The good news, if any, is that Middle Tennessee (0-4, 0-2 Conference USA) has played much better in recent weeks, losing to UTSA and WKU by a combined five points after beginning the campaign being outscored by Army and Troy by a combined 89-14.
FIU, on the other hand, has played just one game following a series of cancellations, losing to 36-34 to Liberty two weeks ago. So the Panthers aim to keep the Blue Raiders winless in this C-USA divisional matchup.
Middle Tennessee at FIU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 10, at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: FIU -4
When Middle Tennessee Has the Ball
Quarterback Asher O'Hara struggled mightily in Middle Tennessee's first two games of the season. In fact, O'Hara was benched in both games. Nevertheless, the junior has bounced back in Conference USA play. Though he's not yet operating at the level that made him one of only two FBS quarterbacks with more than 2,500 passing and 1,000 rushing yards in 2019, O'Hara threw for a career-high 372 yards against UTSA (albeit with two interceptions for the second time this year) in the 37-35 loss and nearly broke the century mark on the ground for the first time this season against WKU (98 yards and a touchdown). Overall, O'Hara has completed 67.5 percent of his passes for 744 yards, four touchdowns, and five interceptions. He has run for 222 yards and two scores.
O'Hara entered the 2020 season with fewer weapons than expected. Receiver Zack Dobson transferred to West Virginia, and Power 5 transfer running backs Martell Pettaway and Amir Rasul opted out. That has led Jayy McDonald and Chaton Mobley to try and pick up the slack in the running game. McDonald has gained 94 yards on 15 carries, and Mobley has added 92 yards and two touchdowns on 25 attempts. O'Hara continues to serve as the team's primary ball carrier (70 of the Blue Raiders' 126 rushing attempts), a higher percentage than last season (55.6 vs. 47.6) when he was second among FBS quarterbacks in that category, trailing only Virginia's Bryce Perkins.
Receiver Jarrin Pierce also has a heavy workload, having quickly emerged as O'Hara's favorite target this season. Pierce ranks second in the nation with 31 receptions, though he has been limited to 286 yards (9.2 ypr) and has yet to score a touchdown. Speedsters Yusuf Ali (12 receptions, 148 yards, TD) and DJ England-Chisolm (7, 98, TD), veteran CJ Windham (8, 42, TD), and big target Jimmy Marshall (7, 58) give O'Hara plenty of options, but the unit has yet to find a consistent rhythm.
When FIU Has the Ball
Despite some poor early results, and some time on the bench in the first two games, at least Middle Tennessee has its quarterback situation figured out. FIU played three signal-callers in its only game, and though one played far better than the others, there is no official word from head coach Butch Davis as to who will get the start Saturday.
Maryland transfer Max Bortenschlager won the competition to start the opener, but he completed only one of three pass attempts for 11 yards. Kaylan Wiggins who entered 2020 as the most experienced returning QB for the Panthers, was 1-for-5 for five yards as a passer and added 35 rushing yards on three carries. Redshirt freshman Stone Norton got the call in the second half and was 9-for-13 for 120 yards and two touchdowns, but he was sacked four times and finished with -41 rushing yards on five carries. Odds are he will make his first career start against the Blue Raiders.
Running back D'vonte Price was the offensive star for the Panthers against Liberty and finished with 148 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 13 carries. He also caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Norton that set up a potential game-tying two-point conversion late in the fourth quarter. Tight end Sterling Palmer caught a team-high three passes for 28 yards. Bryce Singleton led the way with 50 receiving yards and a touchdown on two catches, and Georgia transfer JJ Holloman recorded his first two catches for FIU for 25 yards.
With four games under its belt, we can see Middle Tennessee has made some progress on defense in 2020. Led by linebacker DQ Thomas and safety Reed Blankenship, the Blue Raiders have trimmed their numbers from 459.3 total yards allowed per game (last in Conference USA last season) to 395.3, which ranks fourth in the conference. Middle Tennessee also has shaved off a full yard from their per-play average, from 6.21 in 2019 to 5.20 (third in the league) so far this year.
Having played only once, and against a potent Liberty offense, it's too early to tell whether or not FIU has gotten better or worse on defense since 2019. However, dual-threat quarterback Malik Willis was responsible for 370 yards of total offense for the Flames, which could be an indication Asher O'Hara is in for a big day. The Panthers also surrendered 219 rushing yards, and an average of 6.67 yards per play — a full yard higher than the 5.66 FIU allowed last season.
Middle Tennessee has improved incrementally in each of its four losses, so there's reason to be optimistic the Blue Raiders can finally break into the win column this week. However, FIU has had an extra week to prepare, has the home-field advantage, and has a slight edge in talent, ranking among the C-USA recruiting leaders under Davis. In fact, the Panthers' average 247Sports rating among its defensive starters (.8100) is the best in the conference. If the unit plays up to that potential, and Stone Norton emerges as the starting quarterback to stabilize its offense, FIU should pick up a win to open its conference schedule.
Prediction: FIU 32, Middle Tennessee 27
(Asher O'Hara photo courtesy of MTSU Athletics)