The 2019 college football season has not gone to plan for the FIU Panthers, who hope to get back on track against the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs on Friday night in Ruston.
Florida International was projected to contend for the Conference USA East Division crown but lost each of its first two games, including an upset loss to WKU at home to begin C-USA play. Butch Davis' squad finally put something in the win column with a 30-17 victory over FCS member New Hampshire last week, but the performance was far from reassuring.
Louisiana Tech lost its opener 45-14 at Texas and followed with a shaky 20-14 victory over FCS member Grambling. However, the Bulldogs looked like the C-USA title contender most expect them to be in a 35-7 win at Bowling Green in Week 3. Now, Skip Holtz's team can build momentum heading into conference play.
FIU at Louisiana Tech
Kickoff: Friday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Louisiana Tech -8
When FIU Has the Ball
FIU starting quarterback James Morgan missed the contest against New Hampshire with an ankle injury and is questionable to return to the starting lineup this week. Morgan, a team captain and the 2018 C-USA Newcomer of the Year, has completed just 48.9 percent of his passes for 233 yards and one touchdown with one interception in two starts this season.
If Morgan can't go, or if he's limited, FIU will turn to sophomore Kaylan Wiggins. An impressive runner, Wiggins gained 187 yards and scored twice on 14 carries in his first start a week ago, and he currently leads the team with 212 yards on the ground. He also completed 12 of 18 passing attempts for 127 yards in the win.
In addition to Wiggins, the Panthers feature a trio of quality running backs in Anthony Jones (143 yards, TD), Napoleon Maxwell (88, 2), and D'Vonte Price (78 yards). But throwing the football has been a problem, which could continue Friday. After all, Louisiana Tech features one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Amik Robertson, who recorded his 10th career interception with a pick-six last week against Bowling Green. As a unit, the Bulldogs have allowed 399.7 yards per game and 4.82 yards per play this season, good for No. 83 and No. 47 in the nation, respectively.
When Louisiana Tech Has the Ball
Louisiana Tech quarterback J'Mar Smith has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 818 yards and five touchdowns and one interception this season. Though he only has 25 rushing yards on 22 carries this year, Smith has more than 500 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground in his career. Smith, Israel Rucker, Jaqwis Dancy and Justin Henderson have all carried the ball at least 20 times this season with Henderson leading the team with 136 yards while averaging 6.8 yards per attempt. Dancy leads the squad with two rushing touchdowns.
The Bulldogs have similarly spread the ball around to a quality group of receivers. Four Louisiana Tech wideouts have already caught 10 or more passes and five have at least 100 receiving yards, led by Adrian Hardy's 164 on 12 receptions. Griffin Hebert leads the team with two TD catches.
FIU has allowed 6.21 yards per play this season, which ranks 105th nationally, and the Panthers have struggled to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks, having recorded just two sacks. Nevertheless, the unit is talented. Linebacker Sage Lewis, who leads the team with 22 total tackles, was a first-team All-Conference USA selection last season. He also recorded a key interception last week.
Through three games, the Bulldogs have been the better team on both sides of the ball and have far fewer personnel questions. Louisiana Tech has stability at quarterback, depth at the offensive skill positions, and one of the best defenders in the country. Meanwhile, FIU has struggled to move the football consistently, and the most productive offensive player to date has been a backup quarterback who may not see much of the field if James Morgan is healthy enough to start.
Nevertheless, these teams are very evenly matched on paper. Both rank at or near the top of Conference USA in a variety of talent measures, including the 247Sports College Football Team Talent Composite and CFB Winning Edge Roster Strength ratings. And while FIU has struggled, Butch Davis has an experienced squad with a history of winning, capable of turning itself around.
Though Tech is rightly favored to win, expect an improved performance from FIU and a close contest.
Prediction: Louisiana Tech 31, FIU 24
(Top photo courtesy of @LATechFB)