tied for 16th in the nation in sacks with 20. For special teams, Jonathan Barnes is tied for 14th nationally with 10 field goals made, and 4th nationally with a long of 54. He has not missed an extra point. After missing 2 field goals in the opener at Arkansas, he has been his usual reliable self.
For FIU, Alex McGough is coming off his best 2 games so far this season, but he has struggled to protect the ball this season with 9 interceptions including 3 in the last two games. What’s interesting is that he seems to play better on the road than at home. Unfortunately, this is a home game. He’s not afraid to run, however, and has 3 rushing touchdowns, all in conference play under Cooper. Running back Alex Gardner can be hit or miss; he has 4 games with over 100 yards rushing, but his other 3 games? Less than 30. There is no in-between. Which Gardner will we see?
FIU should be riding high right now. After starting 0-4, a new head man gets them to 3-0 and 1st in the East. But two of those wins were by less than a field goal, and all three were against bottom tier teams. Louisiana Tech has knocked off the reigning conference champion in WKU who is still the favorite in the East. They came very close to knocking off the other East favorite on the road, and were one point short of a road win against an SEC West team that is now ranked. Their only loss of more than a touchdown was to Texas Tech, the only team with more passing yards than them.
FIU saw immediate improvement with Ron Cooper, and he may well be the man for the job. But they have inched out wins against the worst teams in C-USA. Louisiana Tech will be too much for them. Given a couple of years, FIU may be able to contend in C-USA. But this is not that year. Not yet.
La Tech 52, FIU 27